The foundation of innovation is functional ingredients.
I love that line—and not just because I’m editor for a magazine titled Functional Ingredients. The original functional ingredient may well be caffeine—why else would so many people drink coffee when, let’s face it, it tastes bitter and dank? If coffee beans never had any caffeine inside them, you and I both know those brown beans would be as popular as a peach pit. The Central American locals would have been content with nibbling on the red coffee cherries that envelop the brown bean at its core.
But humans seem to have an inherent insatiable desire to consume things that tweak their awareness/consciousness. When said consumable makes a person a bit too whacked out (say, cocaine), governments decree such substances illegal. When the buzz is just right (say, caffeine, or even beer), it’s all good. However, as Phusion Projects, makers of Four Loko, can attest, mixing caffeine with alcohol in one convenient can is a recipe for banishment from the market.
A can of Red Bull, hepped up with caffeine, works just fine on its own. Even better when mixed with vodka, but just don’t put the two in the same container. (See above.)
Red Bull asserts that it’s not just about the caffeine, just as Phusion claimed it was not all about the caffeine—after all, the “four” in Four Loko comes from the four functional ingredients in it: alcohol, caffeine, guarana and taurine. Red Bull says the fusion of caffeine with the other functional ingredients makes it stand apart. If that's true, I would love to see research suggesting as much.
Now that the original Four Loko has been banished, the company just released a reformulated product line, just without the stimulants (read: caffeine, guarana and taurine). The company hopes that launching a different flavor of alcoholic beverage every four months—you can go to the company’s website and vote on which flavor you’d like to see next—are the keys to future success.
And this gets back to the whole functional ingredients concept. All Four Loko is now is weirdly flavored beer, living off its legacy as a hip and trendy buzz product. Once consumers get hip to the trick that the bonus buzz is gone, I don’t think you can rely on marketing alone.
Ultimately, it is about the experience. Experiential products that give consumers a benefit they can feel right away are the path forward. So if you’ve got a caffeine-free energy drink, you’ll probably want to formulate in some niacin – enough to give you that tell-tale niacin flush.
I tried a "brain health" beverage, called Nawgan, whose performance aspect is predicated on citocholine—a B vitamin. I specifically gravitated toward the non-caffeinated version, and drank down two cans. Now, it may have been because this was Las Vegas I was in, but I do declare I did experience a sort of ineffable sharpness for the next little while.
And if it’s not about the experiential aspect, make it about the science. The better the research you have on your functional ingredient, the more capable you’ll be in telling your story, and that entire category will start outperforming all others. Look at fish oil. Look at probiotics. Look at vitamin D.