Can Four Loko Go Low-Profile?

HERE’S THE GENERAL SENSE IN the malternative category in the weeks following an FDA ruling that the addition of caffeine to a finished alcoholic beverage product is a national no-no: How about we try a do-over?

As the last cans of products like Four Loko and Joose (not to mention Moon Shot beer – sorry Rhonda Kallman) leave the shelves to be replaced by caffeine-free formulations, companies wanting to play in the category are going to find out fast if jacked-up alcohol content is enough to keep sales flowing.
It’s a category reset that in some ways parallels last summer’s kombucha recall, and there’s likely to be a race to get updated formulations to the shelf. But in this case, there’s a more uncertain consumer response to those formulations on tap. That’s because the brands grew by playing with fire – and the fire eventually consumed them.

In an earlier wave, the removal of caffeine was enough to halt the progress of Sparks and Tilt, the big-company entrants into the energy malternative space. But neither brand was really out long enough to create the buzz that Four Loko managed to cultivate on the Internet; its popularity and the potency of the booze might be enough to keep adherents coming back even in an energy-free formulation – especially since many Four Loko consumers ended up passing out anyway, despite the caffeine.

Indeed, Phusion Projects, the maker of Four Loko, was a day ahead of the FDA in announcing that it planned to reformulate its products, and many folks suspect that it had an alternative formulation on tap the whole time. Atomic Brands’ President Don Duebler says his company, which had not yet launched its Mad Ballr when the FDA banned energy malternatives, had caffeinated and non-caffeinated formulations prepared, just in case.

But where things are going to get interesting is whether the authorities will give a pass to a company like Four Loko, which, while telling the public that it was “demonstrating leadership, cooperation and responsible corporate citizenship” by independently altering its recipe, still will contain enough booze in a single can to get Keith Richards through a two-week tour.

Chances are that they won’t. That’s because you can take out the caffeine but you’re still making a product that appeals to rookie drinkers, many of whom are also amateur digital cinematographers. And there’s the rub: any of these brands that manage to stay popular long enough is going to produce the same kind of YouTube videos that both enabled Four Loko’s popularity and eventually accelerated its downfall. (You’ve seen them – kid either chugs Four Loko or sings about Four Loko, or kid has passed out with barf in hair.) It’s not the first time it’s happened to this kind of product – in my not-so-long-ago college days, it was Cisco that was pulled from the market because it was too strong and too easy for dumb undergraduates to drink (That we called it “Liquid Crack” instead of “Crack in a Can” once again indicates the role of packaging). But there wasn’t that same torrent of peer-to-peer media letting us all know about it. It never got as big.

Which may be another strategy for these brands – maybe they could go low profile and stay off the radar, but chances are that would render them so marginally appealing they’d  just eventually go back off the shelves, anyway.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s  Robert McKenna, the Attorney General in Washington:
“We continue to have concerns as to how these alcoholic beverages are marketed to young people,” he said, adding that the packaging of such products closely resembles regular non-alcoholic energy drinks. “Just removing the caffeine and putting these products back on the market is not something we’d be happy with.”

In other words, do-overs look like they might just have the same result. So be four-warned.