A successful, prolific inventor reveals how not to create a new product

Canadians are like no other people on Earth. They are the only ones who, the market research shows, want midcalorie colas. In industry parlance, they're "switchers" who will drink both diet and regular colas and won't remain particularly loyal to one or the other. That mentality has created a market in Canada for the 60-calorie Pepsi Max -- introduced with the tag line "The Best of Both Worlds" on Jan. 27, 1994, which Pepsi called "Pepsi Max Day."

But Pepsi Max has never been available in America, and likely never will be. This hard lesson was learned during the cola wars of the '80s and '90s. In the mid-'80s, Coke and Pepsi deliberately went head-to-head against each other with a flurry of advertising. Pepsi introduced its "Pepsi Challenge," the vaunted "blind taste test" in which, lo and behold, people liked Pepsi more than Coke. Coke countered with ads featuring Max Headroom, a sputtering, computer-generated Goebbels who commanded the masses not to say "the P-word."

But the cola wars ran deeper than high-profile prime-time TV ads. Looking for increased market share in a multibillion-dollar soft drink industry, Pepsi investigated new avenues in American soft drinks. There are a lot of them -- lemon-flavored drinks, lemon-lime-flavored drinks, root beers, cherry colas, iced teas, and so on -- but one that Pepsi could never quite let go of was the midcalorie cola. It seems like such an obvious winner -- same taste as a regular cola, fewer calories. But it's never worked.

"Midcalorie products have had a hard time," says Sarah Theodore, who reports on the soft drink market for Beverage Industrymagazine. "I don't think consumers know what to do with a midcalorie cola. People who drink full-calorie colas don't go down to a lower-calorie drink, and people who drink diets don't understand the midcalorie concept."

There's ample proof of this. In the early '80s, Pepsi briefly sold Pepsi Light, a 70-calorie, lemon-flavored drink that struggled to find a market. In 1987 -- the height of the cola wars -- Pepsi began test-marketing Jake's, a 15-calorie cola, in the U.S. Coke killed it almost instantly with an advertising campaign saying that you could enjoy 15 cans of Diet Coke and still consume fewer calories than one can of Jake's. Pepsi's last stand was Pepsi XL, a 70-calorie sugar-and-aspartame blend that was test-marketed in Florida in the spring of 1995. By the summer, it was clear that consumers weren't biting. By the end of the year, Pepsi pulled the plug. Thou shalt not bullshit thyself.

"It didn't seem to be a proposition that resonated with the U.S. consumer," says PepsiCo spokesperson Larry Jabbonsky. "Americans either gravitate toward a diet or a full-calorie cola." So we'll never see a midcalorie in America again? "We never rule anything out," says Jabbonsky. "But I think we're pretty happy with our cola portfolio the way it is."

To put it another way: 80/20 Cola was pretty much doomed from the start.

"You learn more from a failure than a success -- you learn to say, "Don't do this again,'" says Maurice Kanbar with a laugh.

But he adds more soberly: "Let me say this. It doesn't affect my lifestyle to have some failures. It's a very important part of your education. As a matter of fact, to all young inventors I'd say, "Don't be discouraged.' The worst thing you could be is discouraged. Certainly not everything I've done has been a big success, but more of them have been than the failures, so I have been lucky."

Kanbar talks about his failures with remarkable candor. After all, he can afford to. In its first year of production, the D-Fuzz-It sweater comb made $200,000, and Kanbar has parlayed that success into the Quad Cinema; Rex Games, which makes Tangoes and other diversions; and, after moving to San Francisco 15 years ago, Skyy Vodka, which has more than doubled its sales in the past five years and, according to Skyy employees, is poised to become the No. 2 premium-vodka brand in the U.S. this year. It's done so well that in 1997 Kanbar gave $5 million to NYU's highly respected film department, which is now named the Maurice Kanbar Institute of Film and Television.

But mistakes and failure are themes in Kanbar's book, Secrets From an Inventor's Notebook, recently published by Council Oak Books, an imprint he purchased in 1997. In the book, he cites the example of the ROLLOcane -- a three-wheeled cane that makes walking smoother. Kanbar hasn't given up on it entirely -- he and Albert Kolvites are tinkering with different wheel sizes -- but Kanbar learned that sometimes you can't know everything until you put something in the marketplace. With the ROLLOcane, the problem was a matter of perception. Kanbar and Kolvites knew it was sturdy, but an outsider looking at the thing could easily picture it rolling away from its user. It looks unstable, so not enough people want it.

By contrast, making 80/20 Cola -- which isn't mentioned in Inventor's Notebook-- was a relatively simple matter. Despite the legends about the armed vault at Coca-Cola headquarters containing Coke's ultra-ultra-secret formula, getting a cola made is simply a matter of hiring out a "flavor house" to make the proper sweetener mixture with the appropriate taste. "This formula that [Coca-Cola] locks in a safe is meaningless," Kanbar says. "It's nonsense."

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