Coca-Cola might be late to the fizzy-water game, but the soft drink giant’s strategy with its debut this week of a line of sparkling water seems clear: Go bold or go home. The new brand, dubbed AHA, is throwing some sharp elbows in the crowded seltzer aisle, with its brightly colored cans, all-caps name, and intensely scented and flavored bubbles inside.
Long after Pepsi introduced Bubly (circa early 2018) and the La Croix Era took hold (the drink has been around for decades but surged in popularity in the mid-teens), Coke is banking its first major new brand launch in 14 years on the proposition that it can bring something new to the white-hot seltzer market.
The more-is-more ethos is evident in the eight flavors, each of which is itself a combination: apple and ginger, blueberry and pomegranate, orange and grapefruit, strawberry and cucumber, peach and honey, and lime and watermelon. Another way AHA is looking to distinguish itself? Two flavors – black cherry and coffee, and citrus and green tea – are caffeinated, each with 30 milligrams, or about the same as a can of Coke.
AHA’s brand director, Julie Siwemuke, said the company studied the market and surveyed consumers, then came to the conclusion that what seltzer drinkers and would-be imbibers were looking for was ... more.
“This is a vibrant, lively, playful brand, and it was really important to us that it was consumer-oriented and different from what’s out there,” she said. “From the bold aroma ... to the very flavor-forward profile – that’s something we heard loud and clear that they were looking for.”
She even noted that the can labeling includes a hidden clue to the drink’s assertive DNA: The negative space formed by the “H” forms an exclamation point.
Although the name might call to mind a particular ’80s band (or Oprah Winfrey, or among health care wonks, the American Hospital Association), the in-your-face branding is apropos, according to the colleagues we rounded up to taste the new products.
From the moment you pop open the cans, these sparkling waters make themselves known. Each had a strong, sweet scent that might make drinkers check the label twice – nope, there really is no sugar and no juice in there.
And most of the flavors were aggressive, too. Each can brought to mind a familiar candy, whether it was a watermelon Jolly Rancher or a gummy peach ring. The consensus among our group of tasters was that the berry/coffee version tasted uncannily like a cherry Tootsie Pop. Some of the subtler notes were lost in the rowdy din: The ginger in the apple variety was hard to make out, and the honey flavor got shouted down by its peach partner.
Making distinctions among seltzers can be difficult. (In a blind taste test we conducted after the launch of Bubly, most people couldn’t distinguish between similar flavors of it and La Croix, even if they professed themselves to be partisans.) But in this informal tasting, we did find AHA’s bubbles to be slightly larger than its competitors – whether that is a good thing is a matter of preference – with some people liking the big fizz and others preferring a more pinprick effect of smaller bubbles. Another difference many noticed was that all the flavors of AHA seemed slightly ... viscous?
“I never felt like I needed to brush my teeth after drinking seltzer until now,” one taster marveled.
Although AHA might be colorful and fun, none of our tasters preferred it to its more-subtle competitors.
The line, which replaces Coke’s Dasani sparkling waters, is likely to get a big marketing push, but Siwemuke was coy about the details. Perhaps a celebrity endorser? There’s plenty of precedent: Coke endorsers have included boldfacers such as Marilyn Monroe and Taylor Swift - and Bubly memorably enlisted crooner Michael Bublé for several playful Super Bowl ads.
Coke might have an opening here. La Croix dominates competitors, but its sales are slipping. After years of growth, La Croix sales were down by 3%, and its Curate line of high-end flavor combos dropped 13.5% last year, according to the research firm Information Resources Inc. The market-dominating brand’s reputation and financials have taken a hit, too, as a string of lawsuits against the company and its owner generated headlines.
Meanwhile, Bubly sales surged by 216% in the same period, and the brand recently hinted that it, too, is planning to offer caffeinated options. Overall, the bubbly water trend shows no sign of deflating. According to Nielsen, sparkling water sales for the past year totaled $2.64 billion, up 11% from the previous year.