Created by Coors, Zima was one of the first flavored malt beverages to see success in the United States. The beverage filled an empty space in the drinks market for people looking for a light, ready-to-drink alternative to beer and wine.
While Zima proved to be an enormous failure, its importance in laying the groundwork for future hard seltzers’ successes cannot be understated. Zima demonstrated that not all drinkers are interested in consuming beer, wine, or hard liquor, and offered a space for consumption in a previously unfilled niche. Without Zima, who’s to say if the hard seltzer brands we all know and love (or love to hate) would even exist?
With a massive advertising campaign, Zima became ingrained in all things ‘90s. From TV commercials, to print advertisements, to newspaper articles, the beverage was all the rage but quickly turned from promising brand to complete flop. From its clear coloring to its not-so-surprising consumption by underage drinkers, read on for 10 things you need to know about the OG “malternative.”
Zima was a victim of the ‘90s’ ‘Clear Craze.’
The 1980s were practically synonymous with fad diets and health frenzies, so it’s perhaps no surprise this phenomenon carried over into the following decade. By the early ‘90s, the “Clear Craze” had taken the world by storm, with companies using physical transparency as a marketing tool used to signify metaphorical transparency (i.e., that their products contained no added chemicals, added preservatives, or artificial colors and flavors).
Clear Pepsi was one of the first beverages to fall into the Clear Craze, and Zima soon followed suit. Coors’ rivals soon created clear beverages of their own, including Miller Clear, Pabst Izen Klar, and Stroh’s Clash.
Zima was made by filtering cheap lager through charcoal.
Rather than recreating an existing product, Zima was created entirely from scratch by Coors. In order to achieve its trademark clear color, creators filtered low-grade lager through charcoal to remove any color. Another effect of this process, however, was the unintended removal of any and all flavor. To fix this clear (pun intended) issue, lemon-lime flavoring was added to the beverage after filtration.
Zima was an instant hit…
Coors believed that Zima would change the entire alcohol industry, and its advertising demonstrates this. The company spent upwards of $38 million to promote Zima when it launched in 1993, creating a video series and video game, and even becoming one of the first companies to promote a food product on the internet. According to Coors, approximately 70 percent of drinking-aged adults tried Zima in its first year of release, selling over 1.3 million barrels that year alone.
…Until people tried it.
As is the case with, well, any consumer good, buyers only repurchase if they enjoyed the product the first time — and unfortunately, people were simply not interested in repurchasing Zima. The removal of all flavor during the filtration process combined with the artificial-tasting lemon-lime flavor has led some to describe the taste of Zima as “lemonade filtered through aluminum foil,” or “Scotch tape with lime.”
Zima’s clear coloring had some serious unintended consequences.
Before the advent of White Claw and Truly, Zima was the first clear alcoholic beverage. As such, its close resemblance to water made it incredibly easy for teenagers to slip the beverage past their unsuspecting parents. Further, as flavor, and thus scent, was lost in the filtration process, the beverage smelled nothing like beer, further allowing underage drinkers to go unchecked by police and parents alike.
Zima quickly became the go-to choice for underage drinkers, with experts claiming that the beverage’s sweet taste and lack of color made it “easy for teenagers to consume in large quantities before its alcohol content — higher than beer — takes full effect.”
Which, in true teenage fashion, sparked rumors that the beverage could go undetected by Breathalyzers.
Widespread belief that consumption of Zima was impossible to detect due to its lack of color and smell naturally led to rumors that the beverage could not be detected by a Breathalyzer. In response, 10 states sent letters to Coors, formally accusing the company of purposely marketing its product to teenage drinkers. In response, the brand released a video demonstrating a police officer consuming several bottles of Zima and performing a Breathalyzer test on himself in an attempt to show students that the drink would, in fact, register.
Coors also sent formal letters to school superintendents and police precincts across the country stating: “Zima, like any alcohol beverage, contains ethanol — the ingredient that registers in any Breathalyzer test. Zima, like other clear alcohol beverages — vodka, gin, rum — is still detectable despite its clear profile.”
Zima made some marketing misjudgments.
Upon its release, Zima — which Coors referred to as a “malternative” — was exclusively marketed toward men with the belief that, as a descendant of beer, the male demographic would be the most interested target group. It was lighter than beer, but it wasn’t a wine cooler, which the company believed would be the perfect niche for men looking for “zomething different.” However, not only did many men not enjoy the taste of the beverage, many considered it to be much too feminine for them.
But Coors was relentless in its attempts to demonstrate that Zima was a more “masculine” alternative to wine coolers, going as far as to demand that all liquor stores keep the two products separate, under the belief that if men saw Zima displayed next to or near wine coolers, they would believe the drink to be just another wine cooler and stray away from purchasing a “feminine” drink.
Despite marketing efforts, Zima was primarily embraced by women.
While Coors made every attempt to prevent such a thing from happening, young women quickly became Zima’s largest consumer base. Attracted by the fact that the beverage had a relatively low alcohol content and didn’t leave them feeling as full as beer, young women quickly took to consuming Zima as an easy, ready-to-drink alternative.
Fourteen ears following Zima’s initial release, the brand finally embraced women as its target market. In 2007, Zima expanded its lineup to include a number of new fruit flavors in addition to the original lemon-lime. These new flavors had lower alcohol contents and calorie counts than the original, two marketing measures clearly meant to lure in female consumers. However, the rebranding proved to be a failure, and Zima was pulled from all shelves in 2008.
Zima is still available for purchase in Japan.
Japan is the only country where Zima is still sold in stores, bars, and nightclubs and has, ironically, been fully embraced by a predominantly male audience. While American advertisements featured men themselves enjoying the drink, Japanese ads featured scantily clad women fawning over famous actors drinking Zima, which proved to be more effective in attracting the brand’s initial target audience. Further success of the drink in Japan spawned alternative flavors, including cherry blossom.
Zima walked so White Claw could run.
While Zima itself was unsuccessful, the product was ahead of its time in demonstrating an enormous gap in the drinks market: non-beer malt beverages. As Zima started as a smashing success — until people tasted it — it demonstrated that consumers were most certainly interested in “malternatives.” With the success of spiked seltzers in today’s markets, it’s clear that Zima walked so White Claw could run.