What exactly do consumers see in clear drinks?

17 : 07 : 2018 Drinks : Clear Drinks : Coca Cola

Professor Charles Spence of Oxford University discusses whether a lack of colour is a winning strategy in the overcrowded drinks market.

Clear Coffee, UK Clear Coffee, UK

Instagram’s popularity may even help to explain the phenomenal resurgence of rosé wines – they just seem to look better in pictures.

Professor Charles Spence, head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory, Oxford University​

Given the seemingly exponential growth of new beverage brands in the marketplace in recent years, drinks marketers have increasingly been turning to the unusual use of colour to make their product stand out and catch the consumer’s wandering eye.

The marketing angle helps to explain the emergence of blue-coloured prosecco and white wine brands in recent years, such as Blumond and GïK. Other brands have started colouring vodka and gin in tones of blue and pink for much the same reason. Delivering drinks to the marketplace that are Instagrammable for today’s Millennial generation should not be forgotten as a motivating factor either. The platform’s popularity may even help to explain the phenomenal resurgence of rosé wines – they just seem to look better in pictures.

Some, though, have been moving in the opposite direction, bringing out clear versions of erstwhile colourful drinks: think of Clear Coffee, clear (non-alcoholic) beer, and clear Coca-Cola to name but three. Just as in the beauty aisle, such colourless products seem to be associated with purity, perhaps also with notions of being natural and, by implication, healthy. At the very least, they would seem healthier than brightly coloured drinks, no matter whether that belief turns out to be true. The effect of clear drinks, however, is that they are likely to smell and taste less intensely flavoured than an appropriately coloured drink.

How can a drink that performs fine in blind taste tests fail in the marketplace? The answer is disconfirmed expectations.

But before brands jump on the clear drinks bandwagon, it is important to bear in mind some of the previous failures in this space – and the reasons behind them. Do you remember Clear Tab Cola, one of the clear cola drinks launched in the 1990s with great fanfare only to be withdrawn from sale soon thereafter? The same happened more recently with Crystal Pepsi. How can a drink that performs fine in blind taste tests fail in the marketplace? I would argue that the answer is disconfirmed expectations. If people take a swig of a clear carbonated drink expecting it to taste of Sprite (ironically a drink that, when first launched, was a similar colour to cola) but they get a mouthful of cola or beer, that is likely to be a negatively valued experience – an experience, moreover, that customers will not be keen to repeat or which they will soon forget.

It is here that brands need to think carefully about how consumers will experience the product. After all, if you have created a distinctive clear version of a drink that normally bears colour, then it is probably no good trying to sell it in an opaque bottle or can, especially if they drink directly from the packaging and know what to expect. It is when the product is consumed away from the packaging that there is likely to be a problem. At such times, there is a very real danger that they taste something that they weren’t expecting, given the powerful taste and flavour expectations that the colour of a drink fixes in our minds.

Hence, for brands looking to stand out in the overcrowded drinks marketplace, it makes sense to figure out what your consumers see in clear drinks. It could make all the difference between success and failure.

Professor Charles Spence is head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University. For more on innovation in the drinks market, explore our Food & Drink sector.