Review: Mountain Dew Kickstart – Orange Citrus & Fruit Punch

Update 1/20/14: Two new Kickstart flavors have been released: Mountain Dew Kickstart Limeade and Mountain Dew Kickstart Black CherryRead our review!

Here at BevReview, we noted the trademark filing for Mountain Dew Kickstart back in September 2012. This “breakfast Mountain Dew” was then formally announced by Pepsi in early February 2013, slated to arrive in two flavors. Now we get to take a look at these products, Mountain Dew Kickstart Orange Citrus and Mountain Dew Kickstart Fruit Punch.

Mountain Dew Kickstart - Orange Citrus & Fruit Punch

Mountain Dew Kickstart – Orange Citrus & Fruit Punch

When looking at a product like Kickstart, I think it’s important to separate the product itself from the market positioning. Brand management is pretty much what the entire beverage industry is based upon, anyway. All the players are basically offering their version of “flavored sugar water”; it’s how customers perceive different derivatives of that product that prompts success or failure.

Kickstart debuts with 2 flavors: Orange Citrus & Fruit Punch

Kickstart debuts with 2 flavors: Orange Citrus & Fruit Punch
(Source: PepsiCo)

In the case of Mountain Dew Kickstart, PepsiCo has decided to once again attempt to crack the breakfast/morning beverage market, despite numerous failed attempts seen through the likes of Pepsi A.M., Gatorade A.M, and even Amp Energy Juice. The fact is that coffee dominates the morning beverage scene, while sales of carbonated soft drinks continue their yearly decline.

Pepsi A.M. & Diet Pepsi A.M.

Pepsi A.M. & Diet Pepsi A.M.
(Source: Used by Permission)

Even though PepsiCo experiences success in selling ready-to-drink coffee products like Starbucks’ Frappuccino, Doubleshot Energy, and Refreshers lineups (via the North American Coffee Partnership they share with the successful coffee brand), you can’t fault them trying to find another way to grow their foothold into the lucrative morning beverage space.

On the surface, what we have is basically a caffeinated orange- or fruit punch-flavored soda. Factor in the marketing machine, and instead you have a Mountain Dew line extension consisting of a sparkling juice beverage targeted at the morning, featuring vitamins and 5% real fruit juice, all at a lower calorie count than a regular soft drink. Drink this “morning pick me up” every day!

Scene from "Chasing Sunrise" commercial

Scene from “Chasing Sunrise” commercial
(Source: PepsiCo)

Advertising Age reports that PepsiCo will put a huge promotional push behind this product line, quoting a Dew marketing director who noted that “this is a much bigger push than we’ve put behind one thing for Dew as long as I’ve been on the brand.” The campaign is targeted at “millennial guys,” i.e. those who were born approximately in the late 1970s/early-to-mid 1980s.

That’s the positioning. Let’s talk about the drink itself…

Mountain Dew Kickstart Orange Citrus

Mountain Dew Kickstart Orange Citrus

Let’s “kick” things off with Mtn Dew Kickstart Orange Citrus!  When you open the can, you are greeted with a slight orange scent. It’s not overpowering and rather light. Poured into a glass, you expect the drink to be bright orange, but instead it skews on the color spectrum towards yellow, with a slight orange hue. Think Sunny Delight, Tang, or some types of orange juice.

Initially, the flavor reflects a mild, slightly carbonated orange drink. The first taste isn’t overpowering, with a flavor that isn’t quite orange, but probably more like tangerine. In some respects, the profile reminded me of flavor experience with Trader Joe’s Villa Italia Italian Blood Orange Soda, that is much like seltzer water mixed with syrup. I did not expect to find that this didn’t really have the same type of “orange” experience as, say, Mountain Dew LiveWire or other orange sodas. Kickstart’s initial taste is less on the “typical fake orange flavor” side of things, instead playing up an angle more akin to “somewhat non-fake orange flavor that’s different.” It’s pleasant overall.

The mid-taste is where things start to fall apart, because there doesn’t actually appear to be a mid-taste. When the flavor first hits your mouth, the sweetness first hits your taste receptors with a light orange experience. But this then fades into nothingness. The drink seems to die mid-sentence. A void of flavor looms over your tongue.

Familiar Mtn Dew "Green" color on the can

Familiar Mtn Dew “Green” color on the can

This then brings us to the finish, the aftertaste. The Mountain Dew Kickstart line is a mid-calorie option, with Pepsi choosing to use a combination of traditional and artificial sweeteners to bring the overall calorie consumption per can to just 80 calories. In order to pull this off, Kickstart contains not only high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), but also acesulfame potassium (Ace-K) and sucralose. The blended sweetener strategy is one Pepsi has also recently employed in Pepsi Next, which is positioned as a mid-calorie beverage.

I mention this because it’s in the aftertaste where you can detect the use of the artificial sweeteners. You can’t avoid them. They are there. The core Mountain Dew crowd probably isn’t going to love this treatment, unless they are fans of the various Diet Dew offerings available. In the case of Kickstart, after the nonexistent mid-taste, we shift into a rather bitter aftertaste that doesn’t really contain any of the initial orange flavor. Rather, there’s a fake chemical experience that lingers. Granted, it’s not as bad as a pure full-artificial sweetener beverage. By using a mixture with HFCS, the aftertaste is improved, but perhaps not to the extent of being undetectable. This is probably the worst flavor aspect of Kickstart.

Here’s a look at the ingredients:

Mountain Dew Kickstart Orange Citrus
Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, white grape juice concentrate, concentrated orange juice, citric acid, sodium hexametaphosphate (to protect flavor), natural flavor, gum arabic, potassium sorbate (preserves freshness), ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), caffeine, sodium citrate, acesulfame potassium, sucrose acetate isobutyrate, sucralose, glycerol ester of rosin, sodium benzoate (preserves freshness), niacinamide (Vitamin B3), calcium disodium EDTA (to protect flavor), calcium pantothenate (Vitamin B5), yellow 5, yellow 6, pyridoxine hydrochloride (Vitamin B6)

A 16 oz can contains 80 calories, 180 mg sodium, and 21 g carbs (20 g sugars). Caffeine content of 5.75 mg/oz, which is higher than original Mountain Dew (4.5 mg/oz), but lower than Mountain Dew Game Fuel (6.0 mg/oz).

Mountain Dew Kickstart Fruit Punch

Mountain Dew Kickstart Fruit Punch

Next, Mtn Dew Kickstart Fruit Punch enters our spotlight!  Personally, I felt the Fruit Punch flavor was a stronger drink.  Granted, the overall experience resembled that artificial fruit punch flavor you come to expect from drinks like Hawaiian Punch and Tahitian Treat.  However, I think that’s more acceptable than the “really, it’s orange juice” con that is poorly attempted by the Orange Citrus flavor.

The drink starts off with a very pleasant tangy, fruity, and tropical taste.  Carbonation is light, and the drink starts out with some nice zing, but it’s smooth.  As expected, this flavor is red in color, with a fruity scent notable right when you open the can.  In contrast to Orange Citrus’ complete lack of mid-taste, Fruit Punch offers a little flavor as it grazes over your tongue.  It’s not all that great, but at least it isn’t an “empty taste” like we first experienced with Orange Citrus.

Most of our notes on aftertaste from Orange Citrus apply to Fruit Punch, namely when it pertains to how the sweetener combination affects the overall flavor.  Fruit Punch is identically a mid-calorie drink in the Kickstart lineup, so don’t expect much difference here.  There’s still a bitter aftertaste present, though the fruity flavor masks it better than the orange did.  One observation, however, had to do with temperature.  In the case of Orange Citrus, we found it tasted best when it was quite cold; as the drink warmed up, the negative aftertaste increased in intensity.  Fruit Punch, in contrast, was pretty consistent in aftertaste experience no matter what the drink temperature.

What’s inside?

Mountain Dew Kickstart Fruit Punch
Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, white grape juice concentrate, citric acid, natural and artificial flavor, sodium hexametaphosphate (to protect flavor), potassium sorbate (preserves freshness), ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), gum arabic, caffeine, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, red 40, niacinamide (Vitamin B3), glycerol ester of rosin, yellow 5, calcium disodium EDTA (to protect flavor), calcium pantothenate (Vitamin B5), sucrose acetate isobutyrate, pyridoxine hydrochloride (Vitamin B6)

A 16 oz can contains 80 calories, 170 mg sodium, and 20 g carbs (19 g sugars). Caffeine content of 5.75 mg/oz, the same as Orange Citrus.

It's "Energizing"!

It’s “Energizing”!

From a packaging perspective, Kickstart comes in a 16 oz aluminum can. Curiously, the label doesn’t seem to be printed on the can itself; in our review copy, it appeared that a label “wrap” was used to attach the branding.

Damage to can exposes label 'wrap' technique

Damage to can exposes label ‘wrap’ technique

Label wraps can be a lot easier to work with, as you just need a blank can to shrinkwrap.  If there are issues with facilities being able to handle printing, they can be an affordable solution.  However, as noted in the photo below, when using a can wrap for your label, it’s best not to have the seam located where you put your mouth.  It really hurts the drinking experience when a piece of plastic is jutting into your lip the entire time!

Label wrap interferes with drinking lip

Label wrap interferes with drinking lip

The name “Kickstart” is printed sideways, vertically down the side of the came, with “Kick” and “Start” being emphasized by black and white text, respectively.  The can is colored to resemble the flavor; orange for Orange Citrus and red for Fruit Punch. A triangular plot of green anchors the still-annoyingly-spelled “Mtn Dew” logo, giving a sense of familiarity to this line extension. The orange flavor is officially described on can as “Energizing Orange Citrus with just the right amount of kick,” while the fruit punch flavor is similarly noted as “Energizing Fruit Punch with just the right amount of kick.”  In both cases, the “Kick” phrase is outlined in green and spelled using the same font of the product name. The top rim of the can features callouts to functional attributes found in Kickstart, including “5% Juice” and “Caffeine.” The bottom notes “80 calories per can.”

Functional callouts on can rim

Functional callouts on can rim

So, final thoughts?

From a pure beverage flavor/taste experience, Mountain Dew Kickstart Orange Citrus is a solid product. It possesses a refreshing orange flavor that’s different than most, notability including a small amount of juice, carrying on the tradition of Mountain Dew LiveWire’s reinvention of genre.  Mountain Dew Kickstart Fruit Punch brings a flavor we’ve not seen in the Dew line.  It’s mild, but smooth, which is unlike most products found in the citrus-themed lineup.  The increased caffeine content in both flavors plays well to the core Dew demographic, while the lower calorie count is a nice realization of the growing waistlines of today’s society (even if I’m not a fan of the bitter, artificially-sweetened aftertaste). If these were marketed as a mid-calorie Dews on their own, I’d guess they’d do pretty well, especially based on the demand of more Diet Dew flavors.

However, these drinks are going after the morning crowd dominated by coffee. I’d argue that those in Mountain Dew’s demographic are probably already downing an actual full-calorie Dew, or perhaps a Monster derivative (or maybe even trying the Taco Bell-exclusive Mountain Dew A.M.). If Kickstart can attract those Dew drinkers to try the new product, then it will have been a failure, as this is just prompting cannibalization of existing sales.

Mtn Dew Kickstart needs to attract a new audience, luring folks away from coffee products or rival energy drinks that are already pitched for morning use. It’s not surprising to see office-based caffeine addicts insist on their morning can of Diet Coke or the like to start the day.  On the whole, Kickstart feels like a mild-mannered addition to the morning fray, but with Pepsi’s marketing machine cranking up, it’s sure to get many first-time samplers. The real question is whether they become repeat buyers. Based on the history of products pitched at the morning audience, I’d say it’s an uphill battle. There doesn’t seem to be a solid value proposition for why you should drink Kickstart vs. your existing morning beverages. Sure, it has caffeine, but is the solution really something that tastes like an existing breakfast juice? Lower calories are appealing, but given the caloric intake of your average Starbucks product, this doesn’t seem to be a concern from this audience. There’s also something to be said for the simplicity of juice or coffee. Take a look at the chemically-loaded ingredient list for these Kickstart drinks; they’re anything but simple.

Mountain Dew Kickstart Orange Citrus and Fruit Punch are refreshing curiosities, attempting to wake up your morning with juice, caffeine, and low calories. But we feel that history, average flavor, and established sales patterns will prompt an unsuccessful attempt of cracking the A.M., despite the powerhouse Mtn Dew name.

Full Disclosure: These beverages were provided compliments of PepsiCo