Back In Blackberry

HINT ESSENCE WATER HAS drawn a lot of attention with its packaging. The brand’s founders, husband and wife team Theo and Kara Goldin, chose a clear plastic label and a clear PET bottle to demonstrate the purity of their (also clear) beverage. Distributors liked it; packaging designers liked it, and reviews highlighted that striking appearance as a strong point in the brand’s favor.

But those clear labels almost killed the brand. Despite industry appreciation for their bold and unique choice, according to the founders, the package failed on the shelf. What looked great in expertly lit photos and in the hands of buyers at trade shows appeared muddy and difficult to read against cluttered beige backdrops. So, the Goldins recently scrapped the clear look in exchange for a basic, opaque white wrap.

“Those packages really make it pull off the warm shelf much better than it did,” Goldin said. “The improvement is kind of astonishing.”

That about-face on packaging represents just one of several changes aimed at improving the brand’s resonance with consumers instead of “experts.” Hint also conducted an SKU rationalization that killed several flavors that captured retailer and distributor attention in favor of consumer favorites like Watermelon and Mango-Grapefruit. If it sounds like the brand is getting simpler, it is, but it has also shed deadweight. With a crew of veterans added to its sales roster, Theo Goldin said the brand has found its center and is starting to catch on.

Goldin said Hint first tested the full line of new labels in New York, where the company already needed to alter its package to fit new deposit regulations. Following that change, Goldin said his retail sales – during the winter, amid an economic downturn – spiked as high as they had during the previous summer. With that rising velocity, Goldin said, his retailers gave Hint displays and increased shelf space. He’s hoping for this summer’s sales to be “completely out of control.”

If it happens, part of that summer surge could come from Starbucks. The coffee chain added Hint’s Blackberry to its coolers in March following a trial at the chain’s now defunct “Wall of Wellness” pilot program. The plan would have made the chain something of a depot for innovative beverages, but board members killed the Wall of Wellness – which would have rolled out additional coolers to 1,000-plus locations – because they believed it would have diluted the chain’s coffee-centric reputation. Hint survived that scrapped experiment and will now get one coveted facing in the chain’s limited cooler space – an even more valuable piece of real estate now that it’s such a limited commodity.

Goldin called the Starbucks deal “gigantic,” but Tom Keeney, Hint’s vice president of sales (and a former glaceau salesman) said he viewed it as a starting line. Not only will the placement put Hint in an environment where its consumers congregate and feel safe, but Keeney said slinging the Starbucks name has helped him when negotiating distribution deals and retail authorizations.

The placement also encapsulates Hint’s newfound sense of focus. When the company recently trimmed its offerings, designating six surviving SKUs as the brand’s core, it firmly established Blackberry as its flagship. In addition to its prominent placement, Disney used Hint Blackberry as a promotional platform for its animated film, The Princess and the Frog. Hint and Disney collaborated to create limited-time packaging for the flavor, which also served as the brand’s first test for its now-opaque labels. The blackberry emphasis has allowed the brand to grow by shrinking its offerings After years of introducing new varieties, the line-up featured some flavors that proved too esoteric for mainstream consumers, particularly given the brand’s lack of sweetener. Now, when speaking to new distributors, Keeney steers them toward Hint’s core six.

Satwant Gill, president of 5 Star Beverage in San Diego, said he recently added those SKUs after watching the brand gain momentum in the natural foods channel. The product fits his customers, he said, as West Coast consumers have become dutiful label readers.

“A lot of them drink plain water, [but] would rather have a hint of flavor,” he said. “It’s just like going into any upscale restaurant and getting plain water. You get a twist of lime in there.”

Gill began placing Hint at stores up and down the street at the beginning of the year. So far, he said, the product has shown better-than-expected sales.

To support Hint’s current growth, Keeney brought on a roster of seasoned sales staff, including fellow glaceau veterans Jason Webb and Michael Dalla and Big Geyser veteran Glenn Roberts.

Amid all that change, one thing remains constant: the Goldins’ passion to innovate. Theo Goldin said his wife frequently pitches new flavors, and the pair still spend evenings at home, injecting essences into water and seeing if they like the result. They even have an at-home process to approximate the hot-fill process. These days, Theo Goldin said he spends more time playing with spreadsheets than essences, but the couple has racked up dozens of flavors they would like to market.

“Last Saturday before we went out to dinner, Kara and I were testing out four new flavors, and you may not see them for five years, but they’re really good,” Goldin said. “It’s one of the most fun things that we do, partly because we didn’t know what the heck we were doing when we started.”

And, while Goldin’s dream of an entire Hint aisle may be a stretch, he faces little in the way of direct competition. Ayala’s Herbal Water markets a similarly sugar-free flavored water, but focuses (as the name suggests) on herbal flavors, a realm that Hint has yet to enter. The Coca-Cola Co., Inc. and PepsiCo Inc. also approached unsweetened flavors through their Dasani and Aquafina brands, but Coke’s entry earned lackluster reviews and has unceremoniously changed packaging. PepsiCo’s entry appears to have little internal support – though PepsiCo did license (of all things) a line of Aquafina Flavor Splash lip balm. Coke and Pepsi, though, both wield large portfolios and have recently been occupied with modifying their relationships with their bottlers. Hint, meanwhile focuses on essence water.

“This is all that we do,” Goldin said. “We put unbelievable amounts of time into developing the capability to do what we do.”

Keeney likened Hint’s current position to one once occupied by his former employer, glaceau, which talked about enhanced waters for years before it really became a category.

“It’s a very difficult process to create a new category,” Keeney said.

And harder still when the would-be category leader lists from one idea to the next. But, with its newfound focus and alliances with both Disney and Starbucks, Hint stands a chance at carving out an enduring space for essence waters.