Monday, March 11, 2013

The perils of innovation. In a can.

I was reading the other day about the forces that hinder companies from real innovation and I was a little bummed out by the idea that most companies have become so risk-averse that it creates very few actual improvements. It got me thinking - what would happen if Edison had worked in today's economy? How long would they let Edison tinker with finding a commercially viable solution for the light bulb before they fired him and defunded his project? Would we have looked at William E. Sawyer vs. Thomas Edison and seen the same things that we see with Apple and Samsung now fighting over the finer points of their respective technologies?

Now, I do see the point of incremental technological improvements. We are always improving our computing capability by making new processors that can do more with the same or less power. We work on improving the cost to manufacture solar cells, so that it can become a technology with wider adoption. Chemical improvements are being made with batteries to make them larger and more reliable. These things can go on as planned, and we eventually reap some small reward from it, but it would be nice to see some real innovation once in a while. It's also possible that real innovation is going on behind the scenes however slowly, but thanks to the protective nature of companies and new products we don't see it particularly often. They're scared to hint at anything that might turn out to be a failure. About the only time we see high-profile failures any more are movies, cars, and food - but these failures are more failures of fashion than function. You may not want to drive an Aztek, but the car failed in the marketplace because it was ugly, not because it had rampant mechanical problems. I was going to cite a movie example here but Ben Affleck has taken enough heat about it already so I don't want to pile on. (Correction: One of my editors said that with Ben's recent Academy award win for Argo, maybe I shouldn't make an obtuse reference to Gigli. After all, Ben didn't write or direct Gigli anyway. ) So, I'm going to skip straight to the beverage part.

In an attempt to try to get soda drinkers to resist the temptation of drinking coffee in the morning, Coke and Pepsi have tried to find ways to leverage their own brands. Coke's last attempt at this was in 2006, with Coca-Cola BlāK which was discontinued by 2008. Pepsi had taken a swing at this a couple of times with the regular flavored but more caffeinated Pepsi AM (1989) and the coffee-flavored Pepsi Kona (1995?). Both of Pepsi's attempts were just as short-lived as Blāk was. So by now, Coke and Pepsi may have realized that the real holdouts that don't drink coffee in the morning are people that drink energy drinks, people who drink juice in the morning, and people that drink Mountain Dew. Both companies make energy drinks now, and both companies have had major juice brands in their portfolios for a long time. But, Pepsi can't help but feel that they still have an untapped market, so their new innovation is Mountain Dew Kickstart.

There are two flavors, "Orange Citrus" and "Fruit Punch". I opted for the "Fruit Punch" only because I found that most of the Mountain Dew flavor variants that I have had over the past several years that said "citrus" on the label have been a little bit too tangy for my taste. (I liked LiveWire, and they discontinued it, so I figured that it wasn't going to go my way.) It did not really taste like what I expected, as what I had heard previously about this drink was that it was "Mountain Dew + Juice". While it is true that there is juice in it, there is much less sugar in it. The 16 oz. can is 80 calories, while 16 oz. of regular Mountain Dew or juice would be easily 220 calories. After a cursory check of the label, it would appear that the sweeteners include HFCS, white grape juice concentrate, acesulfame potassium, and sucralose. There are some B vitamins in it, as well as the obligatory inclusion of glycerol ester of wood rosin without which I presume it can't have a Mountain Dew label on it. It does not have the thick mouth feel that Mountain Dew usually does, it was like a low-calorie sports drink in that regard. It might be useful to note that my wife described the beverage on first taste as "Mountain Dew + Gatorade". Coca Cola's sports drink Powerade adds B vitamins, Gatorade does not. I'm not entirely sure how much the B vitamins or the potassium contribute to the taste. There is also 92 mg of caffeine, 20 more than you would get in 16 oz. of Mountain Dew. Would I drink it again? Probably not - and certainly not for breakfast. It's cheap caffeine, but I could easily get cheap caffeine that I actually wanted to drink in other ways, and at the correct dosage.

Disclosure - I typed this entire post under the influence of most of a can of Kickstart. I had to backspace a lot more than usual.

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