Commentary by Jonah Bloom

Vitamin Water, a Case Study in Launching a Beverage, Brand

Startup Mastered the Art of Anti-Marketing

By Published on .

Back in '96, when Darius Bikoff created Glaceau Smartwater, based on personal taste and research that included visits to remote springs and an audience with an Indian spiritualist,
Jonah Bloom, executive editor of Advertising Age.
few credited him with being anything more than an entrepreneur with a capitalism-meets-New-Age-crazy dream.

But shod in nifty packaging, courtesy of famous architect Philippe Starck, the electrolyte-laden Smartwater caught on in New York's natural-food stores and steadily spread nationwide. Bikoff repeated the trick by creating Vitamin Water -- again with the cool bottles, but this time adding an array of flavors and suggested vitamin-based functionality: "Revive," "'Energy," "Endurance" and so on.

Mainstream product
By '02 he had earned his beverage-biz stripes. Vitamin Water went mainstream fast and Advertising Age acknowledged it had created a new category, "enhanced waters." Months later Fortune recognized Bickoff's efforts in a story headlined: "Darius Bickoff vs. Coke and Pepsi."

Now, David is starting to seem more Goliath. Bickoff's Energy Brands has sustained 200% average compound revenue growth since 1998, and grown Vitamin Water's sales to $150 million a year. Most significantly, it has maintained leadership of the enhanced water category, despite the arrival of major players, such as Pepsi's Propel. Last week, under the guidance of former Coke and Mars marketing maven Rohan Oza, the company announced a $10 million advertising push for Vitamin Water, its first national campaign.

Anti-marketing
Despite the success, despite the obvious attention to marketing principles such as design and

Photo: Hoag Levins
Energy Brands' Vitamin Water has maintained leadership in the product category it created: enhanced water.
differentiation, and despite even the national effort, Energy Brands seems to have retained the important sense of being an irreverent underdog: It has mastered the art of anti-marketing marketing.

The label on "Endurance" states: "professional athletes have not endorsed this product ... excessive use will not lead you to have a desire to be like Mike, Magic or even athletes named Ned." "Energy" takes a similar tack. "We rebut any offers by professional sports leagues to become 'the official water' of anything. Although this is a great alternative to sports drinks we do not believe in succumbing to commercialism. Unless, of course, there's a lot of cash. Then we'll talk."

Cheeky tone works
The cheeky tone works better than the hyperbolic it'll make you popular/sexy/athletic claims of so many others. Among my dozen or so taste-testers and the reviews online, the label copy came up frequently as a big plus.

Nor has Energy Brands been resting on its labels. The core remains its sampling strategy. Oza won't let his people leave the building without coolers full of product. When I laugh he declares, "between getting out of the plane and reaching the cab, you can reach 30 people."

Sampling programs
More formal sampling programs include the use of 200 company-trained "hydrologist" and "campus ambassador" brand advocates. It's a word-of-mouth-meets-sampling strategy that stresses the company's differentiating strength -- functionality.

A recent Morgan Stanley study showed Vitamin Water has a 50% trial to adoption rate-streaks ahead of any other new beverage brand. With those figures, who wouldn't stress sampling in the marketing plan-along with a healthy dose of anti-marketing, of course.

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