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A team of technical experts is helping Coca-Cola North America launch breakthrough beverages in emerging categories – from kombuchas, to cultured ciders, to keto-friendly smoothies, to cold-brew coffees – in record time.

The Transformational Innovation Team partners with brands and business units to take new drinks in unfamiliar spaces to commercialization in a handful of months. A rotating group of specialists from Research and Development (R&D), Quality, Safety & Environmental Sustainability, Technical Commercialization and Scientific and Regulatory Affairs (SRA) is helping the company navigate uncharted territory by challenging existing approaches to innovation – from sourcing and seeking approval on new ingredients, to producing beverages in emerging categories, to bringing new brands to market – through an agile, test- and-learn launch model.

“We combine the best of what entrepreneurs do and the best of what Coca-Cola does,” explains team lead Susan Zaripheh. “Entrepreneurs dream of having the power of our brands and scale of our distribution network, and large global companies like Coke want to be able to innovate quickly, iteratively and stay
competitive in emerging spaces.”

Inspiring a mindset shift

This means challenging organizational processes and breaking down boundaries. “Capability isn’t an issue at Coca-Cola,” Zaripheh says. “Our talent and people are top notch. What we’re trying to do is inspire a mindset shift and push the company into new or emerging segments consumers want us to explore.”

The Transformational Innovation Team has partnered with Minute Maid to develop several breakthrough products in 2019, including Cidewinder, which boasts similar digestive health benefits as kombucha but with less sugar. The cultured juice brand, which leveraged a novel ingredient and process from a third-party company, is being tested in grocery and convenience store outlets in Texas and California.

“Cidewinder is an example of how we’re moving quickly, but deliberately, by running small market tests before investing significant time or resources,” Zaripheh said. “Some of the brands we’re helping to launch will not reach scale, but that’s the point of what we’re doing. We’re pushing the company to move faster than ever and to use real-time market data to make informed decisions and gain important learnings for the future.”

Following the consumer

Odwalla, meanwhile, tapped Zaripheh’s team to help develop a zero-sugar, keto-friendly smoothie using trending ingredients like MCT oil and coconut cream – bringing the first-of-its-kind offering in the Coca-Cola portfolio to life in less than six months.

“Our partnership with the Transformational Innovation Team has added tremendous value to our decision making,” said John Hackett, president, Minute Maid Business Unit. “With their support, we’ve been able to test emerging spaces quickly and gain real-world learnings. Direct guidance from the market enables us to focus our investments on ideas and innovations that strongly resonate with consumers.”

The team also partnered with Honest to launch two category-crossing innovations – Honest Kombucha and Honest Cold Brew Co”ee. Honest is building a master brand beyond its core tea business and, as part of that strategy, decided in 2019 to enter the fast-growing – and complex – kombucha segment. “Part of the Honest brand’s strategy is to ‘own the fridge’ of the
Millennial family by offering lower- sugar, organic beverages for all occasions,” said Rafael Acevedo, vice president, Tea Portfolio, Coca-Cola North America. “Given the rising popularity of kombucha, it made sense for a brand known for making tea to enter this space.”

The Transformational Innovation Team helped Honest enter this space by end of the year in a limited, 20-store test, then quickly aligned on a brand proposition and execution strategy. Results are expected in early 2020.

‘Being nimble doesn’t mean cutting corners’

The teams also partnered to secure all required approvals in time to produce and ship samples of Honest Cold Brew Coffee to the Natural Products Expo East tradeshow in only 10 weeks. The brand received great feedback from attendees.

“That project was not a product development challenge – it was a regulatory and food safety challenge,” explained Zaripheh, a food scientist with a PhD in nutrition. “Low-acid beverages like coffee have significant food safety and regulatory hurdles which can take a ton of time, but we were able to do even more due diligence by taking a different approach.”

Acevedo called the collaboration “a great example of how the company is approaching innovation differently and prioritizing agility to achieve effcient results.”

However, Zaripheh insists, the team takes steps to move quickly without compromising safety or quality, or taking due-diligence shortcuts. “Being nimble doesn’t mean cutting corners… it means approaching challenges from different angles and finding ways to parallel-path and operate with flexibility,” she added. “We hear a lot about speed to market these days. But speed by itself isn’t a competitive advantage – anyone can go fast. The key is identifying potential big bets, starting small and learning before making significant investments and launching at scale. That’s what we do.”

Creating a ripple effect

This group of “intrapraneurs” is on a mission to create a ripple effect by sharing learnings with Coca-Cola North America teams leading innovation projects across the system.

“Power is not having one team dedicated to transformational innovation, but seamlessly implementing learnings and frameworks across the organization and fueling new capability to drive growth,” said Simon Yeung, SVP, Innovation and Stewardship, Coca-Cola North America, noting that the team consulted and shared learnings with the sparkling water team spearheading the AHA brand launch. “Our goal is to get the system to move faster and deliver more disruptive innovation… to take on meatier projects and platform-able ideas and bring them to life.”