What Were They Thinking? Orbitz, The Lava Lamp Of Soft Drinks

It was 1996 when Orbitz, the lava lamp of soft drinks, streaked through the galaxy and onto shelves. Despite its cult following, the brand offers up a few lessons in what not to do when launching a new product in the food or drink category.


It was 1996 when Orbitz, the lava lamp of soft drinks, streaked through the galaxy and onto shelves.


It was the newest product by Clearly Canadian Beverage Corporation, the company that came on the scene in 1988 with Clearly Canadian flavored sparkling water. With just one look, you could see Orbitz was different–suspended in the bottle were small, colorful, edible balls. It was marketed as a “texturally enhanced alternative beverage.” With Orbitz, you could sip your drink and chew it too.

Marketing genius or shooting star? Despite an introductory marketing effort on the scale of The Big Bang, the beverage was a fleeting novelty, and a total flameout–although it did create something of a cult following. Because this beverage was non-carbonated, you could stockpile it in your basement or garage. Believe it or not, you can still purchase Orbitz on eBay today for $28-$39 for a single bottle.

Where They Went Wrong

1. Taste, Taste, Taste – It seems like a no-brainer, but apparently it is worth repeating. When it comes to food and beverages, it is all about the taste. Reviews compared the flavor of Orbitz to Pine-Sol or cough syrup, or “old water from a flower vase.” Yes, there were a few slightly favorable reviews calling it a “true sugar high” or “trippy”, but there’s no doubt that the novelty of Orbitz’s unusual appearance and ‘chewable drink’ texture is what generated initial interest. But without great taste, there weren’t enough repeat sales to sustain the brand.

2. Consumer Confusion – If a drink containing chewy beads left some buyers scratching their heads, the weirdness didn’t stop there. The majority of the introductory flavor combinations were complex, making it difficult to grasp exactly what it was going to taste like. Flavors included Raspberry Citrus, Blueberry Melon Strawberry, Pineapple Banana Cherry Coconut, Vanilla Orange, and last but not least, Charlie Brown Chocolate. Can anyone say “Good grief”?


3. Unappetizing Gel Balls – As intriguing as those colorful suspended gel balls were, consumers couldn’t get beyond its nuclear look or Jetsons feel. Some even referred to them as ‘fruit-flavored phlegm in a bottle.’ When something looks totally artificial and disgusting, it probably is. For children, it turned into the perfect product to drink on a dare from a friend, or you could always spit the balls at your unsuspecting friends if you were into such behavior. But mischievous fun can only go so far when it comes to sales volume, and Mom definitely isn’t going to spend any household money on such behavior–assuming she even knows. 

The Takeaway

Orbitz reminds us of some key innovation lessons:

1) New & Different – As innovators we are always striving for ‘new & different’ versus a ‘me-too’ entry, but it cannot be a singular metric for success. Orbitz does deserve some kudos for pushing the envelope in a difficult category to get ‘new & different’ scores, but as we mentioned before, taste is king with food and beverages when it comes to any hope of success.

2) Mom Rules The Roost – There’s no doubt that Orbitz skewed young on the demographic curve for purchase interest. But what did Mom say about it? Seems like we forgot that Mom is the gatekeeper and her opinion should be weighted more than her child’s when it comes to evaluating new products. Mom is all about having a little fun, but if she suspects that the product is sugary and unhealthy, you’ll never make it into her shopping cart on a regular basis.


3) Nostalgia Trend – Innovators are always looking for trends to capitalize on, and Orbitz wasn’t any different. While exploring the nostalgia trend, they identified that Americans young or old seem to have a strong affinity towards lava lamps. Orbitz figured out how to make a product that looks just like one. But just because you can manufacture it, doesn’t mean you should. You must also deliver the goods–great flavor and a reason for being. Some innovations fail because they are ‘ahead of their time’, but in the case of Orbitz, it most certainly was ‘out of time’ from the very beginning.

Want more ‘What Were They Thinking’? Read the rest of the series.

[Image: Flickr user Fujoshi]

About the author

Sandstorm inc. is an innovation firm specializing in the upfront insights and innovation process