Damon Ganem has been giving green juice to his sons Liam and Rowan since before the little guys could walk. They love the stuff. They’ve never known another way. Alas, unlike the sea of 7-Eleven Big Gulpers with fingertips layered in Doritos dust, Liam and Rowan have never held a negative opinion toward vegetables. It’s just what they drink.
When Ganem, who does the branding and creative work for Seattle-based Vital Juice, sent a few pictures of his sons slurping kale to Edward Balassanian, CEO of the juice company, an idea registered. Balassanian felt inspired. He summarized his reaction with a dictum that should probably be written on slips of paper and handed to every set of parents before they leave the hospital with a newborn.
“A lot of our inhibitions with children,” Balassanian said, “are ones that we’re imposing ourselves.”
What kids eat and drink are what we’ve decided they will eat and drink, he said. Ganem’s sons drink green juice because it’s encouraged by their father. Most children have a different background, one devoid of cold-pressed juice, so Balassanian has launched a line of juices made for children that aim to bridge the divide between taste for the young ones and nutrition and price for the parents and the financially-savvy young ones.
Vital Juice sells a line of 20 high pressure processed, cold-pressed juice products, which includes standards like green juice with kale and lemon to something a bit more atypical, such as a juice made with watermelon and lime. Balassanian takes pride in targeting any consumer who likes juice, not just celebrities looking for something to hold or detox loyalists. To embody this inclusive business model, he wanted to cover the whole family, along with the children. From this thinking, Vital Kids was born.
“If you’re saying that and you want to be congruent with that, you need to incorporate children into the mix,” he said.
The research and development process lasted for several months. This gave Balassanian time to conduct taste tests with parents and kids together, and also parents alone. By deploying kale, cucumber, spinach, beets and carrots, among others, Balassanian knew that it would take some convincing flavors to persuade both parents and children. The process allowed for tinkering, trials and building confidence.
“They’re not types of produce that kids are typically raving about,” he said. “So you’ve got a pretty uphill battle.”
Vital Juice uses only plant-based nutrition, never dairy, so the company’s ingredients always start as a vegetable or a nut. For the kids line, Balassanian has used almond milk as a mechanism for enhancing taste, boosting nutrition and, perhaps most importantly, masking the flavor of strong-tasting vegetables.
The USDA organic line includes four flavors — Green Gorilla, Capt. Carrot, Mrs. Beet and Mr. Squeeze. The 10 oz. bottles have a suggested retail price of $5.99 and feature illustrations of four cartoonish characters. Green Gorilla wears a bowtie and a tooth-filled grin. Capt. Carrot might just be the root vegetable form of Miss America. Mrs. Beet sports thick-rimmed glasses and green hair. Mr. Squeeze looks like an approachable, rosy-cheeked scientist. Balassanian notes that the four characters, front and center on the packaging, are part of Vital Juice’s dedication toward treating children as consumers.
“We’ve seen plenty of 10 oz. versions of adults drinks that are called kids drinks,” Balassanian said. “We don’t think that works.”
The idea of “child as consumer” also carries into the company’s demos and other parts of marketing. Children can find henna tattoos attached to the bottle. There are T-shirts and coloring books. Adjacent to adult sampling tables, there are kid-sized sampling tables.
Balassanian has practiced an adaptive style of product development and will continue to do so, he said. When the kids line first launched in Whole Foods and Metropolitan Market locations in the Pacific Northwest, mostly Seattle, parents said that the labels were too boy-centric. As a result of the feedback, Balassanian changed the gender of Capt. Carrot and gave her a ponytail with a bow. He also said that, if necessary, the company is willing to further evolve the products.
“We’re not going to be shy about evolving these recipes at a pretty rapid pace as we get more real time feedback from the market,” he said.
As Balassanian gets that feedback, Liam and Rowan will keep drinking green juice like they always have. It’s the other kids who are no sure thing.