Faith

Miraculous foodstuffs can be tricky.

That Virgin Mary who appeared in the grilled cheese, for example? To some folks, it’s a sign from the Almighty. To others, it’s just a waste of a good sandwich. It’s all in how you look at it.

Still, a miracle – if you believe – is a life altering event, and it takes more than a few setbacks to cause you to question your faith.

Such has been the case for acai juice, the product of the Brazilian “miracle berry” whose popularity took off like a rocket but has had a hard time blowing up to its full potential. In the decade since brothers Ryan and Jeremy Black and their good friend Ed Nichols started Sambazon and began bringing the berry back to America in frozen packets, the little rainforest fruits have been held to the highest of expectations, but also derided as the lowest of scams. They’ve seen a near-single ingredient juice fall into a confusing mix of products and claims. The signal event, it appears, got lost in the background noise. But they still believe.

“There’s been a lot of overpromising and under-delivering,” says Jeremy Black. “And the products that have created a lot of the awareness have been the ones that haven’t delivered. That’s unfortunate, but we know that the products we’re making deliver on the promises they make.”

From a public relations angle, the promise of acai has been a blessing and a curse: ever since Nick Perricone popped the PR cork on Oprah, labeling acai the vanguard of lifesaving “superfruits,” rumors of the berry’s powers caused its use to turn into something like a tent revival. Claims that drinking multi-level-marketed MonaVie juices could heal everything from back pain to asthma fed into a barrage of seedy internet-promoted “studies” about how acai extract could help consumers drop weight and look better.

And in the monkey-see, monkey-do world of the beverage industry, a little bit of promise leads to a whole lot of bandwagons. As soon as actual acai juice companies like Sambazon, Zola, and Bossa Nova started to gain some traction, acai flavors, or small, completely ineffective squirts of the juice began to enter beverages ranging from energy drinks (Budweiser 180) to enhanced waters (vitaminwater XXX) to schnapps and vodka. Meanwhile, acai extracts made their way into everything from pills and powders to salves and soaps.

“Consumers look at it, and they say, what the heck is acai?” says Alton Johnson, the founder of Bossa Nova, which is now owned by the parent company of Sunny Delight. “They’ve heard of it, but they wonder, is it schnapps, toothpaste, MonaVie? Will it make me skinny? Even when it’s a juice, it’s the juice of a fruit that they’ve never seen in the produce department.”

The confused message has made for a tough road. Of the three companies best known for introducing acai to the American public, only Sambazon has shown consistent growth in stores and been able to hold off conflict with its investors – and it is still only available in about 33 percent of possible grocery accounts. Meanwhile, early high-fliers Zola and Bossa Nova have hit deep ruts in the road, with Bossa Nova and Coke-owned Odwalla fumbling an early distribution partnership. Before a recent infusion of cash, and a firm statement of confidence in the company from investors, Zola had been beset by consistent  rumblings that its chief financial backer, Emigrant Capital, was looking to cut its losses and unload the company. Both Zola and its investors point out that the company has been on firm financial footing and showed sales expansion in the months leading up to the release of this story.*

And as the companies have faced their own growth obstacles, they’ve also watched their key ingredient’s profile drop as other exotic-cum-trendy products, particularly coconut water, began to grab the public’s attention.

“Coconut water didn’t get as fragmented as acai,” says Chris Cuvelier, the CEO of Zola. “It was all about one message – hydration – while the acai message was much more fragmented.”

But again, faith is a powerful thing, particularly if you can recruit the right kind of converts. And in recent months the three key companies – albeit in a way that is independent of each other, as the competition level remains high and all three are still quick to point out the superiority of their own product over the other two – have started to try for a revival of their own, preaching a message of purity and healing. Not spiritual, of course, although that’s one element, but physical: the straight-ahead message that the acai berry has uniquely potent antioxidants, and in the case of Sambazon, a high level of the omega family of fatty acids that are nutritionally beneficial.

Bossa Nova, Zola and Sambazon have all turned on the marketing spigot, trying to deliver the message – call it evangelize if you need to continue the metaphor – to the public. Drink the stuff, eat it, discover the power of the purple berry.  Sambazon and Bossa Nova have even reached out into the CPG world to bring in marketing experts, and the first acai television advertisements are airing in select cities.

From Sambazon, a high-concept multimedia marketing campaign focuses on social entrepreneurs whose own missions are likely to resonate with the environmentally conscious, healthy-living “tribe” of Sambazon acolytes who, if they have not adopted the Black brothers as their patron saints, certainly take the berry itself as their daily bread. With media airing in San Diego and a hard push in Sambazon’s other California strongholds, the company is sticking to the attractive idea that consumers are doing well for their bodies and for the planet by drinking the product. To really drive home its message that if the product is superior, the effects will be palpable, Sambazon is also opening a café in Southern California.

“We want to give people a chance to see what the experience is all about,” says Jeremy Black. “We feel we need to start making some noise about it. The truth needs to be told.”

That means that the health message will be rolled out along with the environmental and social message. Sambazon formed a scientific advisory board last year, while many of the claims about ersatz acai products were taking on water. Now, it is close to releasing reports on a clinical trial that the company’s leaders hope will establish the berry’s credibility in the same way that Pom Wonderful used scientific studies.

“I just know our product resonate with people who have discovered that the real thing works,” Black says. “That’s why we have a team of hundreds of athletes who come to us and say I love this stuff. We have some prestigious press coming and that’s from people who do their homework. We had it before, and I think we’re about to get a refresh of that stuff.”

For Sambazon, the keys are expanded distribution in supermarkets and a stronger DSD presence overall. With only fractional penetration in mainstream grocery, Jeremy Black says, “we still have to prove we can hold our shelf space.” Nevertheless, when Sambazon is in stores, it sells, Black says, adding, “we’re still growing, absolutely.”

At Bossa Nova, a marketing budget and slick supply chain supplied by its new owners are what Johnson, now the VP of Natural Healthy Beverages for Beverage Holdings, believes will finally afford the company the scale to bring the product to the masses.

“We always had grand plans but we never had the resources to execute a grand vision,” Johnson says. With a factory in New Jersey that has created a vertically-streamlined route to manufacturing Bossa Nova’s signature clarified acai juice, and Sunny D’s marketing budget behind it, “we’ve got the ability to create a better product story and create vehicles of communication to the product.”

And that is coming out via a marketing campaign created by new brand manager Jeremy Peters, a veteran of accounts like Axe and Dove beauty products and Brita water filters. Part of the campaign, however, lies in simply making acai available in more stores. And that’s where the Sunny D ownership comes in: while acai has always had exclusivity, in grocery, the Sunny D brand has ubiquity. In the months to come, Bossa Nova will flow into stores across the country. Marketing and sampling is headed for 13 specific demographic markets that comprise about half of the consumers of high-end juice drinks.

“We’re already doing events across the country that fit the eco-chic targets, if you will,” Peters said. “We’re set up to go mainstream.”

Meanwhile, at Zola, the smallest of the three companies, the presence of cash and positive momentum is enough of a sign that things are turning around in the acai market for CEO Cuvelier to start dreaming big.

“For us, pushing into DSD and getting some air support has been key to us. It’s been exciting,” he said. “We’ve always been a smaller company, and we have recent funding that has put us in a position where we can expand our distribution and try to get the product into people’s mouths.”

With expanded distribution – the company recently entered Denver powerhouse New Age Beverage, for example – Zola hopes to maintain its momentum, but Cuvelier acknowledges that a bit more bad news about acai could sink the category. That’s why, while he points to the healthy properties of the berry, he’s trying to manage expectations a bit.

“We’re pretty realistic,” he says. “We’re not saying this stuff cures cancer or fights aging. We’re saying, look, it’s better than drinking an orange juice, and here’s why. People understand when a true product has something behind it and when a product has some quality.”

That might be true, but for acai, the bar seems to have been set higher than just “better than O.J.” They might not have asked for miracle berry status, but the three companies who are pushing hardest to take acai to the masses have looked to some of the reversals the berry has faced as something of a test of faith. With the negative PR about the scams calming down, and some real marketing campaigns taking the place of baseless hyperbole, they believe that the air is clearing. After all, they do believe that they’ve got a miracle berry – they just need to make it clear, specifically, which miracle it will be – and it’s more likely to be one along the lines of, say, finding water in the desert than walking on water. If it’s something legitimate – and Sambazon, at least, believes it has the science to prove it – chances are that a lot more people will believe.

“The bubble sort of burst a bit on some of the hype, but that’s not a bad thing,” says Ryan Black, Sambazon’s CEO. “Despite some of the weird stuff that’s gone on, everyone out there marketing acai knows inherently that it’s still just getting started. Not everyone gets it yet, but the people who do really get it, they make it part of their lives.” •

*Due to reporter error, the financial condition of Zola was mis-stated in the original post and in print versions of the story. The original, uncorrected version is available here.