The First Drop: Losing Combinations

Not long ago – and I apologize if you’re reading this and it was your idea, and maybe you’ll prove me wrong by really setting the world on fire but as you’ll see in a second I’m just using it to make a point – we got a note from a meat snack entrepreneur asking whether he should start making a bone-broth kombucha.

I thought this was not a good idea. Not because there aren’t potential reasons for this product to exist in someone’s home or life. Maybe it’s good for you. Maybe it represents a culture of 10,000 years that has been floating around and I’m being culturally ignorant. Maybe – and this is the simplest reason – you make it already and you actually like it. Certainly, plenty of brands have been launched for any of these three reasons.

But I thought it smacked of a kind of syndrome that we’ll call subtraction by addition – the idea that two trends can go together in a way that has little to do with their particular meaning and much to do with the idea that someone might be able to make a quick buck off the combination.

It’s worked in some spaces, of course. The fast growth of alcoholic sparkling water brands and, to a lesser extent, “hard” kombucha shows that it’s possible to launch quickly into fast growing trends by combination – but it shows that it also helps to add booze if you’re going to make that combination. We’re seeing other companies, like Cannabiniers and Ceria, try to base brands around the combination of zero-alcohol craft beer and cannabis.

In a field in which new ideas are being bottled furiously as regulations and technology change, a brand or idea gaining a little traction can seem like a runaway win. We hear constantly about this beverage or food selling out at Erewhon or in a few popular coffee shops, and of course we are fascinated by innovative formulation and branding because they show us all creative possibilities – and even occasionally taste good.

One trend is getting attention, the thinking goes, so why not combine it with another?

After all, there are so many new brands fighting for consumer attention, both online and in stores, that clear signals of long-term success – i.e. regular same store sales and resonant brand stories supported by sustainable margins and growth capital – seem to exist on a different plane from the coastal incubation zones of Abbot Kinney Boulevard and Smorgasburg.

But while it might seem like a good idea to marry two emerging trends, and it might even be something you secretly enjoy at home, these combinations often don’t work commercially.

Sometimes, the issue is that one or both of the base propositions are already aimed at a limited audience. Carrot juice and green juice have existed in one commercial format or another for years. The growth of HPP, a technology that could keep them fresher, longer, and hence tasting better, expanded alongside juice shops to allow the growth of quite a few brands, but the expansion ultimately may have outpaced audience estimates, particularly given a product cost that may have been too high for consumers to justify taking the risk.

New propositions become even harder to prove out when you’re dealing with a combination product. As an organization, we – and Bonafide’s investors and founders – loved the idea of Drinkable Veggies, a combination bone broth/HPP veggie juice that could be drunk cold. It turned out the idea ultimately reduced the available audience rather than increased it, and the Bonafide team has since turned more toward its core broth consumers and looked for brand expansion behind more conventional soups.

Other times, the combined ideas are better fulfilled by a better product set: a while back, as Red Bull and Monster started to take off, there was a rush to try to come up with energy mixers, tonics and club sodas and the like that would also bring a rush of caffeine into a cocktail. The problem was, the same audience that would embrace that kind of product had already found mixers they liked a lot that would give them the same kind of energy drink kick – they were called energy drinks, and they worked just fine with booze.

One thing we’re seeing a lot of now is an attempt to ignite a flailing brand by cross-pollinating it with something trendy, like CBD or probiotics or turmeric, although that should be a concern for those companies who are basing their own potentially legitimate brands around these ingredients. “Fairy dusting” of functional ingredients can have a disastrous leveling effect for emerging categories, and trying to prop up a flagging brand with even functional amounts of a trendy ingredient can kill off a more promising new entrant in an evolving space when buyers don’t see the older brand getting a lift from the innovation.

That’s not to say that these combinations never work out. But there’s a lot more to it than just stirring the pot and adding the mother, so like with all relationships, look around and within to think about just how far it can go.