It is unlikely that Suntory knew, when they launched Tennensui Premium Morning Tea in March 2017, that this product launch would spark madness in the Japanese beverage industry and led to scores of colourless drink launches over the following 18 months.

Premium Morning Tea was a lemon-flavoured ready-to-drink tea, with the appearance of bottled water and carrying the promise that it would not stain teeth. Suntory followed it up with more Morning Tea in a range of flavours, and even moved into the non-alcoholic crystal-clear beer market, launching All Free All Time and marketing it as a drink for after exercising or during a meeting. Asahi and Coca-Cola soon followed suit, with the latter going so far as to release a crystal-clear banana milk.

“Flavour has long been the focus of product innovation, but the rise of food and drink-centric social media is now forcing brands to consider other senses with equal importance,” explained Jenny Zegler from Mintel. “Colour, in particular, has emerged as an important tool for standing out on social media feeds, with brands such as Starbucks receiving significant attention for bold, creative drinks like its pink, purple and blue Unicorn Frappuccino.”

Clear beverages are nothing new, as anyone who lived through the ‘clear craze’ marketing fad in the late 1980s and 1990s will attest. This period saw the release of Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi (which has since been re-released, with a cult following). Clarity has long been equated with purity and an absence of artificial dyes or colourants, attributes which appeal to the consumer. A spokesperson from Suntory said that the line of clear beverages was a response to “trends such as the increase in health-consciousness and in people who feel resistance to drinking sweet things such as juice in public.”

Colour provides important cues in regards to olfactory and taste perception, according to studies from Montclair State University. For example, the colour red makes people perceive the beverage as sweeter. If the colour is one which is not usually associated with the flavour (for example, a blue-coloured passionfruit drink), people will enjoy the product less. Colour is the first characteristic of a product that a consumer notices, and over their lifetime they will have come to associate specific colours with certain flavours. Drinkers of Pepsi Crystal noted citrus aromas and tastes, even though none were present in the drink. Pepsi Crystal is indistinguishable from the typical appearance of a lemonade like Sprite or 7-Up, and customers were subconsciously confusing the two.

However, the ability of a product to stand out is critical. Twists on everyday products are a standard of Japanese food production, such as salty watermelon Pepsi and a highly questionable coriander-flavoured lemonade from Pokka Sapporo. This is in line with Coca-Cola’s reason behind launching Coke Clear: the Japanese consumer is always “seeking out new surprises.”

“Consumers are seeking unique-looking food and drink to share on social media, and what makes products distinctive is their difference from the status quo,” said Zegler. “This suggests that transparent versions of food and drink traditionally associated with a colour can be just as disruptive as more ostentatiously coloured innovations.”