Power of One: Brands Building From Focus on Single Ingredient

Sometimes one ingredient is enough.

Even as products boasting complex flavor profiles and unique formulations continue to enter the beverage market, a simple, pure ingredient experience — whether it’s 100 percent juice, unadulterated coconut water or even black coffee — has everlasting appeal for consumers. In building each of their respective brands around a single ingredient, three emerging beverage startups — Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Monfefo, producers of cold-pressed ginger shots and drinks; Ethan’s, which markets a line of flavored apple cider vinegar shots; and maple water company DRINKmaple — exemplify both the opportunities and challenges of following this strategy.

In staking their companies’ respective reputations on these ingredients, the founders of all three brands are understandably passionate about them. In interviews with BevNET, the common thread shared between the three was a deep personal connection to their ingredient of choice; rather than a case of seeking an on-trend ingredient to build a product around, this was about finding a product or format that could best express an ingredient they love.

“We were not looking to start a company, especially not beverage,” Kate Weiler, co-founder of DRINKmaple, recalled of the brand’s origins. “That single ingredient was the catalyst for us getting into the beverage industry.”

In the case of both DRINKmaple and Ethan’s, the founders each stumbled upon ingredients with appealing functionality. While running a triathlon with business partner Jeff Rose, Weiler wandered into a coffee shop selling maple water and was instantly intrigued. “I think the concept that maple water came out of the tree and was full of these nutrients and electrolytes and could be consumed as a hydration beverage was really just mind-blowing to me,” she said.

Hirshberg’s introduction to apple cider vinegar, meanwhile, came from a friend’s recommendation. After working vinegar shots into his pre-workout routine, he noticed a substantial difference in how he felt both during and after exercising. “I think just paying close attention to my experience with it more than anything else was what convinced me that there may be something there,” he said.

For Justine Monsul, founder of Monfefo, her love of ginger came from childhood, when her mother used to prepare a simple hot brew of ginger, lemon and honey. Her warm memories of enjoying the homemade drink influenced her decision to launch the company. “I’ve always been around ginger and I know how it made me feel, and I kind of wanted to share that with everyone else,” she said.

Before they can begin evangelizing about the benefits of their product to the masses, single ingredient-based brands sometimes find themselves swimming upstream against consumers’ established perceptions of those core ingredients. With ginger, consumers were already familiar with it as an ingredient, but the manner in which it was typically presented on the market was far from the pure, potent way in which it is expressed in Monfefo.

“People mainly associate ginger with ginger ale soda or as that stuff that comes with sushi,” said Monsul. “When people try Monfefo, they are surprised at how spicy ginger actually is. I think what we’re really trying to do is redefine what people know ginger to be.”

To help change consumers’ perception of ginger, Monsul has approached consumer education in different ways, starting with the design of the product itself. “Just looking at the bottle itself, you see ginger, you see the ingredients listed and you see that it’s in this little shot,” she said, noting that consumers associate the 2 oz. bottle, which looks similar to a nip of hard liquor, with an intense and powerful drinking experience. “We try to be transparent in our marketing and our design. For one thing, our product is called a ‘ginger shot’, not a ‘wellness shot’ or anything that could be construed as a direct health claim.”

In other instances, consumers are the ones educating brands about ingredients. The foundations of DRINKmaple were built around a straightforward proposition: mineral-rich, 100 percent natural hydration. But as Weiler began developing the company, she found that consumers were honing in on the flavor, seeing it as a better-tasting plant-based alternative to coconut water. “It wasn’t until we really got into it that I discovered there was a whole segment of people that loved the idea of single ingredient natural hydration but were really not on board with the taste profile of coconut water,” she said.

Meanwhile, Hirshberg, the son of Stonyfield Farm co-founder Gary Hirshberg, worked to bolster his own knowledge of apple cider vinegar long before he began educating consumers. Early on, he hired a nutritionist to take a hard look at the science behind apple cider vinegar’s purported benefits, such as supporting gut function and healthy digestion.

“I think before you jump in you have to be truly educated on what is going on with this raw material, why it’s creating a certain buzz and why people are reacting to it in a certain way,” he said.

Yet Hirshberg also acknowledged the positive effects of kombucha and other fermented drinks in booting overall consumer awareness regarding on-trend topics like probiotics and gut health.

“I had experience with coconut water and kombucha and watching the trajectory of those industries was really helpful in preparing for something like this because you have to be patient and let the market educate itself,” he said. “We obviously push demos and have information on our website, but just in general it’s a snowball effect that seems to happen with ingredients that are actually beneficial — it gets around with word of mouth.”

Along with certain advantages, building a company around a single ingredient has plenty of challenges. Just as having a narrow focus can give a brand a sense of ownership and expertise around an ingredient, it can also be an obstacle to further growth.

DRINKmaple has grappled with this issue as the company charts a course for future growth. Since the debut of its flagship pure maple water SKU, the brand has branched into new areas: earlier this year, it launched Grapefruit and Raspberry Lemon flavors of maple water, along with a tart cherry watermelon water. The latter — released as part of the brand’s sister line DRINKmelon — reflects the way in which the company is seeking to expand its product portfolio while retaining its core identity.

“We had the vision of what this could be but at the time it didn’t really make us nervous because I think as entrepreneurs at that stage, you are trying to figure out how to do it and break in,” Weiler said of the decision to name the company DRINKmaple. “You have a very literal name which has served us well in the way that people know that this is maple-based. But it’s a disservice to us because it’s extendable into other line extensions. We’ve recognized that as we’ve grown.”

Sourcing can also a tricky area for companies built around a single ingredient, as any disruption in the supply chain is potentially crippling. For a brand like Monfefo, which manufactures all its product at its Brooklyn facility, the margin for error is particularly slim, even as Monsul noted that organic ginger has achieved sufficient prominence as an ingredient for which sourcing is not a significant issue.

“It’s an important factor to consider because if something did happen to the farm, I can’t put all my eggs in one basket per se,” she said. “That’s why it’s important to build relationships with multiple farmers, really get to know them and make sure they are sustainable and fair trade and so forth.”

While all three brands remain committed to becoming leaders in their respective sub-categories, they are also seeking ways to incorporate the ingredients into new and innovative areas.

Earlier this year, Monfefo released a 2 oz. organic turmeric shot made with orange juice, lemon juice, black pepper and agave. Monsul said that product came about because of consumer and retailer demand. And while acknowledging interest in exploring other root-based products, she said that any new products in the brand’s immediate future would be based around ginger. That includes the recently launched Ginger Water, a combination of water, organic cold-pressed ginger juice, organic lemon juice and organic honey in a 16 oz. bottle. In addition to giving consumers a less intense version of the ginger shots, the new line showcases ginger’s multiple use occasions and its versatility as an ingredient.

“I drink the ginger shot in multiple ways: I add it to warm water and make a ginger tea, add to sparkling or flat water, I make cocktails with it,” Monsul explained. “I tried to explain that to everyone but it’s kind of hard to have people actually do it. So instead I said I’m going to make it.”

While Monfefo is moving into a larger format, Hirshberg’s future plans for his brand are tied to 2 oz. shots and multi-serve bottles. “I think we really struck upon something here with this single-serve, multi-serve format,” he said. Hirshberg had considered exploring products based on other ingredients, but apple cider vinegar will remain the company’s focus for the near-term. “When we find the next thing that we are interested in, we won’t hesitate to expand into that as well.”