Frap Fighters

Starbucks is surrounded.

It might not mean much now, but there is an evolving set of Frappuccino options out there, coming after the longtime category leader from every retail channel.

Marketers have known there’s an opportunity in coffee for a long time – as far back as 2009 “Lizard King” John Bello was touting it as Adina’s strong suit – but it’s been hard on brands as they’ve been more focused on going head-to-head with the Frap instead of growing the category.

That’s changing. Now, a group of products has started to broaden the idea of RTD coffee into a set of options that could leave the Frappuccinno as one strong tree in a forest of many.

“I always noticed that Starbucks owned the category,” said Vita Coco CEO Mike Kirban, whose company recently purchased a controlling interest in espresso/coconut water blend Coco Cafe. “But when I tasted something that tied into it, I knew there was something there.”

“Look,” he said, “It’s a billion dollar category and I know it’s not going to take 50 percent share from Starbucks. But I’ll take 10 percent of the share. That’s a nice little $100 million business.”

The chief stumbling block for many brands has been to offer a consumer education set that even indicates an alternative to the idea of cold coffee as coming from any other source but Starbucks: for a long time, the Frap and its espresso linemate, the Doubleshot, have been the twin storylines of the RTD coffee category.

In conventional channels, they’re still the big play, a recognizable brand with a strong distribution ally.

Here’s the thing, though: retailers are getting behind alternatives. Fresh Market, for example, has pushed both Illy Issimo and now Coco Cafe into its sytem, and both of those products are now being pushed into wider release, Issimo in drug channels like CVS and Coco Cafe into Target. Meanwhile, Marley’s One Drop, which has been on a tear since its release as a flanker brand to the company’s relaxation-focused teas, is also offering an alternative at the supermarket level.

And there’s more on the way. Vita Coco isn’t the only coconut water company trying to mix hydration with caffeination: both Zico and AriZona are rolling out coconut/coffee blends as they attempt to combine the emerging trend.

That combination joins another, stronger hybridization of coffee, the coffee energy drink, as a way for consumers to enter the category. Java Monster is almost a $300 million brand in its own right (per Symphony/IRI and extrapolated over un-covered channels like Wal-Mart); with Rockstar Roasted also having strong distribution in the Pepsi system, that creates another strong set of choices for the coffee craver in convenience stores and other channels where the Frappuccino has a following.

That, combined with other options, is starting to clue consumers to the idea that coffee can travel. Behind Tom Larsen, the General Manager of the Illy brand, Coke’s Venturing and Emerging Brands unit is starting to get some wins at retail – taking the higher end coffee product into wider circulation with carefully coordinated approvals arranged by distribution partners LA Libations and Big Geyser. In New York, Big Geyser is also getting the chance to play with a glass package for the product, which gives it another angle of attack.

With some of the successes, Larsen told BevNET, “Illy has landed.”

Of course, there’s one other player who is also introducing consumers to the idea that there are fresh faces in the RTD coffee category: Starbuck’s itself. While the company has been able to get its Seattle’s Best brand in front of consumers, it may also help to create a mindset among them that there’s more than one brand to turn to for that coffee lift. After all, the consumer doesn’t necessarily know that Seattle’s Best is produced by Starbuck’s: They’re just seeing another can, another option, in a space that is rapidly offering a lot of them.