A year after launching functional iced tea brand Role Tea, Mike Johnson has a simple piece of advice for young beverage entrepreneurs guiding their own startup ventures: “Learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible.”
That insight comes from experience: last December, just a few days after the first shipment of product went out, Johnson took part in New Beverage Showdown 12 at BevNET Live Winter 2016, pitching the competition’s judging panel on why his line of turmeric and ginger-infused teas should take home the top prize. Although he didn’t win, Johnson’s pursuit of greater knowledge and understanding of the beverage world has served Role Tea well as the company prepares to use the lessons of 2017 to fuel further growth in its second year.
“We learned it’s important to try to get the product right, get the messaging right and get a clear understanding of who the consumer is first before we try to do too much in terms of growing and scaling,” Johnson said, speaking to BevNET via phone from the company’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. “Now we feel like we are in a good position to scale, having a better understanding of who’s going to like our product, why they are going to like it, and what type of messaging we are going to use to connect with them.”
Role Tea’s evolution over the course of 2017 has brought the brand closer to its initial inspiration: making functional ingredients more approachable to a broad market of consumers. The four-SKU line, originally marketed as an iced tea blend, pairs 100 percent fruit juice — Apple, Mango, Lemon or Peach — and decaffeinated green and black teas with 450mg of the brand’s proprietary blend of turmeric, ginger and curcurmin. Each bottle contains between 10 and 80 calories, depending on the variety.
In order to separate the drink from other iced teas and further emphasize its functional qualities, Johnson and co-founder Koray Benson doubled the amount of curcurmin in each bottle to 50mg, added black pepper to aid absorption of the active ingredient and rebranded the product as an “iced tea elixir.” On the outside of the package, the callouts to turmeric and ginger have been enlarged to take advantage of consumers’ increased awareness of the ingredients and their benefits.
“We feel like we were originally under-marketing what the product really was,” Johnson said. “Our motto is ‘function and flavor perfected,’ so we always want to make sure that is towards the forefront.”
Educating consumers about turmeric and ginger is an essential piece of achieving that goal. Beyond demoing the product, Johnson and Benson have focused on the ingredients’ ability to treat inflammation, a need state that can apply to high performance athletes or the average working individual.
“We are always trying to relate turmeric to the actual benefits that you’ll get by consuming it on a daily basis– that’s where the opportunity is,” said Johnson. To that end, the brand has sponsored multiple events for the non-profit Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, as well as the 12th Kenneth Austin Rheumatology Symposium at Howard University Hospital in April.
“When you think about taking a functional beverage to the masses, our goal is to be looked at as one of those go-to post-activity drinks that you would take to help reduce inflammation and things of that nature,” Benson added. “It’s not just the athlete that’s working out, but also the blue collar worker that’s working a shift or the white collar worker that’s in their office typing all day. All of these people could potentially suffer from inflammation.”
Shifting from function to flavor, the brand has also adjusted its offerings to have a broader consumer appeal. That meant eliminating one SKU from the original lineup — a rooibos red tea blend flavored with cinnamon — and adding two new ones: Mango and Lemon. Future innovations will target 40 calorie and 10 calorie levels, the latter with no added sugar.
Johnson explained that having those more familiar fruit flavors will help the brand connect with mainstream consumers as it expands from its current presence in 12 Whole Foods locations in the Washington, D.C. metro area and Louisville, Ky. to more conventional retailers in the coming year. Starting in January, the brand will be distributed by UNFI as it targets regional grocery and food service accounts from North Carolina to New England, as well as select Midwest markets including Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio.
In Washington, D.C., Johnson and Benson have found an ideal home to grow their young brand.
“When we looked at Google Trends, in terms of searches for the term ‘turmeric’ or ‘turmeric tea,’ the D.C. metro area is in the top two or three [regions in the country],” making education less of an uphill battle, Johnson noted. The combination of urban millennial and older suburban demographics in the D.C. area have also given the brand a broad and affluent consumer base to tap into, he said.
Even with the progress made over the past year, Role Tea is still essentially a two-man operation led by Johnson and Benson, along with a small group of informal advisors. Reflecting on the brand’s journey from New Beverage Showdown 12 to its current state, Benson said the main lesson he’s taken away is that being a upstart brand is not an excuse for thinking small.
“Be resourceful,” he said. “Your biggest asset is going to be being creative and thinking outside the box until you create those relationships with people in the industry who may know better.”