In just three years, Suja has evolved from a high pressure processed juice startup to a prime-time player in the super-premium juice category. Those changes mean that, despite the company’s growth, Jeff Church is still a very busy man. Dividing his time between fueling growth with strategic financing, including last year’s $90 million investment from the Coca-Cola Co., and building a diverse network of retail partners – while maintaining a strong emphasis on product innovation – Church has his hands full overseeing the company. And it still has a long way to go before it can fulfill what he sees as its mission: democratizing organic juice. In the following Q&A, Church, BevNET’s 2015 Person of the Year, reflects on the achievements of Suja since 2012 and the steps to success along the way.
In a year of transition for Suja, what’s been the most challenging aspect of your job? The most rewarding?
Balancing the time required to raise capital was challenging. We did it six times in just three years since we launched the company while holding onto the reins of a wildly growing and changing business during that same time frame. Also, keeping up with continued growth and scaling accordingly.
Most rewarding parts of the year: Being recognized by the largest beverage company in the world, the Coca-Cola Co., that we were a brand that they wanted to get behind to help us achieve our vision and mission. Creating and realizing partial value for all of our investors who have been with us for all or a part of the past three years. Seeing how consumers are reacting to the more value-focused Essentials line and how positively they react towards organic, Non-GMO products and that they are willing to trade up from lower quality beverages to Suja despite a dollar or greater premium versus what they were previously buying.
As one of the founders of Suja, what did you identify in the cold-pressed juice category that you saw as having significant growth potential?
A lack in the marketplace for organic, non-GMO juice that wasn’t pasteurized and had a long enough shelf life. In 2012 there were certainly brands that were selling organic and non-GMO juice, but either they had a shelf life of three days or were pasteurized, therefore degrading the nutrients inside the bottle. We saw a huge gap in the marketplace for a juice that checked all the boxes and knew that HPP would be a game-changer.
There was an energy, buzz and pull for the concept of cold-pressed juice that was normally either made at home or sold expensively in juice bars and was now going to be available at your local retailer throughout the country.
The fact that people were paying $8-10 for a 16 oz. bottle of juice was unbelievable. One of our co-founders, James Brennan, who has been in the entertainment business for the majority of his career, was initially drawn to the brand because juice was among the highest priced items at his nightclub.
Also, the large market of juice, not niche, provides opportunity to not get pigeonholed with a varietal such as acai or a pomegranate.
The beverage industry is often unforgiving when it comes to mistakes. What steps have you taken to minimize errors?
Constantly doing what we refer to as “cul-de-sac” testing and listening regarding new products. Getting data points from as many people as possible. Some people may be annoyed that we don’t always use classical marketing tactics, and we’ll let our innovation teams know what our families or kids thought about new ideas. However, it’s important to get perspectives from as many people as possible as you are then able to draw certain trends that you might not have otherwise seen.
Also, rapid innovation followed by quick kills or adaptations if not working the way we had anticipated. We’ve launched over 80 SKUs and have killed 30 in just three years. Not letting great get in the way of good with innovation. Getting something out there to get feedback on so you can then improve it and take it to an even better spot is a great way to minimize potential failures.
Relatively small capital raises to minimize dilution and maintain a scarcity of resources forcing frugality.
Surrounding yourself with industry professionals whom will keep you on the rails. People like Nick Giannuzzi who is an attorney to emerging CPG brands, Janica Lane, an investment banker from Piper Jaffray, Bill Weiland, founder of Presence Marketing and gateway to building great natural brands.
Listen with the intent to understand – particularly with customers and their feedback. You’re never going to not mistakes, so when you do, act fast and pivot. Be willing to take the path of MORE resistance to change something that is not working.
You’ve cited luck as being an important part of Suja’s success. How can companies best take advantage of fortuitous opportunities?
Primarily by being ready when things get aligned and can be acted on. Generally we don’t get to choose when the opportunities present themselves, yet I know many people who, when presented with an opportunity, will cite personal timing as the reason not to take action. When I first jumped off the corporate ladder, it was literally the same month that my fourth child was born. Had I not done that then, I don’t think that I would have been presented another compelling opportunity for a long period of time.
Scaling smartly; being able to quickly pivot when different opportunities present themselves yet always remaining true to the goal you set out to accomplish on day one of starting the business; surrounding yourself with a team that believes in the bigger mission and will work tirelessly to get the work done. Also, having someone on your key staff team [who] has “been there, seen it, done it,” access to smart people around you, and listening super carefully to your retail base.
Partnering with the Coca-Cola Co. is an opportunity only a few beverage companies have experienced. How did Suja best position itself for the opportunity?
When you are a relatively small company like Suja and are having conversations with a corporate giant like Coke, it is both flattering and intimidating. However, throughout the entire process, the one thing that mattered most to us was that we never put profit (or the idea of profit) before the integrity of our products. Which meant no shortcuts, no compromises, and most importantly, staying true to our promise of delivering the highest quality HPP, organic and non-GMO juices and smoothies. We realized what a huge opportunity this partnership could offer in terms of getting our product into the hands of even more Americans, and at an affordable price, but our commitment to producing the highest quality juice always remained priority number one.
Getting to know Coke’s Venturing and Emerging Brands unit early proved to be connection points into the organization that were later highly beneficial.
Being flexible and open to a minority investment was also important to making a deal occur. Large CPG companies can from time to time change their philosophy on minority or majority investments. Coke’s current thinking is to do minority investment deals in order to retain the entrepreneurial culture of the small businesses and not have to integrate into the larger Coke business where processes and integration could potentially overwhelm the smaller entrepreneurial brand.
Coke’s not interested in too early stage where proof of concept hasn’t yet occurred and wouldn’t be too interested if the business had grown beyond an inflection point and wasn’t at the stage that it could benefit from Coke’s competencies enough.
BRAND OF THE YEAR
Califia Farms stepped into the fray from many different directions in 2015, with a product suite that engaged consumers across the store, creating a brand with the personality of a new friend whom you’ve nevertheless known for years.
From almond milk to juice to cold-brewed coffee, this brand gets its energy from both changing trends in dairy and from changing values to present something that slides easily into the lives of consumers, with attention-getting packaging that does the trick of engaging them right away while making what might have seemed a bit edgy feel normal through great taste and visuals.
The fact that this company is an agriculturally-based, vertically integrated enterprise coming straight from the fields of California means an unapologetic approach to branding that is in sync with the changing American diet. From single-serve RTDs to smoothie and coffee ingredients, the company is operating like a dairy farm with trees, a next generation Ocean Spray or Sunkist. By bridging the gap between social mission, flavor, function, and agriculture, Califia Farms is the brand of the year.
BEST NON-CARBONATED BEVERAGE
There’s clearly a big market for dairy alternatives, but there has been a growing gap in the subset of high pressure processed (HPP) varieties as many of the established brands have been eschewing low-acid nut milks from their lineups. With MALK, we have a brand that’s entirely focused on HPP nut milks and has done so with clever, well-designed branding that, with its opaque 12 oz. bottle, offers a nice twist on a familiar package. As for the liquid, MALK offers a variety of nut milks, including almond, pecan, and cashew that offer consumers both the staples they know and more exotic varieties and flavors. It’s a well-executed mix of a really nice package, great tasting liquid, and plays in white space that’s nestled between on-trend and rapidly growing categories.
BEST TEA OR TEA-BASED BEVERAGE
Ito En’s Matcha LOVE is the winner of BevNET’s Best Tea or Tea-Based Beverage of 2015. In a breakout year for matcha-based beverages, Matcha LOVE’s ready-to-drink line has the best potential to lead the nascent category. Blending organic green tea and organic matcha, the products are well-conceived and on-trend, offering consumers a smooth drinking experience in an unsweetened and zero-calorie format.
Bolthouse Farms 1915
Bolthouse’s move into the high pressure processed juice category is one that has been carefully calculated and superbly executed. While many juice upstarts are just pumping out more of the same in terms of packaging and the liquid, Bolthouse 1915 takes a unique approach on both fronts. The company has created a great looking custom bottle that looks bigger than its 12 oz. size. The formulations are clearly the result of Bolthouse’s expertise with blending and flavors and presented in such a way that the lineup can have really broad appeal in a rapidly evolving category.
BEST PRODUCT REVAMP
What’s great about the revamp of Temple Turmeric is that it wasn’t a brand in need of one. The company probably could have continued on as Tumeric Alive, but it took a gamble at the chance of something that potentially has a broader reach; it’s clean, simple, and straightforward. And it was a well-executed transition that was about as seamless as any rebrand we’ve ever seen.
BEST ENHANCED WATER
Bulletproof’s FATwater is a low-calorie beverage that takes one of the brand’s foundational ingredients, XCT Oil, and uses it in a ready-to-drink form. The name FATwater is definitely a conversation starter. It bucks the trend of food and beverage brands that are trying to sell you on fat-free or low-fat products: this one is proud to feature fat (2g per bottle) as part of the formulation. Packaging is a 16 oz. bottle with a simple white label. There’s no mention of Bulletproof on the front panel, but the label is straightforward and consistent with the copy on Bulletproof’s other products. And again, we feel as though the name itself is going to catch attention. All in all, this is a product that thrives in its ability to deliver something that’s simple and familiar, but true to Bulletproof’s platform. It’s definitely a product to watch.
BEST PACKAGING INNOVATION
Cuvée Coffee was the first cold brew brand to market a nitrogenated offering. It’s really the first time in “third-wave coffee” where a shelf-stable format is truly a straight replica of something you’d buy in the shop. Moreover, the addition of nitrogen is a big trend in “craft” beverages and one that translates really well to cold brew coffee.
BEST SMOOTHIE OR MEAL REPLACEMENT
With upgrades in packaging and formulation, this brand’s primary product is now made with only two ingredients, organic coconut water and organic coconut meat, and is high pressure processed (HPP). Rich and viscous, with a full-bodied coconut flavor from start to finish, the smoothie is lightly sweet from the natural sugars in the coconut water and milk, and includes no added sweetener. With a new 12 oz. bottle and label graphics, Genius Juice significantly improved its branding and gave it a leg up on competition in the bottled smoothie category.
BEST MARKETING CAMPAIGN
Organic Valley “Save the Bros”
“Save the Bros” just plain made us laugh, of course, but there’s more behind this award than just a good tagline. It’s a very pointed attempt by Organic Valley to make a grab for mainstream protein consumers, and a surprising – and insightful – move from an organic brand that is trying to extend beyond the natural channel. Organic Valley forcefully avoided the trap that brands that are leaving incubation channels rely on far too much: let’s face it, wholesome and crunchier-than-thou can easily turn off a whole set of consumers, especially the Bros. But this one used all the elements of a 360-degree brand, with an initial media and billboard buy, as well as a long-range social media plan that continued to focus on consumer acquisition and has led to long-term recognition. Smarter than your average Bro, indeed.
BEST PACKAGING DESIGN
An impressive year for sales of cold-brew coffee was as impressive for package design in the fast-growing segment. For us, the European design aesthetic of NuBru is exceptional among its peers. The use of different label colors and the subtle change in badges denote the different varieties clearly, while maintaining the overall feel of the brand, and, most importantly, allowing NuBru to stand out on the shelf.
BEST FUNCTIONAL BEVERAGE
REBBL Super Herbs
Focused on unique sources of nutrition, REBBL’s product line includes a range of bleeding edge ingredients, including reishi mushrooms, maca and quillaja. We’re impressed with REBBL’s approach to marketing these esoteric, yet highly functional, ingredients; it’s both novel and effective, and it certainly helps that the beverages taste great. Combined with REBBL’s organic and fair trade sourcing methods, we think the brand has a very bright future.
BEST COFFEE OR COFFEE-BASED BEVERAGE
Chameleon Cold-Brew RTD
As one of the pioneers of the cold-brew coffee category, Chameleon has remained on a course of creating innovative and high quality offerings, and these new beverages articulate that approach.
Moreover, Chameleon’s Chicory, Mexican and Espresso coffees stay true to the company’s focus on dairy-free cold brew and are exceptional in formulation and flavor.
BEST KIDS’ BEVERAGE
Daily Greens Half Pint
Formulated with mainstream-friendly ingredients and flavors, these drinks are well-positioned to appeal to parents seeking a healthy upgrade for their children. With its colorfully designed 8 oz. bottle, Daily Greens has done well to create a line with its own identity while maintaining its connection to the rest of its offerings. At $3.99 per bottle, we’d guess that the Half Pint line is attracting more than a few adult consumers who are buying the drinks for themselves.
BEST MIX, CONCENTRATE OR POWDER
Amid an expanding set for new craft cocktail mixer brands, Cocktail Crate shined brightest in 2015. From its striking flask-shaped glass bottles to a range of uniquely formulated offerings, including a Sriracha Margarita and Grapefruit Daiquiri, the brand exudes high quality and innovation. Bolstering its shelf presence, Cocktail Crate’s large-block font logo is memorable and impressive, emerging among a crowded field of mixer brands.
BEST CARBONATED BEVERAGE
It’s not so much that the new 12 oz. can format for Spindrift’s Seltzer line is all that innovative. But it’s enabled the company to extend distribution of the carbonated waters, which taste incredible. Formulated with real fruit and fresh squeezed juice, Spindrift Seltzers are low-calorie, fizzy and contain only natural ingredients. Combined with a thoughtful approach to branding and label design, the company has a winner on its hands.