Expo East Review 1: Can It! Goldman Calls Honest Fizz “Not a Done Deal”

Although there were mockups and flavors – even sampling — and an accompanying bubbly giddiness at the Honest Tea Expo East booth, there was no confirmation that the brand will be rolling out a line of carbonated soft drinks.

Honest Tea co-founder and “TeaEO” Seth Goldman — speaking on the second day of the annual East Coast natural products show, which was in Baltimore this year — put the kibosh on the notion that the line was inevitable.

“It’s definitely not a done deal,” Goldman told BevNET, pointing out that the company has used Expo East for product experimentation in the past, and has gone into and out of the market quickly with products like its “CocoaNovo” chocolate play.

Still, there were clear signs that the booth was prepared to launch a four-SKU line – tentatively labeled with zero-calorie, Stevia-and-erythritol sweetened root beer, lemon lime, orange “pop” and “Professor Fizz” (think cherry/pepper) flavors – if it got the go-ahead, down to a potential pricing scheme for 6-packs and single-serve cans.

Goldman did allude to the possibility that the product could just be one of several steps in the broadening of the Honest brand, however, as he said the Coke property might eventually try to add a tween-focused fizzy “Splash” line that could take the brand into schools and bridge the gap between its youngest consumers and adults.

For those youngest consumers, however, the company rolled out a new, juice-sweetened version of the fast-growing Honest Kids line during Expo East, tweaking a formula that has become a major part of the business. According to Goldman, the Honest Kids line is close to 1/3 of the company’s revenues at this point. The new white grape-sweetened version of Honest Kids will be out in natural channels in October, and is launching with significant end-cap space in national accounts like Target and key supermarkets in January.

“It’s on fire,” Goldman said of Honest Kids.

Also on fire is a potential Honest Fizz competitor, however – Zevia. The original Stevia-sweetened soda brand, Zevia was purchased by natural foods entrepreneur and part-time martial artist Paddy Spence in the October of 2010.

The brand offers straight-ahead CSD flavors in a traditional 12 oz. (and now 16 oz.) can. According to Spence, the brand has quadrupled its growth over a two-year period while studiously avoiding any extension of channels beyond natural, grocery, and drug, avoiding convenience, club and warehouse accounts.

That’s not to say that people aren’t buying Sam’s Club-sized portions of the now 15-flavor line, according to Spence.

“What’s cool is our brand has gotten to the point where the consumers who like our brand can’t live without our brand,” he said. “We see a lot of pantry-loading.”

Two other companies hoping for pantry-loading behind a new canned product were natural products stalwart Inko’s teas, which have recently broadened beyond its longstanding white tea product to include black, rooibos, and green tea flavors in 16 oz. cans, and Marley Beverage Co., which was showing off canned versions of its coffee line during Expo East.

“We’ve always wanted to go into Inko’s Teas,” as opposed to just white tea — said co-founder Andy Schamisso. “I think there’s a great opportunity in the natural [channel] cold box for cans.”

Meanwhile, at fast-growing Viva Beverages, which makes Marley’s Mellow Mood, among other Bob Marley-themed beverages, representatives of the Marley family were on hand for photos as CEO Kevin McClafferty and marketing manager Lee Brody showed off new “light” coffee line extensions that ushered the line’s move from glass bottles into slimcans.

“It’s about growing the category,” Brody said of the new emphasis on coffee, where the brand is expected to compete with Starbucks and its sub-line, Seattle’s Best.

One company that definitely wasn’t canning anything was Aquahydrate, a celebrity-backed functional water brand that recently re-launched its package to more directly aim at the athletic consumer. The company has had product on the market for several years – and the added buzz that comes from investment by actor Mark Wahlberg – but never gained traction. New key investors Sean “Puffy” Combs and Ron Burkle are on board as well as the brand also aims to roll out flavors to join its key line of high-alkaline, electrolyte fortified waters.

Recently hired execution-oriented CEO John Cochran was brought aboard early this year to turn things around, and while he was busy meeting with Safeway officials during Expo East, new field marketing manager Joey Steger explained that the brand was now changing its focus to the “everyday warrior.”

“Our focus is everything from what we’re calling ‘intense achievers’ to ‘active improvers,’” said Steger, who was one of the earliest employees of Function drinks, another L.A.-based brand.

More to come tomorrow with Expo East Roundup 2