Coca-Cola No. 1 in Japan, but not with Coke

Yuri Kageyama
Associated Press

Ebina, Japan — Coca-Cola has been the No. 1 beverage maker in Japan for half a century, but it’s not thanks to the popularity of Coke. Instead, the American soft-drink brand has adapted to the quirky ways this society quenches its thirst.

Coca-Cola’s nearly 1 million vending machines account for about half of all the vending machines in Japan. Many of them do stock Coke and Coke Zero. But most of the beverages sold by those state-of-the art machines have nothing to do with the company’s namesake soda.

Among the bigger favorites are “Georgia” brand canned coffee, orange-flavored water and of course, green tea, the traditional drink of choice.

Japan is The Coca-Cola Co.’s second-biggest market after the U.S., raking in more than 1 trillion yen ($10 billion) in annual sales. But consumers here aren’t crazy about bubbly drinks like Fanta and Sprite, other perennial U.S. favorites.

Instead, the notoriously fad-loving Japanese flit from one trend to another across an array of weird product offerings, such as soda drinks with odd flavors like smelly durian fruit or garlicky kimchee that mostly are attention-getting products intended for fun.

Though its product offerings don’t go quite that far, Coca-Cola has 850 different beverages in Japan alone, not counting discontinued brands. Among the most popular is Qoo, a water-drop-shaped forest creature designed to appeal to Japan’s cult of the cute.

“It is so difficult to survive,” said Takashi Wasa, senior vice president at Coca-Cola Japan.

The odds of having a hit are “Maybe just three out of a thousand,” he said.

Since retailers only stock in-demand products, pressure is high to keep coming up with new products, or at least new adaptations.

Coca-Cola’s competitors in this tea-growing nation, led by Ito En, a traditional tea maker that pioneered bottled green tea in Japan, were quick to imitate Coca-Cola’s lead in adding powdered tea to its green tea drinks to make them cloudier and more evocative of richer-tasting teas out of a teapot.

Some products are specifically developed as “kawaridane” or “weird items,” just to attract attention, like cucumber-flavored Pepsi. Or Pepsi Strong 5.0 GV, for “gas volume,” which has extra fizz.

“It’s that extra burp factor,” said Akira Kiga, a spokesman for Suntory Beverages & Food, which sells Pepsi in Japan and trails Coca-Cola with No. 2 market share. “We want people to notice and see that we’re a fun brand.”