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Coke likely to import Asia innovations to U.S.

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[Hong Kong] If Mary Minnick has her way, American consumers could soon be guzzling beverages to cure hangovers or eliminate bad breath and downloading mobile-phone ringtones from Coke vending machines.

Such "functional beverages" and technology innovations were hallmarks of Ms. Minnick's tenure running Coca-Cola's Asian operations, and she's expected to bring the same thinking to her post overseeing global marketing, innovation and growth strategies for the beverage giant.

"With a product portfolio ranging from teas to soy to beauty enhancing water, non-carbs are already a significant part of our business and an important engine for growth," Ms. Minnick said in a conference call with analysts. That's particularly true in Japan, which accounts for 20% of Coke's global profits and is "a model of development for other markets."

IDEAS NOT LACKING

She's certainly not lacking in ideas: Coca-Cola has been a hotbed of innovation in Asia, introducing about 100 products annually. Coca-Cola is marketing products from sophisticated teas to inexpensive fruit drinks, as well as quirky soft-drink twists such as ginger-flavored Sprite in mainland China. Other concoctions are on the way, including drinks made with soy extracts "that would be acceptable to most palates all over the world," said Ms. Minnick.

"There's a growing demand in the U.S. and Europe for these sorts of [health-related and wellness] products. They could do very well," said David Jago, editorial director for Mintel's Global New Product Database, based in London.

Another existing brand in Asia with global potential is Georgia, which controls half of Japan's canned coffee market. The company may launch a similar coffee-flavored drink in Europe and the U.S.

Coke just introduced two products aimed at hip, health-conscious adults in Thailand that will likely be rolled out to other countries, starting with Minute Maid Splash, a vitamin-fortified juice, followed by Alive, a combination of sparkling water, juice, vitamin C and beta-carotene.

The use of technology is another area that might influence Coca-Cola outside Asia. In Japan, where over 40% of beverage sales come from vending machines, Coke manages nearly 1 million vending machines. A handful of them are Cmode machines. Each one has a built-in computer, display, speaker and printer linked to NTT DoCoMo i-mode, Japan's dominant mobile-phone service provider. The machines allow consumers to pay for beverages with their handsets as well as purchase ringtones for phones, download i-mode content and print out coupons.

In Asia, Coca-Cola is also exploring innovative marketing for brand Coke itself, including branded Internet cafes and a Coke lounge called the Red Room, located in a Singapore cinema complex, filled with the toys of teen dreams: X-Box gaming access, giant flat screen TVs and music downloads.

Ms. Minnick has a range of techniques that can be brought to the U.S. from Asia, said Darren Marshall, Coca-Cola's Bangkok-based marketing director for Southeast and West Asia. "It's not just about taking stuff from Asia," he said. "She just knows what's good and what's not, and she's going to make changes happen."

contributing: kate macarthur

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