Mate, Mission Fuels Growth for Clean Cause

Wes Hurt isn’t the only beverage entrepreneur who has built a brand around a social mission inspired by personal experience.

But rather than focusing on more familiar causes like environmental sustainability or disease research, Hurt is using his platform as the founder of Austin-based Clean Cause to combat a problem that has and continues to ravage communities across the U.S. It’s one he knows intimately from his own life, as well. Fifty percent of profits for Clean Cause products — which includes a natural energy drink line, a premium water and a ready-to-drink sparkling yerba mate beverage — goes towards helping individuals struggling with substance abuse addiction begin the process of rebuilding their lives after completing a rehabilitation program.

Through this combination of product and purpose, Hurt sees an opportunity to exercise conscious capitalism in a way that can impact consumers on multiple levels.

“We are basically going to use addiction to fight addiction,” Hurt told BevNET in an interview.

Until several years ago, Hurt was one of the thousands of Americans struggling with drug addiction and substance abuse issues. Starting as a teenager experimenting with alcohol and marijuana, Hurt eventually moved to opioids, prescriptions pills and other hard drugs, becoming a heavy user even as his baking company Hey Cupcake! began to take off. The effects of his drug use were devastating; after multiple failed attempts at rehab, being fired from his own company and facing the potential dissolution of his marriage, Hurt finally got clean in 2014.

When he began to explore ideas for a new business, Hurt knew it would include a social mission component. In determining what form that would take, he said he looked for a solution that could be practical and aspirational at the same time. He chose to partner with a range of both nonprofit and private organizations that provide 30-day sober living scholarships, giving individuals who have completed rehabilitation programs access to high-accountability homes as they continue their recovery. To date, the company has awarded over $100,000 in scholarships.

“We needed to make a giveback initiative that was easy to digest but was also very practical and needed,” he said. “You get clean and you’re excited, but you aren’t ready for reintegration [into society]. We saw this as an opportunity to create a small bridge between rehab and reintegration.”

For recovering addicts, finding employment and establishing a consistent routine is a critical piece of making that transition, and Clean Cause has also played a part in that.

“I found one of my good friends growing up asleep in a car seven years ago; he was a meth addict. I drove him to rehab that day, and now he’s my sales director,” said Hurt. “Our event coordinator had a child that had to withdraw from heroin when it was born, and now she’s one of the main components of the heart of our brand. I feel so blessed to have people that really feel a sense of ownership over our purpose.”

With a clear aim, Hurt has set out to integrate Clean Cause’s mission into a simple, unified brand identity. The concept of “clean,” he said, works on multiple levels; it’s reflected from the simple, minimalist package design to the drinks’ all-natural formulations. “The design, the word and the cause are all synonymous,” he said. “It’s something that people resonate with immediately when they see it.”

Moving forward, Hurt envisions Clean Cause’s yerba mate line as the primary fuel that will propel the brand toward its goal. Though his company already has an organic, sparkling natural energy drink line in 12 oz. cans, Hurt indicated the sparkling mate product — which contains 60 calories and 160 mg of caffeine, compared to 20 calories and 60 mg of caffeine in Clean Cause’s energy drink — would be distinctive enough in terms of functionality to not compete directly. While Guayaki has long been a leader in the ready-to-drink yerba mate segment, recent product launches such as Marley Mate and PepsiCo’s Yerba mate-based energy drink Yachak have indicated a growing interest in the space.

“I wanted to compete in the space where you could create a wildfire, not just a brush fire,” he said. “We just think represents the brand the best, it’s going to give us the greatest ROI and it’s the most interesting.”

While Clean’s premium water and energy drinks are still an important part of the company’s plans, those lines will follow a different development strategy based on organic growth in regional accounts. For the four-SKU sparkling yerba mate line — available in raspberry, blackberry, peach and lemon lime — the canvas is potentially much bigger; the product is currently in about 500 locations, but Hurt projects it will “likely be in 10,000-plus” locations by the end of 2018. DSD houses Coast Beverage Distributing and Bayside Distributing recently signed on to distribute the yerba mate line in San Diego and Massachusetts, respectively, and the product is rolling out in 122 Target locations across Texas this week.

According to Hurt, retailers have responded to Clean Cause based on both the mission and the relevance of the category, a combination that he believes will open even bigger opportunities in the future. Using the social mission as a springboard, he sees a broad master brand that can be extended across any CPG product and one that can potentially attract interest from investors and large companies seeking to make an acquisition.

“[Coke and Pepsi] can win the hearts of America with this brand,” he said. “[They] are trying to reinvent themselves and they know they have to shift. This speaks to something deep and real, and it’s a cause the U.S. can unite behind.”

Yet even if such a deal doesn’t come to fruition, Hurt said he has much to be thankful for.

“I want this to carry on with or without me and, as of late, because of the attention and success we’ve had, it’s something I’ve had to think about more deeply,” he said. “I have to be a man [for my kids] and be able to say, ‘yeah, your dad smoked crack and popped 35 Vicodin.’ I don’t want to say it out of shame but to say ‘Daddy got back up and is fighting for other people, too.’ That’s how I want my kids to know me.”