Fighting Functional Myopia

By Jeffrey Klineman

You’d think Carl Sweat, the hard-charging CEO of FRS, would have it easy by now. Strong investors, a dynamite functional additive, popular endorsers and clever marketing have been wrapped together into a very cold-box-friendly package.

But the company is still fighting it out every day, trying to convince consumers that the quercetin compound that powers the product is worth its sometimes challenging taste and its hard-to-define health benefit.

Recently, the company broadened the brand to include a pair of new lines, one geared toward weight management and another toward immunity. The brand’s “Healthy Slim” and “Healthy Defense” products joined the company’s first line extension, Protein, this spring. By bringing in two new functional additives, Slendesta and EpiCor, FRS has been able to broaden and bolster the line beyond the “Healthy Performance” that quercetin, with its potent antioxidant properties, is supposed to provide.

That’s good, because so far, growth for FRS has been slower than Sweat expected – partially because it’s so function dependent, and partially because of a distribution deal with PepsiCo that left the company behind Gatorade in the pecking order when it came time to sell into grocery accounts. Sweat recently addressed the latter problem by terminating the Pepsi contract as of the end of the year; the company is cutting itself loose to work with specialty distribution advisor L.A. Libations, which has a strong record of putting products with unrealized potential on the right track.

As for the former, the issue remains: when dealing with a functional ingredient, it’s important to explain why consumers need to give up that “share of stomach.”

“It’s not a fizzy, carbonated energy drink or a ‘take a swig’ kind of a thing,” Sweat said recently. Indeed, FRS itself isn’t just trying to make it as a beverage – there are chews and powder formats of the product, and it’s sold in several parts of the store that do not include the cold box.

Sales are up now – 71 percent over the past two years in core channels, according to Sweat – but it’s been a long struggle to establish FRS as a go-to branded product, and that illustrates the problem that many function-first products can face, even if the function is highly desirable.

Other single-function products like Joint Juice, Ojo, Nawgan, even those that offer that most desirable effect, hangover relief, have faced obstacles when it comes to gaining mass acceptance. And while the common idea is to go an inch deep and a mile wide, sometimes investors and retailers just don’t want to wait.

After all, if there’s a suite of functions, just one introduction – like Vitaminwater’s antioxidant-rich XXX variety – can ignite the entire line.

So by broadening the portfolio a bit, FRS isn’t just getting a few more chances at takeoff, it’s also creating a hedge against betting the farm on a single ingredient.

That’s not a bad idea because single-ingredient launches can be a problem area for marketers, no matter how potent the special ingredient, particularly when that ingredient isn’t also an integral part of the product’s flavor or composition.

As a drink, tea – or yerba mate – is tea; milk is milk, juice is juice (sometimes it’s even the real stuff and not white grape juice, for that matter).But when it comes to products that are being sold on the merits of a functional ingredient, things get tricky. In other words, when a product is based around an ingredient and the flavor is simply there to “help the medicine go down,” marketers can have their work cut out for them.

As a vehicle for ingredients that offer functional benefits that aren’t necessarily specific to the flavor or style of beverage itself, beverages have a mixed record.

Protein, for example, is an ingredient that has begun to show some success as a primary component of a beverage – but it took a long time for consumers to be willing to stomach it as part of their daily liquid diet. Contrast that with hydration-based products containing electrolytes, which are highly available in many kinds of products and caught on much more quickly due to their taste and texture compatibility with beverages.

Products offering energy or high levels of antioxidants also tend to mix fairly easily as beverages – especially those that are derived from natural ingredients. But there have been some products for which flavor took a back seat to functionality – and they have had a tougher row to hoe.