Clubber Soda

Airforce Nutrisoda Mixes Well With Trendy Nightlife Scene

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- The next time you feel a wrinkle forming or start sniffling, bypass the medical center and go clubbing.

Yes, your bartender is fast becoming the go-to resource for a Flu Shot or a Face Lift -- otherwise known as cocktails fortified with a fledgling brand of "enhanced" sodas by Ardea Beverage Co. The Airforce Nutrisoda line combines exotic flavors, vitamins, minerals and amino acids in slim 8.4-ounce cans. To build a lifestyle cachet, Ardea has adopted the nightclub strategy from the same trend bank as energy drinks, mixing its health-boosting beverages into margaritas and martinis.

Danger of becoming 'carbonated Ensure'
"We do not sell these as health drinks because people don't want to drink medicine," said Joe Heron, Ardea's founder and president. "We could be carbonated Ensure if we're not careful." He said consumers choose beverages first by flavor, then the benefits and, of course, the image. And the image Ardea is cultivating, he said, is "health spa in a can."

As old-school soft-drink sales go flat and energy drinks skyrocket, it was only a matter of time before soft-drink marketers zeroed in on the $21 billion supplement business as their fountain of youth. In fact, the segment has attracted the attention of PepsiCo's second-largest bottler, PepsiAmericas, which in January purchased Ardea for an undisclosed price as a way of boosting its functional-beverage strategy. Before it was sold to the bottler 43% owned by PepsiCo, Ardea was on track to post sales of $3 million last year.

Seven-item line
Mr. Heron, a former VP-medical nutrition for Novartis, introduced the first variety in the Airforce Nutrisoda line in 2003 after his wife suggested a nutrient beverage for frequent fliers to avoid getting colds and flu bugs. The result was a drink that offered benefits similar to Airborne, the cold- and flu-prevention remedy marketed by a former schoolteacher that is well on its way to $100 million in sales.

That first offering in the now seven-item Airforce Nutrisoda line is called Immune, and it boasts two grams of the amino acid L-Arginine as a T-cell booster, along with enough other immune-system-boosting vitamins and minerals to replace a multivitamin, all in a 15-calorie drink.

Other varieties followed, with names such as Radiant (pomegranate and blackberry flavor), Calm (wild berry and citron), Focus (mango and peach), Flex (black cherry and apple), Energize (mandarin and mint) and Slender (pink grapefruit and guava).

Airports, cruises, hotels
Aiming squarely at affluent trendsetters, who tend to be older, better-educated and more likely female than the standard soda drinker, Airforce Nutrisoda uses a lifestyle-driven strategy. In addition to 20 airports, the brand is sold on Princess Cruises and in swank hotels including the Waldorf Astoria in New York; the Sky Hotel in Aspen,Colo.; the Bacara Spa in Santa Barbara, Calif.; and the Greenbriar golf resort in West Virginia.

Ardea already is gearing up for the cold and flu season, promoting its Immune variety ahead of the fall and winter magazine deadlines as "a powerful tool in the back-to-school, airborne-illness and flu-season arsenal." Creative from Kenyon, Minneapolis, runs in magazines and at airports, asserting, "You are what you drink."

Skeptics
But as consumers raise their glasses, medical experts are raising their eyebrows. "There is currently no clear evidence of benefit for most people," said Catherine Buettner, a clinical research fellow at Harvard Medical School's Osher Institute. "Until there's evidence this stuff works, I'd assume it's worthless," said Dr. Peter Katona, associate clinical professor of infectious diseases at University of California, Los Angeles.

George Hacker, director of the Alcohol Policies Project for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the brand's alcohol-based promo tactics concerned him less than what he called "snake-oil" health positioning. He thought the website and mixology pages appeared targeted to adults. "The way distilled spirits are promoted as part of romance and success-this isn't that much different or worse [than alcohol marketing], except for the fact that it starts off with these beverages that make pretty flimsy claims about their benefits," he said.

Mr. Heron counters that the cocktail branding is all about having fun rather than delivering health benefits. "In order to make ourselves a mainstream product, the emotional pitch is as much about fun as it is about refreshment," he said.
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