Product Managers Give Clear Drinks A Try

The products may look like water, but they taste like something else
The products may look like water, but they taste like something else
Image Credit: Marco Verch Professional Photographer

Think about your favorite non-water drink right now. What color is it? When you pour it into a glass, it looks the way that it should – you can recognize it. In fact, when you drink it, it probably tastes the way that it looks. What if all of this could be changed. What if your favorite drink suddenly became clear? No, the taste would not be changed at all, it would just all of sudden look like water. Would you still want it? Some product managers are betting that you would say yes.

It Looks Like Water, But It’s Not…

Leave it to product managers in Japan to change their product development definition and come up with dramatic new ways to present drinks to their customers. Japanese product managers are increasingly producing products that look like water but taste like other drinks. The bet is that consumers want the taste of Coke or beer in a healthier-looking clear liquid. The latest wave of water-like drinks hints at the contortions product managers must go through to satisfy consumer demands for flavorful drinks that are also good for you and, oh by the way, inoffensive-looking.

What product managers understand is that the need for drinks that people can enjoy without any hesitation is one of the reasons behind the growing demand for clear-color beverages in Japan. Product managers are adding new flavors and new products as consumer tastes shift beyond traditional drinks like soda. Flavored, bottled water sales have more than doubled in both the U.S. and Japan in the past five years which would look good on anyone’s product manager resume. Americans alone now drink some 2.4 billion liters of flavored water annually. These products are perceived as “modern, healthy, cool sort of beverages” and this is what the clear beverage product managers are trying to tap into.

Convenience stores in Japan are starting to stock more drinks like “All-Free All-Time” from Suntory’s beer-making unit. To make it, the product managers at Suntory drained the color from its nonalcoholic beer, added lime flavoring and increased the carbonation. The label of its clear-plastic bottle is decorated with a sheaf of barley and the slogan “beer taste” in order to let customers know what they are getting. In the past, Suntory hoped the amber-colored nonalcoholic beer it introduced would catch on with office workers, who could drink it at their desks and in meetings. However, the color and the can deterred people who said their colleagues might think they were drinking on the job.

The Future Of Clear Beverages

In Japan, product managers are under heavy pressure to generate sales in a mature and highly segmented market. Product managers have to introduce nearly 100 new drinks a year here. Last year, the product managers at Suntory started selling a clear beverage that is meant to taste like tea with milk. The drink, which is made with real tea leaves, sold well, so Suntory followed it up with a peach-tea-flavored water this year.

Their success has caught the attention of product managers at Asahi Group soft-drinks unit, which in May started selling a 60-calorie latte espresso-water called Clear Latte. Their product managers also launched clear “matcha” green tea. This drink was not easy to create – it took 170 prototypes of the zero-caffeine, zero-fat coffee to get the taste right. Asahi’s product managers didn’t want the drink to taste too sweet—people might think it wasn’t healthy—and it wanted to keep the calorie count down. Somewhat interestingly, the result tastes like a cup of watered-down, cold coffee.

The product has been a success – Asahi sold 400,000 cases, with 24 bottles per case, in the three weeks after Clear Latte was introduced. This means that they have already reached 30% of Asahi’s annual 1.5 million-cases target. Meanwhile, in the U.S., clear drinks became a fad in the early 1990s with brands such as Clearly Canadian soft drinks; Miller Clear, a transparent beer; and Crystal Pepsi, the colorless cola that was launched with fanfare before sales fizzled. By 1994, the trend was largely over in the U.S., and many of the products disappeared from store shelves amid shrinking sales. However, PepsiCo recently reintroduced Crystal Pepsi for a limited time. Coca-Cola Co.’s Japan unit launched “Coca-Cola Clear” in June, a zero-calorie version flavored with lemon.

What All Of This Means For You

The market for beverages has always been a highly competitive one. Beverage product managers have to keep changing their product manager job description and coming up with innovations in order to allow their products to remain popular. The new push by customers for more healthy drinks has placed beverage product managers under increased pressure to come up with ways to present their existing products as being more “healthy”. In Japan, beverage product managers think that they may have come up with a way to accomplish this: they are making their drinks clear.

Clear drinks are seen by customers as being a healthier-looking clear liquid. The enormous rise in favored water drinks has shown that clear liquids will sell well with customers. In order to create a clear beverage, the original beverage has to be processed in order to remove its color. This can help selling non-alcohol drinks because the colored versions may make people think that beer is being drunk at work. In Japan, beverage product managers have to introduce over 100 new products every year. The success of clear beverages in Japan has caused more firms to enter the market. Both Pepsi and Coke are trying clear versions of their soda products.

The big question that beverage product managers are going to have to deal with is if the idea of a clear beverage is a fad or if it will be long lasting. If the product managers are able to find ways to promote the health benefits of their clear beverages, then they may be able to find ways to get them to stay around. Product managers will need to closely monitor their customers and their feedback on the new clear beverages.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: Do you think that product managers will have to worry about clear beverages being confused with water?

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