Working on a Building

Forgive me if my column reads a little slow today. I’m waterlogged.

Today I walked into the office and looked in our cooler, and there it waited, the Caliwater Cactus Water. At 11 a.m., I took a call from WTRMLN WTR (that’s a watermelon water for those who literally can’t fill in the blanks). All day long, I was trading calls with the founder of Aloe Gloe, which is described as “natural aloe water.” Since the fall, I’ve also sampled two different versions of water derived from maple trees – Happy Tree Maple Water and Vertical Water, and another plant essence water, Blossom Water.

What’s interesting about all of these brands is that, like coconut water, the product class they’re all chasing, and to which they compared themselves, they’re not water – they’re juices. There may be water added, but they’re a drink made out of flavored liquid extracted from a plant, calling themselves “water” rather than juice for the purpose of indicating a lightness of taste, and, presumably, calories. (We can only hope that older beverage brands don’t decide they need to reverse-engineer their own names and start calling themselves “grape water” or, even worse, “cow water.”)

This comparison may have negative echoes for many in the beverage business, who might say that the nomenclature of this glut of insert your plant here waters smacks of the me-too problem that accompanied the last great pre-coconut water vertical, the enhanced water boom. In that case, vitaminwater’s success begat SoBe Life Water, Speedo Sports Water, Vital Lifestyle Water, Omega Water and Jonest 24C Enhanced Water, among many, many doomed others.

I’m not sure that this is the case for these new insert your plant here waters, as some of them are quite good and they come at a variety of price points and different packaging formats. But it did give me reason to think about what it takes to build a new vertical, and to underscore, once again, the importance of differentiation.

Differences in format aside, a key for the brands in the insert your plant here water category to succeed will be through their specific ingredient making its own, individual, superfruit-type of argument: that their particular juice source has something that consumers need that is different from what they’re getting from coconut water, which won consumers over for its functionality as an electrolyte source. Thus for Aloe Gloe and for Caliwater, it’s the digestive,skin, and immunity potential associated with the source plant. WTRMLN WTR makes the electrolyte argument, but also touts lycopene and antioxidants. Those points of difference will have to be matched in taste, clever packaging, and smart positioning, as well.

And there’s actually precedent for success here in the juice category itself, (despite the fact that the category has the very label that these products are trying to avoid through their names). After all, we don’t just drink juice, we drink orange juice, pineapple juice, cranberry juice, all for a different set of tastes and benefits. But again, it’s a question of winning consumers over to a brand new taste and product type, not one that’s just like one they already enjoy.

What will kill the brands in these burgeoning insert plant here water categories – or in any other new set of products – is if they, like the products that followed vitaminwater, are interested in simply riding in the wake of what’s gone before.

Moreover, that difference in effect has to be striking: even the “better than” argument is a tough one to win in these largely subjective categories, as there were plenty of products out there with potentially higher efficacious doses than vitaminwater, and there are still mounds of data that indicate that chocolate milk beats both Gatorade and coconut water both in terms of athletic recovery. From a sales and brand-building standpoint, the difference between one and two bananas’ worth of electrolytes will return only a moral victory comparable to Don Beebe running down Leon Lett’s fumble return in Super Bowl XXVII. It looks good, but you’re still way behind.

I don’t bring these up to make the argument that we’re in the middle of another pack of me-toos that will ultimately prove unsuccessful. Some of these may indeed present interesting, novel ideas to consumers. I’d just hope they keep in mind that you can’t build your own vertical by leaning too heavily on another one.