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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Coca-Cola Taps Consumers to Drive R&D on Sugar Alternatives

In response to changing consumer preferences for ‘cleaner,’ healthier products, food and beverage giant Coca-Cola is ramping up efforts to uncover new non-sugar sweeteners for its portfolio of beverages and snacks. But instead of heading to the lab, the company is outsourcing its R&D, turning to the public to come up with a naturally sourced, low-calorie sugar alternative that mimics the taste of sugar.

To do this, Coca-Cola has unveiled two sweetener campaigns on the HeroX platform. The first — the ‘sweet story challenge’ — asks consumers around the world to submit written anecdotes and videos about their favorite methods of naturally sweetening foods or beverages in their cultures, communities or families. Up to five individual or team winners will vie for $100,000 in total prize money, with winners announced in December.

A second challenge takes a more scientific approach, calling on researchers and scientists to find sugar alternatives that create the taste sensation of sugar when used in beverages and foods. One grand prize winner will be awarded $1 million in October 2018.

“We’re always searching for newer, better ingredients and we know that amazing ideas can come from anywhere,” said Robert Long, SVP and Chief Innovation Officer at Coca-Cola. “These two challenges are very much rooted in our desire to make the drinks our consumers want to drink and in our willingness to look beyond the walls of our company for breakthrough sugar alternatives that help us deliver the great taste people love but with less sugar and fewer calories.”

The project is being led by Coca-Cola’s External Technology Acquisition Team (ETA), which explores and invests in emerging ingredients, packaging materials and beverage production technologies.

Earlier this year, the company announced plans to shift its growth strategy and operational lines to be in line with changing consumer tastes and buying habits. James Quincey, who took over as CEO in May, said Coca-Cola will focus on driving revenue going forward by building ‘consumer-centric’ brands — including more low- and no-sugar options and drinks in emerging categories. According to Quincey, this shift requires a willingness to make smart risks and pursue new ways of working and innovating.

“As we expand our portfolio, we are embracing a ‘test-and-learn’ mentality,” he said during the company’s second quarter 2017 earnings call in July. “We’re seeing what consumers want and making adjustments immediately. Because at the end of the day, speed and agility are critical in this rapidly changing consumer landscape.”

Coca-Cola isn’t the only company to commit to reducing the amount of sugary drink calories that Americans consume by 20 percent before 2025. Dr Pepper Snapple and PepsiCo have also made similar pledges and companies such as KIND Healthy Snacks and Panera Bread have also been adamant about providing consumers with better, healthier options.

Beyond changing consumer preferences, the introduction of sugar taxes on soft drinks have posed a number of challenges for the industry, further driving declining sales. The inclusion of the public in finding solutions serves not only as a way to source new ideas, but also to rebrand and regain consumers’ trust.


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