It's been bubbling up for years, and now here we are, in the midst of a sparkling-water brand war. LaCroix — the fizzy flavored drink that comes in retro pastel so-uncool-they're-cool-again cans — is the front-runner, and as Americans drink less and less soda, every brand is angling for its own subtly fruit-flavored water.
Enter Bubly (yes, just one b in the middle). PepsiCo's newly debuted brand of flavored sparkling water aims to make a big splash, with a peppy ad campaign that rolled out during the Oscars. With its colorful cans and cheeky marketing, it is clearly aiming to steal millennials from LaCroix. Other brands have tried — Poland Spring recently released its own flavored sparkling water, and Dasani, owned by Coca-Cola, has a flavored sparkling water, too — but Bubly seems to understand the cultlike appeal of flavored sparkling water better than the rest. It's not the flavors or the price — it's the packaging.
For an average consumer, the look of the cans seems to be the only thing that sets a flavored sparkling water apart from its peers. People may think one brand is better than another, but they can't tell the difference between any of them in a blind taste test. People can't even tell what flavor of sparkling water they're drinking in a blind taste test. So the cans are a critical part of the flavored sparkling water experience.
LaCroix's cans have achieved cult status. They look great on Instagram. There are "LaCroixs over boys" T-shirts and "Have a flavorful holiday" greeting cards. Dressing up as a LaCroix can is a thing that many people have done for Halloween. Some bartenders are making cocktails with it. People are even dyeing their hair to match LaCroix cans! So if you're going to come at LaCroix, you'd best do so with a can that's equally adorable. Bubly knows this, and its product seems to be designed for maximum cuteness. The cans are nearly monochrome, with emoji-like smiles on the side and some polka dots at the edges. Best of all, the pop-tabs all come printed with a little greeting that mimics how people text, in lowercase: "hiya" on lemon, "haayy" on mango, "hiiii" on strawberry and plain old "hi" on apple. Importantly, and like LaCroix, each can is a different color that mimics the origin of the "natural flavor" fruit essence inside. It is truly a juice box for 20-somethings.
We rounded up a few sparkling-water fans in the office — some of whom consider themselves ride-or-die LaCroix brand loyalists — to conduct a little experiment (albeit with a very small sample pool of nine people). Our taste-testers were given side-by-side sips of same or comparably flavored sparkling waters by LaCroix and Bubly: Mango (both brands), strawberry (Bubly) and berry (LaCroix), lemon (Bubly) and lime (LaCroix), and apple (Bubly) and apple-cranberry (LaCroix), in plain paper cups. In a blind taste test, would people be able to tell the difference between LaCroix and Bubly? And if they drank sparkling water without seeing the can, could they tell what flavor it was?
The answer to both questions, overwhelmingly: No. With the exception of the very familiar lemon and lime, very few people got it right. That's not surprising — there's a lot of research that goes into how packaging affects our sense of taste. In 2011, when Coke changed its can color from red to white, customers began to complain that it didn't taste as sweet, according to Packaging Digest. "The containers from which we eat and drink, and, in particular, their color, can also influence our perception of food and beverages and the overall consumption experience to a greater extent than most of us are consciously aware of," wrote a team of European researchers who studied the effect of the color of plates in 2013. One of those researchers, Charles Spence, was profiled in the New Yorker for his work in flavor perception as it relates to our other senses. He found that shoppers are "twice as willing to choose a juice whose label features a concave, smile-like line rather than a convex, frown-like one." (Note that Bubly's label has a smile on it.) He has found that people think food in a red package is sweeter and a blue package is saltier, and that people "associate a hard k sound with bitterness, while a softer b can make products seem sweeter." (Note that there are two b's in Bubly.) Wrote Nicola Twilley: "Consumers are constantly, if unwittingly, proving his point that taste can be altered through color, shape, or sound alone."
So, basically: You think that Passionfruit (for example) is the best flavor of LaCroix, but you might not agree if it were in a clear bottle — and you probably wouldn't be able to identify it at all. We also asked tasters to tell us which of the two cups was their favorite in each round. LaCroix won the overall popular vote, but when the score was broken down by flavor, Bubly's mango and apple flavors did slightly better than LaCroix's. Most people couldn't really tell the difference, anyway, so consumers should feel free to be relentlessly price-driven in their selection of flavored sparkling water, unless they're really into Instagramming pictures of the cans.
Here's what our tasters had to say.
Mango LaCroix: "Tastes more tightly carbonated." "Not overly sweet or tart." "Flavor is pretty overwhelming." "Light & floral." "Kind of like watered-down Haribo peaches." "Alka-Seltzer."
What flavor they guessed it was: "Strawberry," "I'm getting mixed berry vibes." "Pomegranate and blueberry notes." "Black cherry?" "Stone fruit — peach or nectarine?" "Blackberry or grapefruit."
Mango Bubly: "More refreshing. The flavor is less overpowering. I like it better." "Has almost no bite." "Full-bodied." "This tastes like air freshener, like if you walk into a hotel bathroom with your mouth open."
What flavor they guessed it was: "Strawberry," "peach-like," "tropical fruit," "cranberry?"
Berry LaCroix: "More bubbly." "Like a watery melted Popsicle." "Very small bubbles — feels good on tongue." "Somebody thought this was OK to create and I want to fight them." "Really heavy on the palate."
What flavor they guessed it was: "Pear?" "Cotton candy-esque." "Watermelon." "Peach?"
Strawberry Bubly: "Cough syrupy flavor." "Froot Loop water." "Not at all tart." "There is a very strange perfume note." "This tastes like pool water."
What flavor they guessed it was: "Maybe kiwi," "Some sort of cherry?" "I have no idea what flavor this is, but it does have flavoring." "I'm like 67 percent sure this is orange or peach LaCroix because that's what the moms drank at the pool growing up." [Editor's note: highly specific, but wrong.]
Lime LaCroix: "The most refreshing so far. Light on actual fizz, but a subtle and balanced flavor." "I truly cannot distinguish between the two." "Less sour notes." "Sad Sprite." "Good & zesty."
What flavor they guessed it was: Everyone guessed lemon or lime.
Lemon Bubly: "These taste exactly the same to me." "Bright but not tart." "It tastes like a watery lemon-lime cordial that's been sitting on the bar too long." "Fresh." "Would drink this all the time. Not sweet at all."
What flavor they guessed it was: Unanimous votes for lemon or lime on this one, too.
Apple-Cranberry LaCroix: "Was way too much flavor. Basically, if I wanted [this much] flavor, I would drink soda." "Reminiscent of a Jolly Rancher." "Boring." "Very good, probably my favorite set." "Not super bubbly." "This tastes better than it smells. It smells like chewing gum."
What flavor they guessed it was: "I know I'm 100 percent wrong, but all I can taste is cinnamon. I'm guessing apple? It reminds me of fall." "This tastes like a Twizzler." "Red Vines."
Apple Bubly: "Sour." "More bubbly, not overly sweet." "More robust." "Sharper bubble feel."