One firm convinced it has the answer is True Drinks, a new company led by beverage industry veteran Lance Leonard (a former director of global customers for Nestle Waters) which reckons it has hit on the formula for explosive growth with AquaBall: A zero-calorie line of naturally flavored and sweetened vitamin waters in distinctive ball-shaped bottles emblazoned with Disney and Marvel characters.
Introduced to the market in 2012 with 30 calories and 8g sugar, the brand was re-launched in the first quarter of 2013 with zero calories (stevia extract is now the only listed sweetener) in four flavors (orange, grape, berry and fruit punch), and has since gained authorization in more than 25,000 grocery, drug, mass and club stores from Safeway and Kroger, to Rite Aid, Albertson’s and ShopRite.
Could AquaBall be a $100m brand? “Absolutely”
Indeed, AquaBall has secured distribution so fast that its creator - chief marketing officer Kevin Sherman - is confident it can secure a sizeable chunk of the rapidly-growing $1.2bn children’s beverage market.
So could it be a $100m brand? “Absolutely”, Sherman tells FoodNavigator-USA. “Getting that kind of distribution in less than a year is almost unheard of in the beverage industry. I think ultimately this brand could easily be worth hundreds of millions and expand into several international markets. This is a global brand.”
But how does he account for its success?
“When it comes to healthy hydration for kids, we saw there was actually a lot of white space,” he claims. Kid-focused brands such as CapriSun, BellyWashers, Kool-Aid Bursts, Tum-E-Yummies, Honest Kids and Juicy Juice all have calories and sugar, even if some of them have ousted artificial colors and flavors, he points out.
“Moms don’t want their kids to drink soda, and juice is great in small quantities, but you don’t want to be drinking eight glasses of it a day for hydration, and there is also a dental health issue here too.
“There are actually surprisingly few truly healthy hydration beverages for kids, and yet look at the rates of childhood obesity and diabetes. I was amazed when I first started looking at this space.”
A lot of people thought we couldn’t make it work for the children’s palate
But given the challenges some of the world’s biggest soft drinks companies have had getting zero calorie beverages to taste good with natural sweeteners, how has True Drinks achieved it?
“It was a challenge, as taste is king for kids,” acknowledged Sherman.
“Adding meaningful amounts of vitamins can also be difficult flavor-wise, and we’re a good source of vitamin B6, B12, B3 and vitamin C, and we’ve got no artificial colors, flavors or sweeteners. We’re using real fruit flavors, and once people try it once, they come back for more.
“A lot of people thought we couldn’t make it work for the children’s palate [VitaminWater Zero, which is sweetened with stevia and erythritol, is marketed to adults], but we spent a lot of time on the flavor profile until we found something we were happy with.”
A key part of the product’s appeal is the bottle, which stands out on shelf in a sea of tetra pak boxes, pouches, cans and regular-shaped bottles.
“We own the patent on the AquaBall design,” says Sherman. “It stands out, but it is also ergonomically fitted for a child’s hand, so it’s definitely a big part of what makes the brand a success. It's won us quite a few awards."
There is a whole group of consumers that is looking for a quick nutrient fix and wouldn’t go near 5-Hour energy
While AquaBall is the focus for the True Drinks team right now, it has other irons in the fire, including Bazi, a natural energy shot packed with super fruits, vitamins, minerals and BioEnergy Ribose that was at one point sold at Whole Foods and 7-11, but is now being sold exclusively online while bosses pump all available resources into AquaBall, he said.
“Sales are still growing, and the plan for the future is absolutely to go back into bricks and mortar with Bazi,” said Sherman, who also developed the Bazi brand.
“There is a whole group of consumers that is looking for a quick healthy nutrient fix and wouldn’t go near 5-Hour energy, and retailers are looking for more healthy on-to-go options, so Bazi is really ahead of its time.
"We're planning a really aggressive digital and social media campaign this summer around the brand."
In future, growth will come both from acquisitions and products developed in-house, says Sherman, who says True Drinks recently completed an $8m round of equity financing and has the funds to support AquaBall’s rapid growth.
The Irvine, California-based firm has also struck licensing agreements with major entertainment and media brands including Disney and Marvel.