Coconut Water Cut-Downs Accompany Category Buildup

and Matt Casey

Even during the shortest, least tropical month of the year, the long knives came out this week in a series of skirmishes over the emerging coconut water category.

Soon after Vita Coco announced that it attracted a bevy of celebrity investors, one of Vita Coco’s two main competitors, O.N.E., made an announcement of its own declaring itself the market leader – at least according to the sales data firm SpINS.

But that announcement was itself attacked by both Vita Coco and the category’s third competitor, ZICO, whose president, Mark Rampolla, also blew off Vita Coco’s glitzy new backers, who include Madonna, along with several other high-profile actors.

“We have half-a-dozen A-list celebrities as investors,” Rampolla said, adding that he and his company – which does feature financing from both the Coca-Cola Co. and NetJet owner Jesse Itzler – “just haven’t chosen to make a bunch of noise about it.”

Meanwhile, O.N.E. founder Rodrigo Veloso defended the release of the SpINS data, even while acknowledging that it is a less-than-complete measure of the category. The data, while focusing on natural foods segments, does not include convenience stores, bodegas, or even Whole Foods, the largest natural foods retailer in the country.

“If you see the fast-growing coconut water segment, currently a lot of companies have been claiming to be the leader without actually showing what kind of source, or how can they claim that leadership,” Veloso said.

Nevertheless, Vita Coco has long claimed to be the market leader, and followed up the O.N.E. announcement with a statement asserting its control of 60 percent of the category’s retail share. The company’s CEO, Michael Kirban – fresh off an interview with FOX Business News, where Veloso had appeared a few months ago – also pushed back on O.N.E.’s announcement.

“They’re doing whatever they can, I guess, to look like the bigger brand,” he said.

The back-and-forth over market leadership left Rampolla slightly bemused (although, obviously, still a bit feisty when it came to celebrity investors). Calling BevNET from Manhattan, where he had recently landed as part of a first-quarter marketing push, Rampolla made it clear that, rancor aside, he was more interested in building a brand for the long term rather than worrying about whoever was the market leader in the coconut water category — which still has in the neighborhood of $50 million in domestic sales between the three companies combined.

“All of our distribution is so spotty,” he said. And that means a single change in one company’s retail profile can create a shifting of the rankings. “Somebody sells in a big a deal to a couple of stores, their number shoots up. What I worry about is… laying a foundation that allows us to have sustained, profitable growth.”

To that end, Rampolla made it clear he and Coca-Cola had been able to answer at least one key question about his own company’s future, that of his ability to secure a supply of the juice of the young coconuts after the purchase of his main supplier, Amococo, by PepsiCo last year. With PepsiCo also having a relationship with O.N.E. through investor Pepsi Bottling Group, there had been rumblings of a supply issue for Rampolla, one that he said he had been able to alleviate through new sources of the electrolyte-laden juice in multiple companies.

Of course, ZICO hadn’t exactly steered clear of the PR machine this week, either, issuing a press release to trumpet three new executive-level hires expected to help oversee the company’s – you guessed it –long-term plans.

Nevertheless, one of those hires announced was VP of Marketing Bill Lange. Lange is moving into an opening left by the departure of a high-profile hire the company had made the year before, Maile Buker, who had built her reputation at companies like IZZE and Nike. Due to her background, Buker had been considered something of a celebrity herself in beverage circles.

Buker’s tenure at ZICO? A robust eight months.