Sitting with Vita Coco CEO Michael Kirban during Day One of BevNET Live Summer 2018, BevNET CEO John Craven recalled first seeing Vita Coco during a tradeshow 15 years ago when the brand was young and “scrappy.” Today, Kirban and Vita Coco have cleaned up considerably to become one of the largest independent beverage brands worldwide, with Kirban predicting the company will double in size within three years.
The journey from startup to major brand — and the nebulous in-between — was a line through many of the presentations and fireside chat interviews on stage during the 19th edition of BevNET Live.
Speaking from the Metropolitan West in New York City, Kirban discussed several of the factors that helped take Vita Coco from startup in a nonexistent category to the top of a category with 25 percent household penetration. Among them was the benefit of competition. Early on, as brands like Zico and O.N.E. were trying to introduce coconut water at the same time, the category gained instant legitimacy with buyers and distributors, Kirban said. Vita Coco’s early partnership with family-owned investment firm Verlinvest also provided the company with leverage and leeway to scale.
“Verlinvest came in when we had less than $1 million in revenue,” Kirban said. “They don’t have a four-year horizon, they can be patient, we could work together and create something special.”
Essentia Water CEO Ken Uptain also sat down for a fireside chat to discuss the 20-year journey of his brand, during which he credited Essentia’s growth to patience and a steer-by-gut management style. Like Vita Coco, Essentia entered the market when the alkaline water category was virtually nonexistent. But in 2008, as consumers began to catch on, Essentia began using outsourced sales representatives; five years later, it enacted a plan to develop a nationwide DSD network to penetrate markets across all 50 states.
“The word ‘focus’ is really important,” Uptain said. “On my team we have a saying: ‘We have a plan and we stick to it.’ They like that.”
For beverage makers, the pivot from startup to mainstream brand is made up of many smaller strategic shifts throughout a company’s lifetime. Bryan Crowley, CEO of five-year-old meal replacement brand Soylent, spoke about his experience in taking Soylent from a niche ecommerce-only product to establishing an omnichannel presence with placement in Walmart, CVS, and 7-Eleven.
Soylent, Crowley said, has identified specific target consumers — techies, students, gamers, and busy professionals — as it enters brick-and-mortar retail channels. He highlighted the ways young brands can use guerilla marketing tactics and data collection to track not just consumers, but the physical presence of brand ambassadors.
Other speakers highlighted or identified some of the key elements of a healthy business. Presence Marketing CEO Bill Weiland spoke to the power of having a strong CEO and a positive, gossip-free work environment as vital to creating a successful company. Later, Bhakti Chai CEO Sarah Bird discussed building a brand on culture and mission, using brands like Rebbl, Annie’s, and Clif Bar as examples of how companies can use social activism and wellness platforms to transform internally. Even decorating the office with inspirational, on-mission murals can shift the office culture significantly, she said.
In their respective presentations, both Jon Sebastiani, founder of Sonoma Brands, and Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Organic, turned the lens to changes in the industry and how they are impacting individual brands. Sebastiani used the wine category to show how brands need to stand out from the crowd and reconnect with consumers. Not enough wine brands are differentiated, he said, while bourgeois wine culture can intimidate new consumers. While complexity in the brand and product is good, he said, being complicated is not. Hirshberg, meanwhile, focused on the consumer’s changing relationship with products and their increasing skepticism overall. While labels and certifications like Organic, Non-GMO, Local, and Fair Trade are part of a larger trend in the food and beverage industry today, many consumers don’t understand the difference, he said. They are growing more skeptical toward institutions of all kinds, he added, including and especially large companies. The modern consumer is looking for quality and transparency, and simple, direct branding is one way of achieving it.
Highlighting the importance of increasing diversity within the beverage industry, four women involved in private equity sat down for a panel to discuss the impact adding more women to the corporate workforce has had on companies in the space and how they can continue to improve.
VMG Partners co-founder and managing director Kara Roell, BIGR Ventures managing partner Carole Buyers, AccelFoods managing partner Jordan Gaspar, and Stripes Group partner Karen Kenworthy shared their experiences — at times as the only woman in the boardroom — and how the rise of women in the industry over the past two decades has benefitted brands.
Roell suggested there may be a female nurturing instinct that translates to brand building and has helped women-helmed startups like Humm Kombucha find success. She also had advice for CEOs on how to increase the number of quality female employees in their companies: “Network and ask for it.”