Coke Bringing Sokenbicha Stateside

September 28/Atlanta/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution -- A small team inside Coca-Cola Co. charged with finding and marketing niche products has its newest weapon -- a blended tea from Japan.

Sokenbicha ("SO-can-BEE-cha") will be imported into the U.S. and sold initially in Whole Foods Market, which has been a test kitchen of sorts for Coca-Cola in the past. The Austin, Texas-based retailer has agreed to stock other unusual drinks from Coca-Cola's Venturing and Emerging Brands (VEB) unit, such as a dark Russian soda fermented with rye and barley.

Sokenbicha, which is unsweetened and has no calories, will be aimed at people who are open to alternative health remedies. The VEB team plans to get chiropractors, acupuncturists and spa operators on board, said Mary-Ann Somers, vice president for strategic and operational marketing at VEB.

VEB plans to build the brand slowly with low-key marketing such as product demonstrations rather than television commercials. Coca-Cola expects the brand to be small for quite a while.

"It's really about tight interaction with the consumer, one on one," Somers said.

Coca-Cola executives such as CEO Muhtar Kent have said the company needs to encourage brands and ideas -- such as beverages based on traditional Chinese medicines -- to flow from their homelands into different territories.

Part of VEB's mission, Somers said, is to "look around the Coke portfolio and see where do we see something interesting going on that we can use in the U.S." Japan, with its high rate of innovation and emphasis on healthful beverages, was a logical place to look, she said.

Sokenbicha is Coca-Cola's largest tea brand in Japan. For the U.S. market, VEB developed five flavors, including green tea and a blend of cinnamon and ginger. The beverages are making their first appearance in the U.S. at Japan Fashion Now, a new exhibition in New York City, and will be sold nationwide in Whole Foods starting in October.

"I'm really excited about it," Somers said. "The real test is when you stock it in the refrigerator, how fast it goes."

From the October 4, 2010, Prepared Foods E-dition