NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Like every other category, the beverage market has been pounded by the recession, with 2008 marking its first volume decline on record as consumers buy fewer bottled beverages. Still, thousands of products continue to launch each year, making it one of the most competitive categories around. Backed by smart marketing strategies, some drink brands are breaking away from the crowd and amassing loyal consumer bases.
The five brands below aren't giants, with sales in the millions, not billions. But they've certainly won the attention and confidence of major players, such as Pepsi Bottling Group and Nestle Waters, which invested in distribution deals even in the throes of an economic crisis, in the hope of cashing in on these upstarts' appeal.
MARKETING STRATEGY: Bawls Guarana has spread its name via sponsorships in three unique communities many marketers would overlook: gamers, paintball enthusiasts and the BMX racing world. It's had a slew of tie-ins with films and TV shows, from the Paul Rudd comedy "Role Models" to HBO's "Entourage" and Bravo's "The Real Housewives of New Jersey." The company also just launched a program to allow consumers to send Bawls Guarana Military Packs to troops overseas.
SECRET TO STANDING OUT: "Own the consumer experience through targeted marketing initiatives -- not just with the product but with their overall lifestyle," said Bawls Chief Operating Officer Christina Staalstrom. "Support your consumers, and become a part of their culture."
MARKETING STRATEGY: Mr. First is relying primarily on radio ads, which feature him chatting with a colorful cast of Owater friends. Those friends, including star center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox, yoginis Ashley Phoenix and Ann Zilvitis, the Boston triathlon team and Devon Haskell, a "cyclo-cross" racer, are also tapped to appear on product labels. Virtually all of those partnerships are gratis; Mr. Ellsbury is one of the only Owater friends to receive a small amount of money from the brand.
SECRET TO STANDING OUT: Sampling. "Market to people's taste buds first," Mr. First said. A bit of chutzpah also doesn't hurt. Mr. First forged the partnership with Mr. Ellsbury after cold-calling him. "That's how I do things. ... I'll call the guy until he figures maybe if he says yes, I'll stop."
MARKETING STRATEGY: For years it relied largely on word-of-mouth, but the company recently hired its first agency of record, San Francisco indie shop Pereira & O'Dell, after a pitch against six other shops. With its help, the company plans to start reaching beyond hard-core fitness types to tout itself as more of a lifestyle drink for on-the-go individuals. It will step up its targeting of female consumers and promote a new line of products for children dubbed "Mighty Milk." The beverages retail at grocery stores, Target and delis.
SECRET TO STANDING OUT: "It's important to align with a very robust, go-to-market, unified distribution system, like we did with Pepsi Bottling Group and Pepsi Americas and other independents in their system," said Nikki Brown, VP-marketing at the maker of Muscle Milk, CytoSport. Something else that's important? Making sure your drink tastes good. "The industry recognized how challenging and critical it was to make protein taste good -- something we realized early on and made a focal point of our product development. We knew that our loyal fans would consume our products, but in order to really secure a broader audience, we had to ensure the product is both nutritionally beneficial and tasty at the same time."
SWEET LEAF TEA
MARKETING STRATEGY: Sweet Leaf relies heavily on sampling and sponsorships of popular music festivals such as Austin City Limits and Lollapalooza. This summer, major sampling efforts are slated for San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago and Boston. Mr. Christopher says the brand is now branching out to individual sponsorships of bands and athletes. It's also been more aggressive in its PR outreach and social-media efforts. Mr. Christopher is on Twitter, and various employees participate in the company's blog, The Sip.
SECRET TO STANDING OUT: Mr. Christopher advises new brands to be disciplined and go after the consumer where they're not price sensitive. "Taking mainstream accounts right off the bat is so tempting, but you can kill yourself because [consumers there] are shopping on price," he said. "We say no a lot more than we say yes. You have to create that love affair with consumers in nontraditional channels, such as music festivals, food-service accounts and delis."
MARKETING STRATEGY: When Zico enters a new market, it goes straight to hot-yoga studios, where it has had success in creating a crop of brand evangelists, Mr. Rampolla said. From there it uses sampling and events, as well as fitness-focused blogs to promote itself. The brand has also gained traction with endurance athletes, surfers and beach-volleyball players. "Our goal is to surround our target consumer in unconventional ways," he said.
SECRET TO STANDING OUT: Mr. Rampolla says discipline and patience are key, noting the brand is not yet profitable, as it's been willing to invest in growth. He expects the brand will be profitable within 12 to 18 months. PR has also been a key focus, with Sandy Hillman Communications, Baltimore, the only agency Zico has on retainer. The brand does frequently tap Commerce House, Dallas, for creative work, and Acquity Group, Chicago, for digital needs. "[Our PR agency] has been a real competitive advantage for us," Mr. Rampolla said. "It's something I'm glad we invested in."