Fight The Power: These Independent Leaders Are Showing Power Can Lie Outside the Establishment

Rebels, Upsetters, Disruptors, Ghosts in the Machine: it doesn’t matter what you call them, these leaders gathering power in the beverage business by moving product, changing expectations, and making sure that the status isn’t quite so quo. Maybe their approach is a little surly, and maybe it’s not the way you might have done it – but here are some of the tales of the powerful new heroes of whom the beverage bards will sing:

Bombastic, boastful, perhaps hyperbolic in his claims, right now, Jack Owoc and BANG are destroying the energy drink universe, carving out a disruptive beachhead in the crossover between exercise and alertness. In many ways, Bang came out of nowhere, and it’s gone right after Monster, both in stores and in the courts. Owoc had gone after the category once before, with Redline, before things fell apart, and with the competition heating up, you’re seeing it now for what it is – good old fashioned hate. With no telling how much product is going through gyms, vending, and direct-to-consumer channels, Bang is nevertheless going to sell close to a billion dollars in product this year. Owoc has always been able to move the needle with his product lines, but this time he’s opened the door for a category to grow, with C4, Celsius, Monster’s own Reign, and more. It’s created a strong power shift – but if things get too distracting legally, the rest of the pack is likely to move in.

It was just a throwaway line at the end of an NPR broadcast around Independence Day, but it confirmed to a local population something that they always knew in their hearts, and that the rest of the country is fast learning: Ralph Crowley’s Polar Beverage is selling enormous amounts of seltzer, and it’s now the second-biggest brand in the unsweetened sparkling water space. It’s not just in New England, either. With footholds in the Pacific Northwest and the South – Polar’s got a plant in Georgia, as well – the 100-plus-year-old company is playing to win. Not that Polar wasn’t a force to be reckoned with already: with contract manufacturing in Worcester and New York and an independent distribution operation that’s one of the largest in the country, Polar has always been a key link in the industry chain. But now it’s on the lips – and in the bellies – of consumers nationwide. LaCroix was an older brand that grew to take the top spot – but could an even older brand grow even more?

Why grow a brand when you can grow a financial entity? The flip side to Polar Beverages’ long hike into daylight is New Age, a former distribution house and tea maker that has turned into a cash-raising, brand-buying, partnership-compiling machine. With CEO and Chairman Brent Willis ousting co-founders Tom and Scott Lebon last year, he’s been using his public float to acquire brands and their accompanying revenue with a “we’ll sort it out later” approach. That job of sorting is going to fall on another recent pickup, Brands Within Reach, itself a bit of an island of brands that need the extra support of a seasoned importer and operator. With Olivier Sonnois on board, Willis gains someone who has been in the trenches, much like the Lebons had been, but who also has brands that are even bigger than Xing Tea was. With internationally prominent but domestically spotty performers like Evian, Illy and Nestea, as well as the highly recognizable Marley mark on a product category that’s a little more resonant in its core ingredient than a melatonin-powered relaxation mix, Willis is showing that, like the blob, he can absorb and grow.

Shouldn’t someone have bought Hint by now? Shouldn’t we be talking about it more? The fact is, we don’t need to: consumers already do. Kara Goldin has chugged along as the consumer who solved her own problem for years, as an anti-soda advocate and the master of her own corporate fate. Innovative in her approach to direct-to-consumer, willing to use HINT as a master brand to extend it to lifestyle products, running her company with a consciously diverse labor force, Goldin has shown that a brand doesn’t have to be flipped to a consumer products giant in order for it to have lasting impact.

GT Dave and Daina Trout are bringing attention to their category and the industry with a good old-fashioned slap fight, and they’re doing it while attacking the established order. Dave, of course, has taken issue with the Coca-Cola Co’s investments in Health Ade, claiming that the beverage giant will dumb down the category and destroy pricing. Trout didn’t sit still for comments Dave made in a Forbes article, publicly questioning the attack and holding her ground on flavors and sales practices. Both draw power from going after established leaders: Trout from the broadside of a founder who tries to claim the category as his alone as he’s being chased by a thirsty pack of entrepreneurs, and Dave by taking on the biggest brand in the world with an insurgent product that continues to win converts. Forget the cola wars – how about booch battles?

If you want to be second-guessed, turn your back on one of the biggest distributors in the U.S. and a longtime partner. And you’d better have a plan. Guess what? That’s just what Elizabeth Stephenson did at Fiji Water last year, taking advantage of a change of control to move the brand out of Keurig Dr Pepper and into warehouse distribution. It’s hard to find anyone willing to publicly back the decision in the short term, but Stephenson, Fiji’s president, is stalking bigger long term change, betting that taking the distributor’s margins out of Fiji’s cost structure is going to create a more profitable brand, even if revenue drops while the boat turns. Bucking DSD is a counter-intuitive move, but so is buying acres of pomegranate orchards, and that worked out pretty well for the Wonderful Company, too. Stephenson is just keeping with the rebel spirit. Besides, she’s also the one who unleashed the Fiji Water Girl on the world.

You knew it was only a matter of time, you just didn’t know who it would be, until now: veterans of the beverage landscape Joey Cannata and Chris Cuvelier have gone into the cannabis business. Cuvelier is working with massive California vertical Caliva, while Cannata has launched Day Trip, a brand that straddles both CBD and THC distribution routes. They’re not the only ones building out the business, though; a flood of new brands, including Sweet Reason, Recess, Aurora, and many more have hit the market. There’s a long way to go, but the business is growing like a… well…weed.