John Lockhart knows his cola.
The soda guru stocks an inventory of 700 soft drinks at his Subs-N-Such in north Tampa, and there's virtually nothing this avid collector hasn't tried.
What's his verdict on the new Pepsi XL, Pepsi's latest contender in the soft drink sweepstakes _ and one being marketed specifically at twentysomethings?
Good soda, good concept.
Pepsi XL, which started its Florida test market run on Saturday, pitches itself as lower in sugar than regular Pepsi but without the diet cola taste. Sweetened with equal parts sugar and synthetic sweetener aspartame, XL has 70 calories. Regular Pepsi has 150.
"It's very close in taste to regular Pepsi. As in all diet drinks, it seems a little less carbonated" because of the reduced sugar content, "which I don't really care for," Lockhart said. "But overall, I give it a thumbs up. I think it'll make it. I think they've beat Coke to the punch on this one."
Some of those on the receiving end of Pepsi's marketing salvos agree with Lockhart.
Robert Evans, Frank Vaccaro and Fred Stolz took a break from a tennis game at the University of South Florida recently to make quick work of 12-ounce cans of Pepsi XL. They give it a thumbs up.
"It's a cool looking can," said Evans, 23.
Vaccaro, 21, pipes in, "It's refreshing when you're playing tennis."
"It doesn't have that saccharin taste to it," adds Stolz, 21. He recites the Pepsi slogan. "Be young, have fun, drink Pepsi."
Evans said Pepsi XL wasn't as fizzy as regular Pepsi. Nonetheless, Vaccaro fired off two uninhibited belches. "It doesn't leave that nasty after-taste like most diet sodas do," he said.
Although most people who tasted the soda at USF this week liked it, the verdict wasn't unanimous.
"It tastes like cold, flat soda. It definitely tastes diet. It does not taste right," said Mark Kalouch, 31. "The big thing that I like about Pepsi is the carbonation. This doesn't have it."
For Pilar Maiorana, 20, the more sugar in her cola the better.
"I would much rather have the regular Pepsi, even if it's an extra 80 calories," she said. "It's not bad, but sometimes the originals are better."
Pepsi is aiming XL at the young adult market. But before you roll your eyes and muse about yet another corporate behemoth trying to "reach us," Pepsi says that XL stands for "excellent taste with less sugar" _ not Generation X. But the letter X still packs a stigma with those who are labeled with it. Shouldn't that worry Pepsi's marketers?
"I think it really can't hurt because the generation is always changing," said Jennifer Spier, 25, of Amherst Marketing Associates in Tampa. "They aren't like the older generation. They aren't really loyal to a certain brand."
Lockhart, the soda connoisseur, also thinks Pepsi is right in going primarily for the usually hard-to-sell young adult demographic.
"If you look at the consumption figures, that's where their market is. And what they're trying to do is to regain ground they've lost to the New Age beverages. Things like the teas, the Snapples, the Arizonas and the Clearly Canadians took a huge segment of their market out. And (Pepsi is) just trying to play catch-up."