soft drinks

Shooting the Elephant: Do soft drinks have to be sweet?

What’s the elephant in your room? There most probably is one if you look hard enough (check behind the sofa, it’s normally where they hide).

Or, to put it another way, what assumptions or category rules exist within your industry unquestioned? Why aren’t they being confronted and, if these rules are broken, will they unlock exciting new innovations?

It would appear that, in the soft drinks industry at least, the elephant in the room is sweetness. At the Soft Drinks Industry Conference 2015, the main bulk of the day centred on sugar and the challenge of managing sugar levels in soft drinks whilst still delivering a delicious product. Yet, within every problem, an opportunity. It felt to me that this assumption, that to be tasty a soft drink must be sweet, isn’t necessarily correct. Is the pursuit by big industry players of alternatives to sugar, or reformulating drinks to contain less sugar but still taste just as sweet, really the only way to go?

Now it sounds obvious that soft drinks must be sweet, and perhaps indisputable, but in other cultures, savoury and salty drinks sit very happily alongside their sweet counterparts. Take ayran for example, the milky, salty beverage from Turkey (great with kebabs). In 2012, 508,444 tonnes of the stuff were produced to quench thirsts and it is Turkey’s unofficial national drink (despite some controversy). Lassis, often served alongside spicy Indian meals to help cool the fire, can be served sweet, spiced or salty depending on what it’s served with. So the idea of non-sweet soft drinks is perhaps not as outlandish as it first seems.

Outside the soft drinks category, beer and wines tend to have a savoury default taste profile. It is fair to say though that even this category caters to our sweet tooth, with the rise of alcohol pops, fruit ciders and the rapidly growing “Sp-eers” category. Could the soft drinks category learn from this and similarly bridge the taste gap and bring out something non-sweet?

Some soft drinks brands are testing the water and shooting the sweet elephant. UnSweet have released lightweight lemonade, made from sparkling water, lemon and lime juice with no sugar. It’s distinctively sour taste is certainly divisive. Belvoir Fruit Farms launched a spicy ginger cordial which, although sweet, has a more complex and spicy profile than your average cordial. Both may well become successful niche propositions, and who’s to say that the mainstream British consumer won’t find these tastes palatable in the future?

A lesson for all interested parties: if you’re stuck for innovation ideas, question the assumptions hidden in plain sight. You may well surprise yourself (and your consumers) with what you come up with.