The Audacity of Soda-Company Coffee Analogues
More than 30 years ago, Pepsi tried to create a version of its namesake soft drink for morning people. Now, decades later, Coke is trying to combine coffee with cola.
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**This week’s post is written by Ernie Smith. Ernie’s the editor of Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail, and MidRange, a three-times-weekly newsletter he writes in half an hour or less. He likes coffee.
Ernie is an expert at finding what makes the obscure interesting, and then writing about it. I hope you enjoy his writing as much as I do.**
About a year ago, as a huge fan of coffee, I heard about a Coca-Cola branded variant of canned coffee called “Coca Cola Com Café,” which supposedly was infused with espresso. After a little back-and-forth about it on Twitter, I purchased two cans of the beverage on eBay, imported from Brazil, just to see what it was like. ($15.99, plus tax, so $8 a can. Hobbies get expensive.)
I like unusual beverages, and I thought, hey, this might be a great one to check out. But when I got it, it was 80 percent Coca-Cola, 20 percent espresso. It was interesting, but it would have been a more interesting beverage if that equation was flipped, if you ask me. I was not convinced it would ever see these shores as a result, but back in July, it came to the States as the decidedly less exotic “Coca-Cola With Coffee,” with claims from Coke that the drink “sips like a Coke and finishes like a coffee.” Coke came up with what it called the “refreshment coffee” category, as if coffee on its own isn’t refreshing.
That Coca-Cola is attempting to enter the breakfast beverage market reflects something of a revival of sorts of an old idea that has its primary rival written all over it.
In 1988 and 1989, the makers of Pepsi, looking for any sort of edge in the soda market, worked on a version of the popular soft drink specifically for morning people. Concurrently, the makers of Jolt Cola had built a cult following around a high-energy soda that did the exact opposite of diet beverages at the time—whereas Diet Coke took out the sugar and calories, Jolt doubled down on both, with additional caffeine to boot—so it was clear that there was a growing interest in high-caffeine beverages. (No matter that traditional brewed coffee has more than twice as much caffeine per ounce as Jolt Cola did. Not their fault, technically—Food and Drug Administration standards were the limiting factor.)
Pepsi A.M. was the company’s attempt to serve the market … as well as the market for people who wanted caffeine, but not necessarily coffee. (Iced coffee wasn’t really a mainstream thing at the time, and based on the fact that you can only get iced coffee with heavy milk and flavoring at IHOP and Denny’s, middle America is still getting used to the idea.)
According to an Associated Press report, the company had previously periodically tried marketing Pepsi as a potential breakfast beverage, without much success. With Pepsi A.M., they tried changing the formula. This involved two things—increasing the caffeine amount to 4.1 milligrams per ounce (compared to 3.2 milligrams per ounce for regular Pepsi and 5.9 milligrams for Jolt), and making it a less carbonated beverage.
Early test marketing results seemed to imply that these strategies were successful. A 1989 report from the Des Moines Register suggested that the attempt to formulate a more caffeine-rich version of Pepsi quickly found an interest among college students in particular.
But success in test markets can prove challenging to extend out: The Nintendo Entertainment System, perhaps the most famous example of a test-marketed product, saw quick nationwide success after its 1985 release in New York City. Yet conversely, the experimental U-Force NES controller, the recent subject of a video by YouTuber The Gaming Historian, saw successful results in the Sacramento market, only for the device to become a dud nationally.
Pepsi’s over-caffeinated attempts to take over the morning routine quickly went the way of the U-Force. Despite the promising early results, Pepsi A.M. never extended past its initial test-marketing phase, with PepsiCo choosing instead to keep marketing regular Pepsi to consumers.
As surprising as that failure was, Pepsi tried again about half a decade later, to less-promoted results, with a coffee-flavored beverage called Pepsi Kona. Kona was an attempt to sell soda to the hipsters who knew what a cappuccino was. Sincethis is the first time you’re likely hearing about it, you might not be surprised to hear it failed on the market.
Ultimately, the high-energy soft drink market that Pepsi was aiming for would be approached in other ways. For instance, Red Bull and Monster Energy proved that the time of day mattered less than the jolt the beverages provided, as anyone who actually drank Jolt Cola in 1989 could tell you. (And given that PepsiCo now markets to this audience with energy-drink-inspired variants of Mountain Dew, one of which is responsible for the name of a famous computer virus, they’ve figured it out, too.)
And if Pepsi’s goal was to win over breakfast, it learned the strategy to get there was to actually make breakfast drinks—something it now does in partnership with Starbucks, for whom it produces DoubleShot, Frappuccino, and iced coffee drinks, as well as its Tropicana and Naked juice brands (which it recently sold a majority stake in).
As I finish this piece by drinking a Guinness Nitro Cold Brew Coffee—a beer that has less than half of the caffeine content of a can of Pepsi—I think to myself how, for decades, we’ve been marketed to in aggressive ways, pitched on replacing one of the most common beverages on Earth with something so aggressively trademarked that you can’t help to see it by accident a dozen times a day.
Nobody owns coffee. Only Pepsi owns Pepsi A.M.
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