Here’s a problem with the whole brewed-in-the-kitchen-sink-by-a-doctor mentality for Function Drinks: the doctor is picking up and leaving the building.
Not for good, of course, but at a time when Dr. Alex Hughes is already basically splitting his time between performing orthopedic surgery and beverage alchemy, having him take off for a year to New York to practice spinal surgery can’t be the best timing for the growing company.
Still – and maybe it’s the result of overexposure to the fi ne Los Angeles weather – Hughes can’t help but keep his attitude sunny.
“We did think it would be important to have somebody on the ground in the New York market,” he said. “It just ended up being far ahead of what we’d planned.”
Regardless, it seems that bad timing has not been a major problem for Function, which has spread quickly from a few LA bodegas to more than 150 distributors in just a few years. Last year, the company fi nalized what had been a slowly changing lineup of functions and packages into a lineup so strong it took two of BevNET’s Best of 2007 awards: Best Functional Beverage and Best New Product.
Frequently, the word “heir” is thrown around with regard to Function; its surface similarities in appearance and orientation have placed it squarely in the same operational space as Glaceau’s vitaminwater, the product that many independent distributors believe it might someday replace in their product lineups. Others are think- ing about it as a likely successor to new age-y Fuze, while still more consider it a possible alternative to some fading tea brands.
But there’s defi nitely another level to Function that isn’t touched on by its predecessors. While they have all been sold from healthy benefi t point of origin, Function is coming from a denotative, rather than connotative point of salubriousness: its products employ functional additives that are backed by medical or scientifi c research rather than that promoted by company sponsored research or folk knowledge.
In fact, Hughes isn’t afraid to take issue with the growth of the latter, decrying “the explosion of functional or healthy products in the marketplace by people who, if you had any conversation about physiology or science with them, their knowledge would end at a rote defi nition of antioxidants.”
“Everyone should be wary when a food or beverage company says we spent $20 million proving the effi cacy of a product,” he adds. “I don’t even have to open my mouth after that statement, it’s so crazy.”
What’s different about Function’s approach? According to Hughes, it’s their constant attention to medical research. From his position in the hospital, he says, he always wondered at the potential to use many of the non-drug products they employ or study for consumer benefi t.
“It’s important for consumers that someone for them on their behalf is paying attention to that stuff (the science),” he says. “We aren’t doing anything that is not main- stream or is not widely accepted professionally by doctors and nutritionists. And if there is any kind of change in the information about these ingredients, we are going to change our products.”
Still, buy-in is always where the rubber meets the retailing road. And there have to be concerns that a selection of functions like “Youth Trip” – offering skin protection – and “Brainiac” – which claims to improve memory and cognitive function – won’t manifest themselves quickly enough to make consumers happy.
Just as Coke’s Enviga has run into trouble connecting with consumers who don’t see immediate weight loss – as opposed to those beverages containing appetite-suppressants they can actually feel – there’s the possibility that a result- oriented American public won’t immediately respond to Function.
So it’s Function’s job to train
consumers to think of its effects in temporal stages, which Hughes terms “short-lead” and “long-lead.”
“Stiff joints, hangovers – those are short lead functionalities that people can grab onto,” Hughes says. “The ‘longer-lead’ things, like collagen stabilization, those things take a lot of time to appear efficacious. If you’re telling consumers that they’re going to wake up tomorrow and look 20 years younger, it’s not going to work. But we can keep them apprised of the studies showing that this ingredient, as part of a healthy lifestyle, over a long term, is something that can potentially help.”
Long lead claims require a lot of buy-in. But basing them on what doctors do in the hospital, rather than what companies promote them as doing, might indeed have a lot of potential for retailers. For both the short term, and the long.