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The soda market is popping with new contenders. Will they stay or fizzle out?

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It was the summer of 2017 while living at Cape Cod when the idea came to Ryan Fortwendel. This was during an explosion of sparkling water companies like LaCroix and Spindrift, and Fortwendel was an avid consumer of both. But he often felt the flavor profiles were a little flat or artificial. Fortwendel usually frequented a café that served hot brewed tea, dumped over ice, and topped off with sparkling water. He referred to it as “lightly brewed sparkling tea,” and that’s when he had his “aha moment,” which would eventually result in Minna sparkling tea.

Fortwendel isn’t the only one making the most of an idea that bubbled up over drinks. The market for newfangled sodas, flavored sparkling water, and similar chilled drinks is getting hotter by the month. Following a blueprint left by craft beer brewers (and even canned-wine brands that have emerged over the past five years), these beverage producers are trotting out highly stylized cans and bottles with an aesthetic almost certainly programmed to connect with consumers via social media. It’s not enough just to want to reach for a cold one; it has to fit into the customer’s entire Instagrammed lifestyle now too.

Sales for sparkling water brands were up by 23.4% year over year in May, while total soft drinks year-over-year dollar sales grew by 15.6%. Sales for zero-calorie sodas, especially, grew by 16.7% over the past year.

“At retail, assorted flavor soft drinks have posted an impressive 18.9% sales growth rate over the past year—followed by an increased affinity for ginger,” according to a Nielsen report in January. “Soft drinks sit at the crux between health-conscious abstaining and premium mixing. The onus is on U.S. retailers, suppliers, and manufacturers to maximize a sizable revenue opportunity, both this month and throughout the year.”

“We realized that the size of the seltzer category indicated the size of the need for an alternative to sodas,” says Marisa Zupan, CEO and cofounder of United Sodas of America. “And, based on our research, we found that people were ready for a bolder flavor profile.” 

United Sodas of America describes itself as a premium direct-to-consumer brand, combining a nostalgic soda taste with unconventional flavor combinations such as
extra peach, toasted coconut, and cherry pop.
Courtesy of United Sodas of America

After a two-year process that included countless taste tests and developing proprietary flavors while utilizing only ingredients found in nature, United Sodas just launched last month. Zupan describes her soda as bolder than seltzer flavors, but not syrupy or overly sweet like some mainstream sodas.

“Everyone is a soda drinker at heart,” Zupan says. “People just didn’t have the right soda to drink anymore.”

From teas to tonics, emerging sparkling beverage makers have to be on the cutting edge to connect with health-conscious consumers.

“Every generation has a soda that defines them,” says Allison Ellsworth, cofounder of prebiotic soda Poppi. “In the 1960s, it was classic refreshment from Coke. In the 1980s, it was the diet craze with Diet Coke. In the 2000s, everything moved to zero with Coke Zero. Today, soda is as much about flavor as it is about functionality.”

Sparkling tea time

Envision your local Whole Foods. These days, there is always going to be an enormous wall of sparkling beverage options, from flavored water to soda. Sometimes LaCroix gets an entire entryway of boxes forming its own rainbow mountain of unsweetened sparkling water. 

But sparkling tea is a tiny emerging category, Fortwendel says. “I knew that we had to have packaging that really popped off the shelf. That meant color and design had to stand out,” Fortwendel explains. The callout of “lightly brewed sparkling tea” in large font on the can, he continues, was intentional to catch consumers’ attention and have them know what the brand was about immediately.

Minna touts that its sparkling teas have no sugars or added sweeteners and are made using only organic and non-GMO ingredients.
Courtesy of Minna

Fortwendel wanted to launch with three solid teas: a black tea, green tea, and rooibos tea, which is naturally decaffeinated. “Taste is very personal,” Fortwendel says. “We know that not every person will love every flavor, but we feel confident there is something for everyone.” Without hesitation, Fortwendel says the Lime Hibiscus Rooibos tea has been a standout seller.  “The typical feedback is one of surprise and delight. Despite being an easy concept to understand—tea plus sparkling water equals sparkling tea—many consumers have never had a sparkling tea. People are often surprised by the crisp, light, refreshing profile, and quality of carbonation, which is quite high versus other sparkling teas on the market.”

Before launching Minna, Fortwendel worked in corporate at Marc Jacobs for eight years, and he feels fortunate to have learned so much about good design through that experience. “Conscious or unconscious, people are drawn to beautiful things. Minimal and simplified is often the answer,” he says. “I wanted to create packaging that made the consumer want to pick it up, and yes, possibly even make them happy.”

Fortwendel thinks Minna is a real standout, first, by flavor alone. “Our flavor profiles are perfectly balanced, not too strong, and with no tannin aftertaste,” he says. “The flavor has to be right to have return customers.” Minna uses only organic, non-GMO ingredients, with a simple ingredient listing. 

And certainly, without a great flavor, there is no long tail to the business plan. But the aesthetic is critical to standing out not just on the store shelves but online too. Fortwendel wanted the packaging to reflect that minimalism, so he pulled inspiration from Art Deco designs—and even old Hermès illustrations—while referencing the beverage ingredients to create shapes that would pop off the can, giving the customer expectations visually for the flavor profile as well.

Instagram famous

Social media might look like the easiest way to build a loyal following, but as any aspiring influencer might have already learned, it’s harder than it looks.

“People spend more time on their phones and on social media than in front of a TV, igniting social media with the power to affect people,” says Jay Moskowitz, founder of Bimble, a THC-free but natural hemp-infused sparkling beverage. “Having said that, there is a glut of information flooding the social channels, and it is challenging to be heard over all the noise.”

Social media is certainly the easiest way for consumers to learn what Minna is about, Fortwendel says, and he’s aware that the branding grabs the attention of millennial and Generation Z consumers the most. “Minna is fun, it’s lighthearted, and on-trend with current cultural moments, but we also use the platform to show our consumer that we are extremely social mission focused,” he says. “We’ve seen posts on social media of children loving Minna, and my mother-in-law loves it in the evening or at parties as a Champagne alternative.”

CarryOn was developed by Ocean Spray Cranberries’ Lighthouse incubator, which was created by a farmer-owned cooperative last year to accelerate health and wellness-focused products.
Courtesy of CarryOn

As a startup, social media is one of the easiest ways for CBD sparkling water maker CarryOn to put itself out there. “It is really important to us that we have a two-way discussion with our consumers,” says Josh Wiesman, codeveloper of CarryOn. “Sure, we can make announcements and run giveaways, but to us the most important part is listening.”

The brand was inspired by the belief that mental wellness should be just as second nature as physical fitness, nutrition, or skin care. “We feel strongly that mental wellness is a key piece of holistic health and self-care,” Wiesman says. “To that end, we saw a gap in the marketplace for a trustworthy sparkling water CBD beverage that tastes good, [has] clean ingredients, and also helps relieve stress and anxiety without unwanted side effects.” 

CarryOn formally launched in May after a rapid-fire development phase in the preceding five months. “The pandemic pushed us to pivot, motivating us to find creative ways to go to market,” Wiesman says. “Now more than ever, we are leaning into our brand mission of normalizing the pursuit of mental well-being.”

Launched out of the Ocean Spray Lighthouse incubator—a program that itself took off only last October—CarryOn’s team says it took time and care to ensure the packaging and presentation reflected the time and care it took crafting the beverage inside, resulting in a font-heavy look on the slim cylinder cans.

CarryOn aims to offer more functional benefits by blending CBD with ingredients of choline, L-theanine, and vitamins C and E, while keeping its products under 10 calories and two grams of sugar per serving. The brand launched with two flavor profiles—“Elevate” and “Descend”—which are named as such to address how the customer wants to feel upon consumption. A sparkling grapefruit water, Elevate was crafted to keep one calm but sharp. With a smooth blueberry flavor, Descend was produced to provide relaxation with no impairment. 

CarryOn launched in May 2020 with two flavor schemes: Both Elevate and Descend are only 10 calories per 11.5 fluid-ounce can, provide vitamins C and E, and have no added sugar.
Courtesy of CarryOn

Wiesman says the team tested more than 100 different flavor profiles as a team and with consumers, while striving to produce a finishing taste that was refreshing and herbal but not overly sweet or heavy. “Our sparkling CBD waters are really light, which can be surprising to someone who prefers a juice or soda type experience,” Wiesman says. “Most people really enjoy the balance of aroma, flavor, and sparkling bubbles.”

Recess, also a CBD sparkling water brand that launched in October 2018, leans heavily on its social media audience for guidance.

“A key insight that has driven our brand strategy at Recess is that the most successful and enduring beverage brands that have come before us ultimately are marketing a feeling and are able to connect emotionally with consumers,” explains Ben Witte, CEO and founder of Recess. “Recess is a narrative-driven brand. Our tongue-in-cheek brand voice that we have developed over the past 18 months enables us to provide social commentary on the unique issues that millennials are going through at this time.”

“We are expanding and adding layers to the Recess brand world over time, and are evolving beyond being just a beverage brand to a new type of consumer wellness and lifestyle brand,” says Recess founder and CEO Ben Witte.
Courtesy of Recess

Witte says the brand’s digital content speaks specifically to the creative community, including designers, artists, entrepreneurs, and musicians, among others. With this in mind, Recess has aspirations of growing beyond being just a soda jerk to a fully fledged lifestyle brand as the company has recently expanded to athleisure—a conveniently timed product launch while so many consumers have been working from home. Recess Realitywear will be featuring frequent drops of clothing, either designed in-house or in collaboration with other brands and creatives.

Sweet relief

Recess did see an increase in online sales as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic became a reality across the country, with quarantine and shelter-in-place orders solidifying the “new normal.” While retail sales have dropped, weekly e-commerce sales were four times higher by the end of May compared to pre-COVID-19 in February, and Witte expects to accelerate those sales numbers with an improved website and e-commerce portal.

“Our team is working diligently to keep up orders, while taking every possible precaution possible to stay safe,” Witte says. “People are clearly looking for ways to stay calm, cool, and collected right now, and we’re happy to be able to offer something that can help.”

Poppi’s not-so-secret ingredient is apple cider vinegar, which the brand says delivers strengthened immunity, improved digestion,
promotion of weight loss, and a refined complexion.
Courtesy of Poppi

While available with select retailers across the U.S., online sales for prebiotic soda Poppi most definitely popped in the past few months. The brand’s Amazon sales are up 1,300% since March.

“From the beginning, Poppi has been a passion project and was initially funded between the cofounders’ life savings and a few credit cards,” says Ellsworth. After some early traction matched by borrowing money from friends and family (not to mention striking a deal on Shark Tank), Ellsworth says she has been fortunate to have partners who believe in and support the business. “With that said, we’ve been creative about driving growth while managing our cash burn through uncertain times around COVID-19.”

Ellsworth had always thought of herself as a healthy person. But a few years ago, she had to start traveling nonstop for work. While on the road—and seemingly out of nowhere—she started to experience a mix of different health issues. “I was feeling bloated all the time and was having allergic reactions to cosmetics and fragrances that I had been using my entire life,” Ellsworth recalls. She went to multiple doctors, but they couldn’t help. 

Like many of us who turn to WebMD to self-diagnose, the DIY enthusiast in Ellsworth also prompted her to turn to the Internet to find a solution. (Except in this case, Ellsworth would eventually turn her medical enigma into a business proposition.) She read up on the benefits of apple cider vinegar, in particular, for gut health, immunity, and better complexion. She started drinking a shot of ACV daily, and within two weeks, she says, all of her symptoms subsided. To say the least, Ellsworth says, the discovery was life-changing. 

There was only one issue: Apple cider vinegar tastes horrible on its own. Ellsworth knew that if she was going to continue with her new regimen, she had to make it an enjoyable experience. While that may have been overwhelming to some, Ellsworth says she loved the product development phase. The goal was simple: Keep it healthy and make it taste amazing. After a few weeks of development, with her husband, Stephen, as the guinea pig, Ellsworth started giving out samples to friends and neighbors. Once she got positive responses, Ellsworth knew she was onto something, so she and her husband bottled it up and started selling it at the local farmers’ market in 2015. 

Poppi is a prebiotic soda that appeared on ABC’s “Shark Tank.”
Courtesy of Poppi

The big break came just three weeks in when a local forager from Whole Foods stopped by her booth. After breaking into the shelf set in the local Whole Foods region, Ellsworth and her husband quit their jobs to built their own manufacturing facility from the ground up, eventually leading to a $400,000 Shark Tank investment in December 2018. (The couple returned to the show in April of this year to deliver an update that Poppi is on course to become the entrepreneurial reality show’s first billion-dollar company.)

One of the reasons Ellsworth was excited to partner with Coca-Cola’s chief marketing officer Rohan Oza on Shark Tank was because of his track record. “He kept telling us the product was lights-out, but our old packaging didn’t communicate that,” Ellsworth says. One of the first things Oza did was introduce Poppi’s cofounders to a creative agency. Nearly immediately, it was decided that Poppi should strive to be “the modern soda for the next generation,” and that had to start with the packaging—optimized especially for Generation Z and millennial shoppers.

Nevertheless, the most important design aspect had to communicate great taste, so the team created pop-art-inspired fruit illustrations that looked cool but also cued bold flavors. The team used vibrant, contemporary graphics and incorporated super bright, contrasting colors that would not only scream off of the shelf, but would capture the happy, fun, playful personality core to the brand. “We want people to want to share, post, and pin Poppi, all day, every day,” Ellsworth says. “Poppi is made for the ’gram.”

What’s in a name?

However, one roadblock for some new beverage purveyors might be in the name. Soda still carries the reputation of being overly sugary, full of fructose corn syrup, and full of empty categories. It’s no surprise, then, that some brands might want to disassociate themselves with the term “soda” altogether.

Sunwink proclaims to be “the first-ever sparking herbal tonic beverage.” With a flavor profile somewhere between sparkling tea and lightly sweetened soda, Sunwink’s flavors are rooted in plant and herbal profiles, such as Hibiscus Mint Unwind and Turmeric Cleanse. 

Eliza Ganesh cofounded Sunwink in 2019 after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. “I fell in love with using herbs to help with anxiety and my immune system,” the Sunwink CEO says. “My goal was to make an easy and accessible way for people to connect with plant-based wellness every day.” Ganesh met Jordan Schenck, a former head of marketing for Impossible Foods, and together they developed the vegan, non-GMO sparkling beverage. 

“We are here to bring the world drinks with purpose,” Schenck says. “We believe that the beverage industry lacks purpose-driven brands that truly look to create connection and inclusivity with our planet and one another.”

All Sunwink sparkling herbal tonics are made with whole plants, are vegan and non-GMO, and have no added flavors.
Courtesy of Sunwink

Ganesh stresses that Sunwink strives to use “the cleanest ingredients” possible, with proprietary recipes vetted by a clinical herbalist. Sunwink also makes a point of not incorporating artificial flavors or sweeteners or citric acid, which have been said to harm digestion. 

Among Sunwink’s most popular flavors have been Detox Ginger, touted to promote better digestion, and the mood-boosting Lemon Rose. “People love to drink Detox Ginger after meals as a digestif or for bloating,” Ganesh explains. “Lemon Rose has also been incredibly popular as a nonalcoholic option or even as a mixer.”

Also opting for the simple description of “sparkling drink” rather than soda, Bimble’s Moskowitz says customers have also used the beverage as a mixer for cocktails, although it is not marketed as one. Packaged in an old-school glass bottle, Bimble uses no preservatives or artificial coloring, and the company currently produces two flavors. Grapefruit basil and mint were the ingredients the cofounders loved most for the company’s first flavor, while blueberry lemon ginger offers a spicy kick for those who enjoy the heat of ginger.

“We wanted refreshing but complex flavor profiles in our drink,” Moskowitz says. “This is a beverage for a sophisticated palate, and since hemp extracts naturally taste awful, we wanted to create something that though bitter has the ability to deliver flavor balancing the bitterness.” 

Bimble is a preservative-free sparkling beverage, containing 25 milligrams of THC-free, broad spectrum hemp extract.
Courtesy of Bimble

Moskowitz left his high-pressure career as a bond trader on Wall Street to become a beekeeper in Vermont, which in 2018 eventually led him to develop a CBD beverage intended to serve as a safer remedy to life’s stressors, while supporting the vital beekeeping community. He was already involved in the cannabis investment world in his finance career, and it was during this period that he began discovering and studying the world of cannabis. A premium, flavored, sparkling beverage seemed like a perfect delivery method for the otherwise awful-tasting CBD. When he reached the point of architecting the brand, Moskowitz’s wife and Bimble cofounder, Janet Silverstein, jumped in with her experience as a film and TV producer.

Initially, Bimble was packaged in a clear bottle with black lettering, which was meant to reflect the company’s all-business New York City origins. The duo then decided they wanted each flavor to have its own color for easier identification, while incorporating honeycomb graphics in the background, inspired by the brand’s use of sustainably sourced raw honey to sweeten the drink. The bee icon in the circles hint to that aspect of the branding as well. “We are beekeepers, and each bottle purchased supports the beekeeping community,” Moskowitz says. “After a career of watching people unwind at the end of a tough day by seeking the comfort provided by holding a bottle or glass, it was important to us that Bimble came in a glass bottle.”

Bimble’s target audience, according to Moskowitz, falls between the ages of 30 and 50—consumers with responsibilities such as careers, finances, politics, families (especially aging parents), who need to have a healthy way of destressing without worrying about not being able to function the next day or even that day itself. 

“We like to think of our customer as the astute stoner,” Moskowitz quips, adding that person might be “willing to experiment with new products, searching for healthy alternatives, and are astute enough to look past the flash and read the label before putting something in their bodies.”

Even with the hemp extract, it actually shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that raw honey is the true hero ingredient for Bimble. “We source our raw honey from an apiary where we’ve gotten bees for our own yard,” Moskowitz says.

The pandemic has forced many producers to rethink the classic beverage industry distribution model. “Without the availability of demos and merchandising, we had to conceive of new ways to get Bimble in people’s hands,” Moskowitz says. “Then a funny thing happened. We realized we can do good while shipping out samples.” Bimble shipped free cases of its fizzy beverages to frontline health care workers in New York City, and it launched a program to support mental health, encouraging and destigmatizing therapy. Moskowitz says they plan to continue to develop purpose-driven programs that serve the dual purpose of contributing to society while building its brand. 

Outside of a small early friends-and-family fundraising, Bimble is primarily self-funded. The brand started bottling on March 3—just in time for the pandemic to take root in the United States and disrupt the financial markets. “Our plan was to rebrand and reformulate, improve what was already the best CBD drink on the market, and then focus on a proper capital raise,” Moskowitz says. 

So the cofounders regrouped, now focusing on e-commerce and building out its marketing effort. “Making lemonade out of lemons, we have been able to punch above our weight and take advantage of suddenly available talent that we wouldn’t have been able to touch pre-pandemic.”

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Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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