A Cushy Joint

What do horse pills and the beverage aisle have in common? The glucosamine found in Joint Juice Fitness Water.

The low-calorie fortified water debuted last year and carved a place in grocery store beverage aisles for a brand that, in its other iteration, Joint Juice sells from the same shelves as Centrum Silver. That new fitness water’s formulation and staging enables the long-time niche brand – with a core consumer base of pensioners – to broaden its target audience to include the jogging and Pilates crowd. Eventually, the company wants the brand to achieve ubiquity, but the transition will be tricky, comprising varying parts category, location, image and demographics.

Original Joint Juice, sold in the vitamin aisle, packs 1500 milligrams of glucosamine into an 8 oz., fruit-flavored solution. The company markets the product in Walgreens, Costco and other club and drug stores as a daily supplement that appeals mostly to customers that either collect social security checks, or soon will – though some of the company’s consumers are “younger folks” in their 40s and 50s, according to CEO Jack Robertson.

Robertson said he plans to attract more of those younger folks. The joint pain picture includes more than retirees, he said, adding that company founder and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Kevin stone believes his product has gained wide use in professional sports. Joint Juice earned an off-handed mention in a Colorado Springs Gazette article as one of the items in the dorm room of then-31-year-old Olympic weight lifter Shane Hamman, and Robertson said you don’t have to be an Olympian to have an achy knee. Weekend warriors and fun-runners pound the pavement enough to induce knee pain, Robertson said, and the brand may also appeal to manual laborers who beat up their joints to earn a paycheck.

Robertson’s challenge with these consumers has been that they’re not very interested in vitamin-aisle products. To reach them, he needed to put the product in a location and form that would appeal to them. The first step was to create Joint Juice Fitness Water. The 16.9 oz., 10-calorie enhanced water contains the same glucosamine load as the original, but also delivers electrolytes – all in a wide-mouthed bottle reminiscent of sports drinks.

“The wide mouth communicates the chug-ability,” Robertson said. “We’re about fitness. We’re about active people. You can chug this thing when you’re walking.”

He also changed the brand image. When Joint Juice focused on pushing its vitamin-aisle product, promotional materials centered on the core ingredient. Now, the company has recast its posters and website to feature people in their mid 30s enjoying Joint Juice while engaging in physical activities.

With the new product and image in place, Robertson had to stretch away from his core experience to get the product into mainstream beverage channels. His resume boasts time spent with Proctor and Gamble and Clorox, where he worked with the Hidden Valley brand of ranch salad dressing, but it doesn’t include up-and-down-the-street beverage promotions. So, Robertson brought in SoBe veteran Howard Wishner.

“The big challenge now is education,” Wishner said, and he’s focused on an ease-of-use strategy.

“Drinking a 16.9 oz. bottle of water every day – we do that anyway,” Wishner said. “I don’t know about you, [but] I take vitamins every day. I take supplements every day.”

Robertson said they’ve had success getting people to replace one of their daily beverages with Joint Juice Fitness Water. In L.A. convenience stores, where the product is distributed by Haralambos Distributing, they’ve placed window clings with the name of the product, and a short claim about how it will hydrate or cushion joints.

Robertson and Wishner have also built upon the company’s history of promotional sampling. In addition to Joint Juice teams conducting sampling events at supermarkets, they’re also bringing Fitness Water to events like charity runs – what Robertson calls the “point of pain.” As they hand out product, they explain its contents, and, there, Robertson said, the company’s task gets easier.

Runners talk to each other about their sore knees, and what to do about it, he said. Glucosamine awareness already penetrates most of the running community but even in broader America, a deceptively large portion of the population – about 70 percent, according to Robertson’s research – knows about the amino sugar.

Ten percent of Americans take some form of the supplement every day, he said, and the awareness for his brand hovers around 25 percent.

“It’s not because we’re marketing geniuses,” Robertson added. “There’s a lot of joint pain.”

That pain also gives Robertson’s customers a highly desirable trait: loyalty. Over 70 percent of Joint Juice customers, he said, consume the product every day. That gave the company an odd bit of leverage as Fitness Water arrived in beverage aisles. Robertson wants to sell multi-packs. Grocery stores and mass-marketers like Target, he said, were initially only interested in singles, but Joint Juice customers started buying as many as 15 bottles at a time.

Now, the company’s four-pack is gaining distribution in grocery and mass market channels while singles move into convenience stores. In L.A., Robertson said the product has generally gotten three facings in the cooler, one for each flavor, near enhanced water brands.

That’s how buyers think of the product, Robertson said. He thinks of it as its own joint-health subcategory, but the product fits into an emerging trend in enhanced waters.

As the enhanced water category has grown – with vitaminwater up by 20.5 percent in the 52 weeks ending on Nov. 2, according to Information Resources Inc. – consumers have looked for more out of their beverages. Brands like Function responded by blending research-backed supplements with palatable flavors. Joint Juice follows that trend with glucosamine, which comes with decades of use in animals that prove it’s safe and effective, and a high recommendation from the Mayo Clinic for osteoarthritis treatment in humans.

Robertson said Joint Juice also stands apart from other enhanced waters in a way that retailers should appreciate: the company minimizes price-based promotions. Coca-Cola has used heavy discounting – often 10 for $10 deals in grocery stores – as a brand-building strategy for vitaminwater, but Robertson likes to keep his product selling at $1.39-49 in groceries, and $1.69 up and down the street. He said some discounting is inevitable, but according to his research (and he does love his market research), Joint Juice is discounted about a third as often as other enhanced water brands.

In the future, he said he expects to add larger multipacks and broader convenience store distribution. He aims for national c-store distribution in two years, he said, but he’s taking things one step at a time.

“Whatever we take on, we super-focus on,” Robertson said. “Every year we take on something. This year it’s going to be Safeway and Target and the LA market. It’s how we make sure that we don’t bite too much.”