No Financing, But Plenty of Flexing

Taking a strong posture against a weakening economy, natural beverage companies and their crunchy compatriots flexed with new products and a growing focus on healthy living during Natural Products Expo West earlier this month at the Anaheim, Calif. Convention Center.

It was a surprisingly lively show — attendees and exhibitors had been nervous about the possibility of weak attendance and downcast moods. But despite the absence of major announcements of capital infusion or company sales – a change from recent years — beverage companies, perhaps just happy to be surviving the tough times, put on a positive face.

“The money we got last year gave us the ability to grow,” said Eric Schnell, co-founder of Steaz, which took in financing last year from investment group Inventages. “This year is all about perfecting what we’ve got, making sure we’re the healthy alternative for any mainstream beverage product.”

Without extra money flying around to pursue new ventures, it was unsurprising to hear many optimistically-themed gerunds like “polishing,” “burnishing,” and “honing” from brand owners?

Nevertheless, new products were in evidence – even Steaz was showing off a new energy shot, right down the aisle from Guayaki, which has also recently launched a Yerba Mate based energy shot of its own, while across the busy aisle from both partners-in-crime was fellow fast-growing LOHAS brand Sambazon. The acai product marketer was trumpeting Jungle Love, a new, aphrodisiac-themed flanker SKU for its Amazon Energy drink.


While that wedge of Fair Trade friends focused on energy introductions, other companies focused on improving their financial health by focusing their brands on consumer health. Several new and reformulated products seemed to be targeting a group of consumers who are intense about their amateur athletic pursuits, trying to make a functional play against a category long dominated by Gatorade.

Amid strong appeals to pre-and-post-work gym rats from brands like Owater, Clif Bar – which is trying to cross into the cooler by debuting a new, four-SKU sports drink line—and private-label innovation house Tandem Rain, Mix1 fitness drink founder Greg Stroh discussed the burgeoning weekend warrior focus as a contrast to that of Gatorade, which has long relied on celebrity athletes to promote its brand.

“We’re chasing the white collar athlete,” Stroh said. “I’d rather be where we are with a unique position than just be a sheep.”

To that end, momentum built behind all three leading brands of coconut water: Vita Coco showed off a re-sealable 500 ml package and a new flavor, Acai and Pomegranate. O.N.E. debuted four new flavors, Pineapple, Passion Fruit, Mango and Pink Guava, while Zico prepared to move its headquarters from New York to California while citing strong growth numbers, including seven new employees.

“We’re focusing on that intense amateur,” said Zico founder Mark Rampolla, who has found a growth channel in yoga studios and among triathlon enthusiasts. “We might tap professional athletes, our approach is validated by the professionals, but our growth comes when it’s practiced by the amateurs.”

Along those lines, a significant number of new products showed lower calorie profiles than in years past. Keeping things under 100 calories per bottle seemed to be the guideline for product manufacturers.

“There are a lot of people keeping things down to about 50 calories per serving or less,” said Adina CEO Greg Steltenpohl.

“That seems to be the sweet spot.”


Also seeking amateur practitioners were companies introducing drinks that relied on a balance of herbs and fruits for flavor and effect. Adina was one of the companies drawing a crowd, as it showed off its new four-sku Holistics line, based loosely on the principals of Ayurvedic principals of balanced health (see sidebar).

Another herbal line came, surprisingly, from prune marketer Sunsweet, which debuted Herbal Waters, a 33 percent juice product laced with potentially beneficial ingredients like ashgawanda, lemongrass, and hibiscus. Sunsweet is using the 16 oz. glass-bottled drinks, filled in a company-owned bottling plant in Yuba City, Calif., to try to pursue distributors who are now without vitaminwater, according to category manager Stephanie Harralson. To that end, AMI brands’ Carpe Diem also took on a sponsorship role at the show.

Herbs were not the only miracle products for health seekers, of course, as the show saw the introduction of a number of new superfruit products. Long one of the leaders of the Acai movement, Bossa Nova introduced new slim, plastic bottles for all of its products, including its Superfruit line, while new 3-SKU Borojo Energy introduced attendees to borojo, a Central American superfruit that, according to founder Gregg Hollander, can offer the drinker an euphoric feeling, in addition to energy.

At Expo West, with so few exhibitors feeling the flush that can come from investors with open wallets, perhaps a little borojo-derived euphoria, as well as the chance to maintain the business, was all that one could ask for.


• New Tetra-Pak packages from Hint

• Veriteas, a 10 oz. low-calorie noncarbonated Oolong tea energy drink

• Ilanllyr Source’s new canned waters from Wales

• Loose tea maker Ineeka’s foray into bottled beverages, Himalayan Green Tea Beer

• A pair of fiber-infused smoothies from Mix1, including Dark Berry and Orange Carrot

• Made’s line-up of 16 oz. PET shelf-stable juice/milk hybrids, in four flavors: Strawberry Mojito, Strawberry Lemonade, Pomegranate Pineapple and Pineapple Mai Tai.

• Three new flavors (Hibiscus and Blackberry, Hibiscus and Pineapple, and Hibiscus and Vanilla) and new shelf-friendly packaging from Ooba

• Oogave’s expanded line-up, which now include six flavors and a reformulated root beer

• In addition to Jungle Love, Sambazon introduced a diet version of Amazon Energy with 40 calories per 8 oz. serving.

• Sunsteen mangosteen supplement, formerly in a larger container, is now in 8.3 oz. bottles.

• Orgain, an 11 oz. TetraPak meal replacement drink in two flavors, Creamy Chocolate Fudge and Sweet Vanilla Bean

• New stevia-sweetened flavors from Odwalla

• A pair of new yerba mate flavors from Honest Tea, Agave and Tropical Mate

• New 16 oz. proprietary glass bottles from Sweet Leaf Tea, soon to be followed by PET.ADINA: SEEKING HOLISTIC SOLUTION FOR HOLE IN DSD OFFERINGS

Sure, they were neat-looking, and kind of tasty, but what do you call them?

That was the question posed more than once to the purveyors at the Expo West booth run by Adina for Life, which introduced Holistics, a splashy new line of herbal healing drinks based on ancient Ayurvedic principles, at the recently-concluded show.

With a set of proprietary glass bottles labeled with a cute monkey (he’s called “Spanky” until someone comes up with a better name) and lightly-sweetened, organic-certified flavors like Peach Amalaki, Honey Eucalyptus, and Honey Lemon Aloe, among others, Holistics seeks to use herbs – or herbal infusions — to fill what vitamins – or vitaminwater — once did for retailers: provide a tasty, unique drink with a healthy “aura” to active consumers.

The Holistics line was the most intriguing and strategically grounded rollout of several brands (including Sunsweet and Carpe Diem) pushing herbal tonics at the Expo West show. It could also serve as a rapid barometer for this kind of product, especially given the heavy hitters in Adina’s executive lineup – John Bello, Greg Steltenpohl, Bruce Burke, Bruce Schroeder – and the way the product seems to echo SoBe, CEO Bello’s own breakthrough brand. New Age-y but still fun, with compositions and labels evocative of holistic medicine but making absolutely no concrete functional claims, lightly flavored but sweet, Adina rushed the product to market in a remarkable four months to try to fill what remains a series of gaps in distributors’ product offerings after they lost banner brands like vitaminwater, Muscle Milk, Fuze and Honest Tea.

“You’ve got a void in the marketplace where we’ve got something that meets the taste profile, something new and exciting and different, and that gives us an opportunity to grow and succeed,” said Burke, the company’s CMO.

And Burke is banking on fast growth – everywhere. In fact, despite the brand’s seemingly Whole Foods-friendly orientation, the aim for Holistics is to take it straight into mainstream channels. The company has lined up a set of independent distributors into what it calls the “Green Network” in California and is also selling into a group of DSD houses in the Northeast who frequently work together.

The brand expects an intense three-to-four month takeoff, with a core of 12 to 15 employees doing a lot of hand-selling in its initial regions. According to Steltenpohl, who founded Odwalla before Adina, “I’m booked on the trucks every day for the next 12 weeks.”

Adina, of course, isn’t the only company seeking to fill the Vitaminwater/Honest Tea void for independent distributors. But with the formidable team behind the product and the deep pockets of Bello’s Sherbrooke Capital helping to fund the operation, Holistics, according to Bello, “has the resources to stay the course.”

Nevertheless, at a time when functional products are getting knocked a bit for not doing what they are supposed to – indeed, a story on ABC News 20/20 aired during Expo West, delivering a body blow to enhanced waters, particularly Function Drinks over its Braniac product – some Expo attendees expressed skepticism about consumers being willing to tap into Eastern wellness practices for refreshment.

But the Adina team is undeterred, arguing that Holistics, rather than making any statements regarding the products’ immediate effects, nevertheless have the potential to improve consumers’ lives by giving them a sense of balance.

“We aren’t making any functional claims,” Steltenpohl said. “Herbalism, however, is something that’s a whole new idea, a whole new taste.”

Still, it’s a new idea and a new taste that still needs a category.

“Nice colors,” said Sunny Delight’s Jennifer Cottle as she approached the booth. “What do you call these?”

“It’s an elixir,” replied Bruce Schroeder, Adina’s president and COO.

If the company is right, it’ll be more than just an elixir for consumers. It could be one for distributors, as well.