Effective Messaging, Evidence Key to Growth of Niche Functional Brands

In a saturated beverage market, consumers are increasingly seeking products that offer more than just good flavor and appealing packaging. While some brands have adapted to create functional drinks that promise to hydrate, energize, or provide relaxation, others have chosen to cast a much smaller net, developing drinks aimed at solving less common health problems: think urinary tract infections (UTIs) or blood sugar spikes.

They aren’t the first products promising drinkable health solutions; many have been come and gone. But these new emerging brands believe they have learned from their predecessors’ mistakes by focusing on effective messaging and scientific evidence while also leaving open possibilities for growth beyond the niche audience they’ve established.

Identifying the Problem

The ideas behind many single-use functional beverages often emerge from the search for an easier and more convenient solution to a long-standing problem.

In the case of Jenna Ryan, it was the thought that certain female health issues were not being properly addressed. For Ryan, an eight-year struggle with UTIs and her frustration with antibiotics as a treatment “after the fact” led her to found UTI prevention drink mix Uqora with her partner and COO, Spencer Gordon. The product, created in collaboration with physicians and urologists, is designed to capture bacteria after activities that typically result in UTIs, such as sexual intercourse or exercise..

Sweetie Pie Organics, founded by baby food industry vet Liliana Cantrell, produces a five-ingredient Lactation Smoothie utilizing fenugreek to promote breast milk production and provide convenience for on-the-go millennial moms. Cantrell saw a hole in the market as infant formula consumption rates were decreasing, and set out to create a trustworthy product that supported breastfeeding mothers, who are skeptical of big brands.

Other functional beverages were also developed by health professionals looking to bring their research to consumers.

One long-standing functional target is hangover relief.

John Mansour, a pharmacist by trade, took a shot at the prize when he created B4, a “precovery” beverage designed to provide hangover relief with co-founder Dave Larue, VP of ABC Fine Wine & Spirits.

“[Larue] knew I’m a pharmacist, a chemist, and an entrepreneur and so that combination of things really lit a fire in his mind that maybe I could help him make something,” Mansour said. “And that’s how the idea of a product began.”

Mansour spent two years developing the product, creating different iterations and trying it out on Larue and his friends. The drink, which the founders claim supplies the body with the electrolytes, amino acids and vitamins that alcohol can flush out, comes in an 8.4 oz. drink rather than a shot like most hangover recovery drinks, to ensure optimal hydration.

Meanwhile, Good Idea is a drink designed to be consumed during mealtime to reduce both the risk of chronic inflammation and post-meal fatigue. Called a “blood sugar spike regulating sparkling water, Good Idea was born out of a 10-year research project by CEO Bjorn Oste’s R&D company Aventure AB, at the Anti-Diabetic Food Centre at Sweden’s Lund University. The company’s discovery of amino acids’ potential to trigger early insulin release led to Good Idea.

Overcoming Mixed Messaging

Some of these beverage startups have found that they must carefully choose their wording as intended uses can often get misconstrued and quickly earn negative connotations.

Dermatologist Bobby Awadalla developed skincare supplement drink mix UVO after research showed that patients struggled with routinely applying topical preparations, leading him to create a dermatologist-recommended product which they could easily use daily. Now sold online as a skin-enhancing multivitamin drink mix, it was originally sold in stores as a ready-to-drink beverage. However, the functionality wasn’t clear, and customers misidentified the product as a substitute for sunscreen, according to Awadalla. To control its messaging, UVO moved online and switched to the powder mix format to simplify shipping large orders and thus encourage daily use.

“What we really figured out was that the messaging for the product was not really getting through to the clients, and it was largely up to the staff that was in the retail stores to talk about the product,” said Awadalla. “We felt like a lot of messaging was lost in translation. People weren’t really getting the right information.”

Awadalla noted he was adamant about avoiding misinterpretation because the FDA had previously released warnings regarding oral supplements touting their sun protection abilities. In 2017, Osmosis Skincare was sued for consumer fraud by the Iowa state attorney general over its Harmonized H2O UV neutralizer water, which claimed to protect consumers against ultraviolet radiation, according to Denver Business Journal. The lawsuit was settled for $70,000 in October 2017.

Meanwhile, B4 has evoked sun protection terminology for a different purpose. Instead of “hangover,” the brand is using the trademarked phrase “It’s like sunscreen for your liver” in its marketing to create a more positive message about the drink’s benefits and distance it from binge drinking.

“We don’t mention hangover anywhere on our can, on our product, it’s not anywhere on our website, it’s nowhere,” said Mansour. “We 100 percent drive the conversation around protecting your body and being smart when you drink.” Mansour said that B4’s goal is to provide a way to protect people’s bodies while also educating them about what happens to them when they drink.

Last year, Never Too Hungover, a shot designed to help consumers recover after alcohol consumption, changed its name to DrinkAde for similar reasons.

“We believe the new name better represents the positive essence and values of our brand and valued customers,” said Steve Glazer, DrinkAde managing partner, in a press release. “Our mission as a company continues to be to help customers enjoy life to the fullest and stay productive.”

Both brands have thus far avoided the mistakes of predecessors like Life Support, a defunct shot supplement marketed as a hangover cure which was issued a warning letter from the FDA claiming its therapeutic claims made the product an “unapproved new drug.” Herbal hangover remedy Drinkin’ Mate received the same FDA warning in 2010.

As these new brands seek to make a name for themselves, clarity is key, and e-commerce might provide the best opportunity for this.

“The fact is that you need to have a simple message and you need to have an accurate message,” said Awadalla. “The online marketplace now is becoming a place where functional brands can give a clear message and they’re not relying on second and third parties to spread that message.”

Broadening Horizons

While these companies have established themselves as producers of a single-use product, they also look forward to possibly expanding their brands. Both Uqora and UVO have chosen to go deeper into their respective categories by expanding into non-beverage products.

Uqora has launched a capsule-delivered formula, and plans to introduce two more new products focused on UTI prevention are set for release later this year, according to Ryan. For right now, Uqora is focusing on e-commerce.

“We still have a ton of opportunity online, but we will definitely explore retail at the right time and with the right partner,” said Ryan.

While UVO has its sights set in the short term on new flavor formulations for its drink mix and possibly a shot-size RTD, Awadalla also said that he hopes to eventually launch a full spectrum skin cream line to rival laboratory designed topicals.

For some brands, their focus on a narrow functional proposition to use it as the foundation for a larger brand platform..

Cantrell noted that Sweetie Pie will be launching a powdered version of the smoothie this year along with a new flavor set for Q1 of 2020. The brand, available at Whole Foods, Walmart and CVS locations, is also entering Target this year, with other products in the pipeline that address post-natal issues mothers face. Cantrell also said that the brand may possibly expand into products for children.

“There is a lot of room for growth for us into pregnancy and postpartum,” she said. “Because the brand would be already connected to moms.”

For now, Good Idea is looking to integrate its product into to workplace wellness programs. Oste noted that the company is also looking deeper into how the beverage can improve the lives of Type 1 diabetics, as well as researching potential new health-focused products.

“We have a lot of the research and development going on in the labs in Sweden, so I think part of what we’re doing here is really understanding the network of dieticians and nutritionists, doctors, holistic primary care providers and professional healthcare providers because we see other products in the future that [can] come and address these markets as well,” he said.

As B4 works to build a presence outside of alcohol retailers, Mansour said he also sees wider health possibilities for B4. He noted a future powder pack launch will move away from direct associations with alcohol and instead be positioned as a hydration and a natural energy product.

“We probably would gear the conversation more towards the idea of a healthy lifestyle and having supplementation versus just talking about drinking and just talking about the idea of quote unquote hangover, especially for us,” he said.

Remaining Relevant

In both current products and potential future launches, these personalized products run the risk of becoming irrelevant or outdated as new research emerges or consumer preferences change.

For some, this means conducting continual research to ensure their products remain effective. Mansour said he is willing to change B4’s formulation or add an ingredient if he finds it better supports the beverage’s functionality.

“I’m a scientist and pharmacist as a trade, but I’m also an entrepreneur and both sides of those career paths always want the best, and always want the most up to date information and always want to provide it in a way that is beneficial to whoever is on the other end,” said Mansour.

Oste, who also founded oat drink brand Oatly, said amassing substantial scientific evidence was crucial in developing Good Idea, and that future products will take a similar approach..

“It is important to us that whatever we do, whatever claim we do, we can substantially back it up with real solid evidence,” said Oste. “Clinical studies and clinical trials are inherent to our DNA and everything we do we try to study clinically to prove that it delivers real substantial health benefits.”