March 13, 2007

Reason #1 your coffee drink won't sell: Even in Seattle people don't care for it.

Coca-Cola in 2006 ceased production of Vanilla Coke, which I thought was OK, and launched two products in its place: Coca-Cola Black Cherry Vanilla and Coke Blak. Both of these are going off the market this year. I picked up a four-pack of Coke Blak for $4 at my local grocery store expecting to sell it on eBay for a lot more in 2016. (Think I'm crazy? Look at how much people are paying for Crystal Pepsi memorabilia. After Coke Blak gets mocked on VH-1's I Love the '00s, I'm going to be rich.)

I like Coca-Cola. I like coffee. Plenty of people share these two qualities. There are even a couple of espresso sodas that have been on the market for a while already: Bibicaffè (since 1930) and Manhattan Special (since 1895). So why did Coke Blak instead go the way of coffee-flavored Pepsi Kona?

The Name

You know a product name is bad when you have to tell people how it's pronounced. Just like the grape-flavored Grapple (say "Grape-L," not "grapple"), Coke Blak had a pronunciation guide right on its label: its official name was "Coca-Cola Blāk." As anyone who went to elementary school knows, ā is a long A, like in "pay" or "flavor." Was this beverage supposed to be "Coca-Cola Blake?" A better symbol might have been "Coca-Cola Blăk" with the breve accent we were taught to show a short A, or perhaps the IPA-compliant "Coca-Cola Blæk." (The latter looks too much like "Coca-Cola Bleak," a good sign of things to come.)

Long story short: it should have been "Coca-Cola Blak," or "Coca-Cola Black," or what about just "Coca-Cola Coffee"?

The Packaging

Normally when Coke launches a beverage, they put it out in 20-ounce bottles first, then they add cans and 2-liter bottles later. Coke Blak was supposed to be some kind of premium product, so they made it available only in 8-ounce bottles -- and they restricted people to buying them one or four at a time. This is not altogether crazy: after all, what is a cold coffee drink besides an energy drink in disguise, and energy drinks are usually sold in four-packs of small containers.

Energy drinks are not, however, usually sold in glass bottles. People who drink them are too EXTREME to risk skin lacerations from broken bottles after they do a faceplant off their BMX bike. Glass bottles are classy, a throwback to an era so simple that eight ounces of Coke was considered "one serving." If that wasn't bad enough, Coke put a giant screw-cap on the top! I have to imagine that someone ordered millions of black bottle caps assuming that this new product would be sold in 20-ounce plastic bottles, and that someone else decided to just use them on top of otherwise classic glass bottles. The result is a pleasing shape made ludicrously ugly by one feature, like a Barbie doll wearing an oversized helmet for no good reason.

The Price

How much would you be willing to pay for eight ounces of diet cola mixed with "coffee essence"? Would you believe $2.29?

My local grocery store had individual bottles of Coke Blak marked down from $2.29 to $1.09 today, and even after a 52% discount there were plenty on the shelf. My four-pack was $3.99, marked down from an ungodly $8.99. (That was a 17-cent discount if you buy four bottles at once, by the way.) There were other cold coffee drinks elsewhere on the shelves, most of which actually contained a significant amount of coffee, for less -- certainly less per ounce. In Seattle you can get bottled Frappuccino drinks, Tully's competing bottled Bellaccino drinks, and occasionally the espresso soda Bibicaffè. At my supermarket they all cost less than $2.29 for eight ounces worth.

$2.29 buys you a lot of coffee. Starbucks, McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts, and pretty much any other shop will sell you more than eight ounces of coffee for less than that much -- hot or cold, your choice. At some shops you could get a small cup of coffee and a can of Diet Coke for less than $2.29 combined. Mix to your taste.

The Taste

Let's not mince words: Coke Blak tasted awful. Not available in regular or diet versions, the beverage contained both high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and the artificial sweetener aspartame. As a premium product, you would think that Coke would have used cane sugar as they did with the original French version, which reportedly tasted much better than its American counterpart. I don't like artificial sweeteners, so having them forced upon me made this bad-tasting beverage even worse with the characteristic aftertaste of aspartame. The cola flavor overpowered the coffee flavor so much that you would have to remind people that there was supposed to be "coffee essence" in it. It was one of those situations where a product smells much better than it tastes -- that's often true of coffee itself, by the way.

Farewell, Coke Blak. It was nice knowing you. Maybe you'll make me some money on eBay in a decade.