We tested Pepsi's soda for millennials against the cult-classic drink it emulates - and it revealed why the beverage giant will never be cool

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La Croix bublyHollis Johnson/Business Insider

  • PepsiCo recently announced plans to launch a new drink called bubly in an effort to take over the sparkling-water market from beloved category leader LaCroix.
  • "I think we were made for the flavored sparkling water category," PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi said Tuesday.
  • We taste tested bubly and compared it to LaCroix - and the established, cult-favorite sparkling-water brand demolished Pepsi's newcomer.

PepsiCo is gearing up for war with LaCroix - a sparkling water brand with a cult following - in an effort to take over the $1.2 billion sparkling-water industry.

Last week, the beverage giant announced the launch of a new brand called bubly. The beverage gives PepsiCo a key opportunity to cash in on sparkling water's growing popularity - especially among millennials - as soda sales slump.

"I think we were made for the flavored sparkling water category," PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi said in a call with investors on Tuesday.

LaCroix is the clear leader in the sparkling-water market, and sales have skyrocketed in recent years. However, bubly may prove to be a worthy competitor. Credit Suisse analyst Laurent Grandet wrote in a note to investors in January that the brand has the potential to exceed $100 million in retail sales in 2018.

According to Nooyi, the drink is worth the hype. She said bubly "tastes fantastic" and has been beating out competitors in taste tests.

So, we decided to do a face-off of our own, pitting bubly against its biggest competition, LaCroix.

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First things first — bubly's cans are cutesy to the degree that they inspired some slight eyebrow-raising from our taste testers.

First things first — bubly's cans are cutesy to the degree that they inspired some slight eyebrow-raising from our taste testers.

LaCroix's aesthetic is unselfconsciously tacky in a way that isn't "'80s-inspired" so much as something that looks like it has been collecting dust since the '80s. This is what has helped make it iconic, as it doesn't look like anything else on the market.

Meanwhile, bubly's cans — with greetings on tabs and messages such as "I feel like I can be open around u" — feel precisely on-trend. It falls in the uncanny valley between adorable and trying a little bit too hard — you can imagine the endless rounds of focus group testing as creators tried to calibrate the exact level of twee.

Of course, what matters is what's inside the cans. The grapefruit flavor was considered the best of the bunch by our taste testers.

Of course, what matters is what's inside the cans. The grapefruit flavor was considered the best of the bunch by our taste testers.

The carbonation levels are well-calibrated. The bubbles level is not too overpowering, but they certainly make their presence known, something that proved to be a positive in all the bubly we tasted.

The grapefruit flavor itself isn't very strong. In fact, the burst of grapefruit scent that escaped when we cracked open the tab was stronger than the actual taste.

The scent phenomenon continued with the lime flavor, which filled our noses with the smell of lime Jell-O when we popped the can. That's right, lime Jell-O — not lime.

The scent phenomenon continued with the lime flavor, which filled our noses with the smell of lime Jell-O when we popped the can. That's right, lime Jell-O — not lime.

The flavor doesn't taste bad, but it also doesn't taste like much. If anything, it's reminiscent of an extremely watered-down cup of lime Jell-O that has somehow been transformed into a sparkling water. PepsiCo says that bubly uses all natural flavors, which makes the distinct smell and taste of lime Jell-O especially bizarre.

The strawberry bubly packed the most flavor. Unfortunately, it was the flavor of chewy fruit snacks.

The strawberry bubly packed the most flavor. Unfortunately, it was the flavor of chewy fruit snacks.

If we had to be specific, we'd pinpoint this flavor to an apparently unintentional rip-off of mixed fruit Welch's fruit snacks. The flavor isn't overpowering — it's something like if you licked a Welch's fruit snacks package after finishing all the snacks inside.

The smell, however, exploded out of the can once it was open. In general, it seems as though Pepsi is relying on smells to trick drinkers' brains on taste instead of actually packing the flavors into the beverage.

But, how does bubly measure up to LaCroix? In a lime-versus-lime faceoff, LaCroix was the clear winner.

But, how does bubly measure up to LaCroix? In a lime-versus-lime faceoff, LaCroix was the clear winner.

The flavors just have more depth and actually taste like citrus — not lime Jell-O.

LaCroix's cran-raspberry flavor also triumphed over bubly's strawberry.

LaCroix's cran-raspberry flavor also triumphed over bubly's strawberry.

Both of these flavors are more flavorful than many of their sister flavors. LaCroix again comes out on top with a more lasting flavor and aftertaste, while bubly seems to rely on the initial burst of taste that comes with the first whiff of the drink.

As we chugged our way through several flavors of bubly and LaCroix, the elder brand presented itself as the clear winner.

As we chugged our way through several flavors of bubly and LaCroix, the elder brand presented itself as the clear winner.

While not every tester was a fan of every LaCroix option, the flavors tended to be unique and lasting. In comparison, bubly was more fleeting and forgettable.

It is clear that Pepsi sees bubly as crucial to winning over millennial customers. After all, why else would the tab beckon over drinkers with a "hey u"?

It is clear that Pepsi sees bubly as crucial to winning over millennial customers. After all, why else would the tab beckon over drinkers with a "hey u"?

However, the beverage giant went all-in on cutesy packaging without realizing that LaCroix's semi-tacky branding and idiosyncratic flavors are what have made it a cult classic. With Pepsi's backing, bubly will probably make millions of dollars, but it's never going to be the cool cult favorite that LaCroix is.

bubly represents a great opportunity for PepsiCo — but don't expect it to steal LaCroix's crown any time soon.

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