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NEW YORK -- Got blue milk? Soft drink companies hope to reply yes to this question in a big way. After finding new growth in water and juices, the soft-drink giants are applying their marketing muscle to a big beverage category they've long overlooked: milk. Coca-Cola Co., Cadbury Schweppes PLC and others are moving in with new drinks that scarcely resemble the stuff the milkman used to bring.
Next month, Coke, Atlanta, plans to roll out blueberry, chocolate and vanilla-banana flavors of Swerve, a milk-based drink. Raging Cow, launched by Cadbury in March, comes in five flavors, including Pina Colada Chaos and Jamocha Frenzy. Other drink makers are promoting milkshakes and even carbonated milk, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The soft-drink companies hope to use milk's wholesome qualities to buff their image and build sales, particularly in schools, where they have been criticized heavily for pushing sodas - and for contributing to the sharp rise in childhood obesity. Their pitch: The milk drinks, with vitamins and protein, are more nutritious than soda and a good source of calcium, a mineral sorely lacking in kids' diets.
"It's definitely a healthier alternative," says Jim Trebilcock, senior vice president of consumer marketing for Cadbury's Dr Pepper/Seven Up Inc., the Plano, Texas, unit of the British company that makes Raging Cow.
Dairy drinks also offer companies a largely untapped frontier at a time when soda sales have gone flat, with sales volume rising a mere 0.8 percent in the U.S. last year. After soda, coffee, beer and bottled water, milk is the fifth-largest commercial beverage category, with Americans on average drinking 19.9 gallons each in 2002, according to industry-consultant Beverage Marketing Corp.
But are Raging Cow and Swerve what mom and dad have in mind when they tell their kids to drink milk? An eight-ounce serving of Raging Cow's Chocolate Insanity has 170 calories and 25 grams of sugar, compared with 150 calories and 11 grams of sugar in the same size glass of whole milk, or 100 calories and 12 sugar grams in 1 percent milk. The new drink has five fat grams -- double the 2.5 grams of fat in 1 percent milk, but less than the eight grams in whole milk. A 12-ounce can of Coke's Swerve, made with skim milk, is expected to have 150 calories - about 10 more calories than its trademark soda.
Just over 50 percent of the new drinks' content actually consists of milk, which means they lack enough calcium and other nutrients to meet the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) minimum standard for using "milk" on the label. Instead, they are called "dairy drinks," because the other half of their content is made up of water, sugar and flavorings.
Federal rules also bar schools from substituting dairy drinks for regular milk in school-lunch lines, though the sugary drinks can be sold a la carte. Raging Cow, so far sold only in convenience stores, costs $1.49 per 14-ounce bottle. In comparison, an eight-ounce carton of milk in the school cafeteria costs 25 cents to 45 cents, according to the American School Food Service Association.
One plus for the new drinks: They don't need refrigeration. But the beverage companies still plan to sell them chilled. Dairy processors, concerned that soft-drink makers could lure away customers, are trying to jazz up their own products. Sales of 100 percent milk drinks made by dairies in varieties from Pleasin' Punch to Root Beer Float rose 6.3 percent in the first three months of this year compared with a year ago, while plain-milk sales rose only 0.5 percent, according to the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) in Washington.
Dairy processors hope their claims to more nutritious beverages will help them keep their ground. The new drinks "are not milk substitutes," says Susan Ruland, a spokeswoman for the dairy group.
Still, one large milk producer, Dean Foods Co. of Dallas, is expanding production of its own dairy drink, a combination of coffee and low-fat milk called Folger's Jacada, made under a licensing agreement with Procter & Gamble Co. "When the likes of Cadbury and Coke are looking at your category, you better take that seriously," said Gregg Engles, Dean Foods' chairman and chief executive.
Cadbury started developing a new milk brand aimed at teens almost two years ago, as the new plastic-packaging technology promised to bring down some of the cost. To try to make milk as cool as soda, the company's marketers dreamed up a belligerent bovine mascot dubbed Mad Cow, but later renamed Raging Cow to avoid comparisons with the livestock illness.