Five Questions for the CEO of Beverage Upstart TrueCitrus

Available at Walmart and Whole Foods, Brand Is Plotting Its First Ad Campaign

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Breaking out in the crowded beverage category is no easy task, especially amid increasing competition from a sub-segment that , curiously, isn't a drink at all: powered drink mixes. As Beverage Spectrum magazine has reported, powdered drink mixes were actually the only segment of the juice market that grew during the economic crisis in 2007 and 2008, and at Amazon an estimated 15% of its grocery business comes through powders and mixes.

That's where Baltimore-based TrueCitrus comes in. The little-known product was invented six years ago and works the same way that the Tangs and Crystal Lights of the world do. Only it claims to be a 100% natural alternative, created by a patented process of cold-pressing a fruit's juice and oils. The single-serve packets are available in unsweetened and sweetened varieties, the latter using the sweetener stevia.

TrueCitrus is available in lime, orange, lemon, lemon-raspberry and grapefruit.
TrueCitrus is available in lime, orange, lemon, lemon-raspberry and grapefruit.

Thus far the product -- which is available in lime, orange, lemon, lemon-raspberry and grapefruit flavors -- has relied solely on grassroots marketing and, impressively, it's already quietly amassed a fan base of both consumers and retail partners. Its latest victory on the shelf was when Walmart picked up the brand for distribution in all of its stores. It's also sold at a number of major grocery chains, including Whole Foods, Kroger, Shop Rite, Stop & Shop and Giant supermarkets.

But boosting awareness is imperative, and to that end, TrueCitrus is plotting its first ad campaign. TrueCitrus CEO Al Soricelli, the former VP-marketing at B&G Foods (maker of Polaner, Ortega and Cream of Wheat) and a longtime exec at American Home Foods (maker of Chef Boyardee, PAM, Jiffy Pop, Ro-Tel and Gulden's), recently brought on the company's first agency, Roth Partners, as it prepares for a national launch. Roth was launched earlier this year by former Ogilvy & Mather exec Rick Roth.

As a challenger brand, the goal isn't to eventually supplant the biggest players, but rather to offer consumers an alternative to them, Mr. Sorricelli said. "This category is so big -- it's over a billion dollars at this point -- and we're not looking to do anything but get to those people who want a 100% natural proposition. Now, we just need to make people aware of it."

Mr. Soricelli is a purist; his favorite flavor is the original lemon variety (not the best-selling raspberry-lemonade). He spoke to Ad Age ahead of TrueCitrus' forthcoming ad blitz, assuring us that if you don't know TrueCitrus now, you will soon.

Ad Age : You have gotten distribution via Walmart stores, so that certainly helps to set you apart. Still, there are so many startups in the beverage space. Why will consumers turn to your brand instead of established players in the category they've known for years, such as Crystal Light?

Mr. Soricelli: It's very simple. We're offering them a 100% natural alternative, and in a way that tastes great. There is nothing artificial about this product. This product has been in existence for a number of years, but it hasn't been able to step out. It has some of the most loyal consumers and it has spread by word of mouth. But this year investors were confident that we had the right message, the right product and that it is the right time to make a statement in this category. ... Walmart is very interested in marketing better-for-you products, and they are looking for products that meet that criteria in all of their categories. They have put us in all of their supercenters, and it's been a great year with them.

Ad Age : You say TrueCitrus is 100% natural, but what could be more natural than an actual piece of fruit? What are you offering that fruit doesn't?

Mr. Soricelli: When this product started it was as a better way to put lemon in your tea or ice tea. ... it gives you consistency, cleanliness, safety in usage and it gives you flexibility in terms of how much you want to use at any time. It's also a great price value compared to fresh lemons. When you squeeze lemons to get lemon juice...it can be expensive. The convenience of using it is that it's portable and that there's no waste. This could sit in your cabinet and you could use it, and you could keep it in your purse, whereas a wedge of lemon starts to deteriorate the moment you cut it. We're not going against fruit, we're just there for the person who wants to use us in an easy way.

Ad Age : One way you seem to be trying to set yourself apart is by promoting TrueCitrus products not just as a beverage, but also for cooking and baking. Have you personally tried cooking with the products?

Mr. Soricelli: We're actually offered in the baking or ingredient aisle next to Splendas and sugars. Yes, I have! My wife is a nutritionist and she won't let me sell a thing without trying it ourselves. We have made lemon cakes and things, but I like [TrueCitrus] best in my water. I am a gym rat and hated drinking water, and this allows me to drink more and i actually like it.

Ad Age : You recently conducted an agency review, what was that process like in terms of the scope of players you invited and the speed with which it was conducted?

Mr. Soricelli: I did an agency search over a period of six weeks, and asked eight agencies to talk to me. The primary thing I was looking for was that they knew their stuff, knew the category. And that they wanted to work with us as much as we wanted to work with them. We did the review ourselves; I've been in the business almost 30 years...so i think i know a little bit about these things. Roth Partners came to the top of the list with their experience and their wholistic way of looking at everything. I was interested in people who had worked on challenger brands, and Rick [Roth, CEO] and his team demonstrated that they had done that before.

Ad Age : Unlike other packaged-goods products, powdered drinks actually have a season. Tell me about how this works -- when is your peak season and how will that impact when you are out in the marketplace with messaging for consumers?

Mr. Soricelli: Powdered soft-drink seasonality basically starts in the month of May and goes through the month of September. That is the peak season, and it's determined by how the products are promoted and by how much people drink bottled water. Entertainment usage and family usage is now a part of this category -- so where people make a pitcher and keep it in the fridge. That's a third of the market now. We're going to be out in the marketplace driving it as early as we can. We'll continue with our word-of -mouth and grassroots approach for the next few months, but definitely in the second quarter we will be out there.

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