We tested Pepsi's new drink designed to win over millennials against the cult-classic beverage it emulates -- and the winner was clear

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
  • PepsiCo recently announced plans to launch a new drink called bubly in an effort to take over the sparkling-water market from beloved category leader LaCroix.
  • “I think we were made for the flavored sparkling water category,” PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi said Tuesday.
  • We taste tested bubly and compared it to LaCroix – and the established, cult-favourite sparkling-water brand demolished Pepsi’s newcomer.

PepsiCo is gearing up for war with LaCroix – a sparkling water brand with a cult following – in an effort to take over the $US1.2 billion sparkling-water industry.

Last week, the beverage giant announced the launch of a new brand called bubly. The beverage gives PepsiCo a key opportunity to cash in on sparkling water’s growing popularity – especially among millennials – as soda sales slump.

“I think we were made for the flavored sparkling water category,” PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi said in a call with investors on Tuesday.

LaCroix is the clear leader in the sparkling-water market, and sales have skyrocketed in recent years. However, bubly may prove to be a worthy competitor. Credit Suisse analyst Laurent Grandet wrote in a note to investors in January that the brand has the potential to exceed $US100 million in retail sales in 2018.

According to Nooyi, the drink is worth the hype. She said bubly “tastes fantastic” and has been beating out competitors in taste tests.

So, we decided to do a face-off of our own, pitting bubly against its biggest competition, LaCroix.

First things first — bubly’s cans are cutesy to the degree that they inspired some slight eyebrow-raising from our taste testers.

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LaCroix’s aesthetic is unselfconsciously tacky in a way that isn’t “’80s-inspired” so much as something that looks like it has been collecting dust since the ’80s. This is what has helped make it iconic, as it doesn’t look like anything else on the market.

Meanwhile, bubly’s cans – with greetings on tabs and messages such as “I feel like I can be open around u” – feel precisely on-trend. It falls in the uncanny valley between adorable and trying a little bit too hard – you can imagine the endless rounds of focus group testing as creators tried to calibrate the exact level of twee.

Of course, what matters is what’s inside the cans. The grapefruit flavour was considered the best of the bunch by our taste testers.

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The carbonation levels are well-calibrated. The bubbles level is not too overpowering, but they certainly make their presence known, something that proved to be a positive in all the bubly we tasted.

The grapefruit flavour itself isn’t very strong. In fact, the burst of grapefruit scent that escaped when we cracked open the tab was stronger than the actual taste.

The scent phenomenon continued with the lime flavour, which filled our noses with the smell of lime Jell-O when we popped the can. That’s right, lime Jell-O — not lime.

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The flavour doesn’t taste bad, but it also doesn’t taste like much. If anything, it’s reminiscent of an extremely watered-down cup of lime Jell-O that has somehow been transformed into a sparkling water. PepsiCo says that bubly uses all natural flavours, which makes the distinct smell and taste of lime Jell-O especially bizarre.

The strawberry bubly packed the most flavour. Unfortunately, it was the flavour of chewy fruit snacks.

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If we had to be specific, we’d pinpoint this flavour to an apparently unintentional rip-off of mixed fruit Welch’s fruit snacks. The flavour isn’t overpowering – it’s something like if you licked a Welch’s fruit snacks package after finishing all the snacks inside.

The smell, however, exploded out of the can once it was open. In general, it seems as though Pepsi is relying on smells to trick drinkers’ brains on taste instead of actually packing the flavours into the beverage.

But, how does bubly measure up to LaCroix? In a lime-versus-lime faceoff, LaCroix was the clear winner.

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The flavours just have more depth and actually taste like citrus – not lime Jell-O.

LaCroix’s cran-raspberry flavour also triumphed over bubly’s strawberry.

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Both of these flavours are more flavorful than many of their sister flavours. LaCroix again comes out on top with a more lasting flavour and aftertaste, while bubly seems to rely on the initial burst of taste that comes with the first whiff of the drink.

As we chugged our way through several flavours of bubly and LaCroix, the elder brand presented itself as the clear winner.

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While not every tester was a fan of every LaCroix option, the flavours tended to be unique and lasting. In comparison, bubly was more fleeting and forgettable.

It is clear that Pepsi sees bubly as crucial to winning over millennial customers. After all, why else would the tab beckon over drinkers with a “hey u”?

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However, the beverage giant went all-in on cutesy packaging without realising that LaCroix’s semi-tacky branding and idiosyncratic flavours are what have made it a cult classic. With Pepsi’s backing, bubly will probably make millions of dollars, but it’s never going to be the cool cult favourite that LaCroix is.

bubly represents a great opportunity for PepsiCo – but don’t expect it to steal LaCroix’s crown any time soon.

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