Cucumber Soda and Other Short-Term Flavors
At this very moment, the internet is ablaze with curiosity and mockery towards the new Japanese Pepsi flavor for summer Ice Cucumber. Not since Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray has a vegetable-cola concoction captured the imagination of the world. For those assuming that cucumber beverages have a long history in local cuisine, I have to sadly report that this drink sounds equally bizarre to Japanese and non-Japanese alike. But judging from the fact that the soda is almost sold out at our local Sunkus, Pepsi seems to have pulled off a certain level of success with its gasp-inducing product.
The cola giant would not necessarily complain if the Japanese masses suddenly demanded a permanent place for Ice Cucumber in the Pepsi product family, but the birth of this “cucumber-inspired” (not cucumber-flavored) soda has much more to do with short-term tactical retail considerations than attempts at long-term product success.
The high competition for limited shelf space at convenience stores in Japan means that food and beverage manufacturers must produce an ever-changing repertoire of new products to secure retail real estate. In their book Can Japan Compete?, Michael E. Porter, Hirotaka Takeuchi, and Mariko Sakakibara explain:
One of the drivers of…meaningless product proliferation is Japan’s peculiar distribution channels, which expect each company to introduce a fresh lineup of products almost every month to maintain its shelf space allocation (80).
A perfect example of this practice is Nestlé Japan’s KitKat — a product brand that simultaneously sells a rotation of four to five implausible flavors. To win space on the prominent and prestigious “seasonal items” shelf right in front of the cash registers in convenience stores, KitKat produces limited-edition versions like Cherry Blossom in March/April, and currently, Yubari Melon — which fits perfectly into Family Mart’s nationwide “Dosanko” campaign in celebration of Hokkaido. (10 yen from each Yubari Melon Kit Kat purchase goes directly to the famously-bankrupt city of Yubari.) KitKat currently has Orange and Pineapple flavors prominently displayed in the front shelves at 7/11 although I doubt that consumers had been long demanding a citrus or tropical twist on the famed wafer franchise. These products’ short-term sales may not make up for the development costs, but they keep the KitKat brand fresh in shoppers’ mind and prevent rival companies from stealing away precious territory at key retail locations.
Considering this retail environment, Ice Cucumber may be the most elegant solution to these distribution needs in recent memory. By choosing a flavor as improbable as cucumber, consumers will have no choice but to buy a bottle to quench their curiosity. And the total brazenness of creating a cucumber soda has managed to give Pepsi an amazing amount of free worldwide publicity that your standard “Double Cherry Diet” would not. Even amongst guffaws and cackles, the Pepsi name gets out there, and convenience stores will happily dedicate space in the soda rack to Ice Cucumber that may have otherwise gone to a rival soda. Compare the Ice Cucumber launch to the concurrent Coca-Cola Zero campaign, which looks outright staid in its practicality, sophistication, and serious long-term aspirations. Coca-Cola Zero has zero sugar, but also zero cucumber fun.
The next logical step is for manufacturers to create even stranger flavors that cannot possibly be ignored. How could anyone deny a beverage with the flavor of “Raw Umber” or “Universal Suffrage”?
Postscript, The Taste: Ice Cucumber does not taste like a green salad. The mouthwash-colored soda is very sweet with a light aftertaste of honeydew melon. In Japanese, the word for cucumber 黄瓜 (or 胡瓜) contains the character 瓜 — meaning “melon, gourd.” (Suika — watermelon — can be written 水瓜 or “water melon.”) Considering the etymological connection between melons and cucumbers in Japanese, a cucumber taste seems much less wild or ridiculous as previously believed. Bright green “melon soda” is standard in Japan, and Ice Cucumber makes sense as a second cousin.
This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.