Coke lifts off new innovation platform with ‘space-flavored’ Starlight cola

Linda J. Dodson

Dive Brief:

  • Coca-Cola announced a new Coca-Cola Creations initiative that will see the soft drink marketer introduce limited-edition experimental flavors and accompanying digital and real-world experiences on a rolling basis. It is part of the Real Magic global brand platform launched by the company last year.
  • The first offering is Starlight, a “space-flavored” cola inspired by the resurgence of interest in space travel. The beverage, which has a taste profile that includes a cooling sensation meant to evoke exploring the cold void, comes in special packaging themed around aspects of the cosmos like star trails and colorful nebulae while preserving signature Coke elements.
  • Scanning QR codes on cans and bottles of Starlight unlocks an augmented reality (AR) experience where pop artist Ava Max performs one of three songs against a space station backdrop: “Sweet But Psycho,” “Kings & Queens” or “Every Time I Cry.” Starlight hits retailers Feb. 21 and will be available for a limited time, but executives said Coke will continue to develop products through Creations to position the brand closer to cultural drivers such as gaming, sports and music.

Dive Insight:

Coca-Cola is shaking up its innovation strategy with the unveiling of Creations and Starlight, a limited-edition beverage that tries to capitalize on the current hype around space exploration driven by companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. The idea behind Creations, according to executives on a livestream announcement Thursday, is to put a twist on familiar Coke elements through what they dubbed a new form of “brand expression.” That includes a more digital-first media mix.

Starlight is being promoted through a variety of activations, indicating that Coke wants to more closely wed new product bets with those on emerging marketing channels. The phrase “metaverse” came up during the livestreamed discussion, which had a Q&A portion moderated by culture reporter Jewel Wicker.

While Coke has previously tried out NFTs and activations on Dencentraland, Starlight’s approach is potentially more accessible to those less familiar with the complexities of web3. The campaign carries custom AR filters to share on social media and performances by Ava Max that are available through QR codes and a dedicated mobile web hub. Coke at the same time has partnered with the streetwear brand Staple on an interstellar-themed capsule collection that includes items like hoodies, bombers and shorts. ASMR-like experiences are also planned for the promotional window.

Starlight references some Coke history that could resonate with younger consumers just discovering their passion for the final frontier. The beverage marketer was among the first sodas to make it to space on the Challenger mission in the ’80s, while a specially designed dispensary machine went up with the Endeavour shuttle years later (where it encountered some technical hiccups, according to contemporaneous reports).

The first output from Creations indicates Coke is seeking bolder, more conceptual flavor profiles to distinguish itself in a hyper-competitive soft drink category. Starlight is meant to create a cooling sensation in the mouth and evoke specific feelings around star-gazing versus emulating traditional tastes like vanilla or cherry.

Pepsi, Coke’s chief competitor, has also tested the waters with new flavors, last year trotting out limited-edition vintage soda shop variants that drew on its connections to the musical “Grease.” Coke previously made a concentrated push to shave off “zombie brands” like Zico and Odwalla from its portfolio, so Creations could herald a change in thinking when it comes to bringing new products to market. Coke last year switched up its agency roster, crowning WPP as its global network marketing partner.

In theory, the playbook for future Creations offerings might also look markedly different from Starlight as the company angles to reach audiences rooted in diverse interests like gaming or sports. Coke has started leaning into these cultural spaces more deliberately through Real Magic, its first global brand refresh in five years. The campaign has produced some mixed results to date in terms of consumer reception, though the company continues to perform well on the sales front following a sluggish pandemic period. Coke beat analyst expectations in the fourth quarter, with net sales up 10% year-on-year to $9.46 billion, though it warned of rising costs.

Starlight should be available for about six months, Coke executives said Thursday, but future Creations products aren’t necessarily wed to specific timelines, with the suggestion that some may be sold for just a few weeks. Starlight is available in North America, Europe and key markets in Asia.

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