Clear, And Cashing In

Talk about being patient with a product. Back in 1915, Amoco Oil Co. introduced a new premium gasoline that was crystal clear, not murky yellow like most fuels. The clear gas attracted little attention for nearly 77 years. Then, in September, Amoco marketers discovered a trend they could latch on to: the public's apparent fascination with, of all things, transparent products. Voila! Plain old high octane became Crystal Clear Amoco Ultimate.

From gasoline to soda pop, from mouthwash to mascara, clear is here. In the past year consumer-product peddlers have rolled out some two dozen products whose major claim to fame is that they're see-through and, sometimes, fizzy. Companies hope the new products will help them catch the green wave-they're betting that customers will equate clear products with things that are pure and good for them and the environment. In fact, the early returns show that the marketers may be on to something. Says a bubbly Gillette spokeswoman, Michele Szynal: "Clear represents the biggest trend in consumer products since the 'lite' products craze of the '80s."

The "clear" moniker is showing up on a staggering array of products. The Clearly Canadian Beverage Corp. launched the trend with Clearly Canadian, a sparkling flavored-water beverage that tastes remarkably similar to soda pop. Pepsi-Cola followed by not using caramel coloring in its new Crystal Pepsi and Diet Crystal Pepsi drinks. Not to be outdone by the soft-drink marketers, Coors debuted a brewed beverage called Zima Clearmalt (looks like soda water, tastes like a weak gin and tonic). This spring Miller Brewing Co. is expected to begin test-marketing the first-ever clear beer. And last week Gillette spent an estimated $2 million for 90 seconds of commercial time on the Super Bowl to show off Gillette Series ClearGel, a clear antiperspirant and deodorant.

Of course, it's not the first time marketers have tried to spruce up an old product with a new hue. A few months ago packaged-goods companies went into a collective blue period-breaking out blue popcorn, gelatin and candy. "Marketers will try anything to get the grocers to put a product on the shelves," says Martin Friedman, editor of New Product News, "even if it doesn't offer any significant benefit."

But why clear? For one thing, marketers are trying to squeeze sales out of so-called mature products like Pepsi. After all, with Caffeine Free Pepsi, Caffeine Free Diet Pepsi and Wild Cherry Pepsi, what else is there? But it also reflects marketers' eagerness to exploit ever-popular buzzwords like "all natural" and "no preservatives," which have worked so well in the past. They are telling consumers, you must not only fill your stomach with all natural products but wash your dishes with them. Says Northwestern University business professor Dipak Jain: "[The idea is] we drink clear water, so the car should drink natural things, too."

Such insights are not arrived at lightly. Pepsi officials say they spent 15 months developing its clear cola and quizzed 5,000 consumers, most of whom gave it an unequivocal endorsement. Still, marketers often seem more sure of what clear products are not than what they are. A Coors press kit, for example, says its Clearmalt is "not sweet, does not have a fruity taste, is not heavy or filling and leaves no aftertaste."

And what about those much-touted health and environmental attributes? Amoco's clear gas reduces hydrocarbon tailpipe emissions by an average of 13 percent. And Bausch & Lomb's new no-alcohol ClearChoice mouthwash is expected to benefit households with young children and teetotalers. But many other claims, experts say, are a bit of a stretch. The fine print on Diet Crystal Pepsi says the product has all-natural flavors. Yet the ingredients include phosphoric acid, dipotassium phosphate and NutraSweet, which are artificial ingredients, says chemist Jay A. Young, a health-and-safety consultant. (Pepsi officials admit that Crystal Pepsi is not an "all natural drink" but say its flavors are all natural.)

Even so, the clear craze seems in no danger of clouding over. Since the summer introduction of Palmolive Sensitive Skin clear dishwashing liquid, the product has gained an impressive 5 percent market share in the dishwashing-detergent industry. Pepsi officials predict the company will sell $1 billion worth of clear Pepsi by December 1993-only one year after the products arrived nationwide. What does it all mean? Marketing consultants are already preparing for a second wave of transparent products. Can clear coffee be far behind?