Interview: How To Build A Cult Beverage Brand Into A Market Leader

Interview: How To Build A Cult Beverage Brand Into A Market Leader
Brand Activation & Immersion

In this interview, Vita Coco's executive vice president of global brand strategy and development discusses how the brand's entrepreneurial environment and strategy are enabling the coconut-centric beverage brand to cultivate a mass consumer following

Elisa Lewittes
  • 3 september 2018

In an ever-expanding world of options, consumers increasingly are looking to find meaning in their experiences and purchases. They seem to buy based on how products make them feel and how brands enable them to engage with their offers. Particularly suited for experiential marketing and shopping are wellness brands, who are moving to design interactive stores and products that fit with consumers’ desires for retail with meaning. To this end, coconut beverage brand Vita Coco is focusing on cultivating inclusivity, community, authenticity and transparency in its brand experience.

The company’s vice president of global brand strategy and development, Jane Prior, spoke with PSFK about how the business is enabling its consumer base to engage with the brand through fitness classes, wellness events and “Instagramable” spaces, embodied in its recent NYC pop-up this July 20-22.  Jane explains Vita Coco’s mission to enable consumers to seamlessly integrate healthy habits into their daily routines, as well as describes how a modern beverage brand can cultivate a wide-reaching, engaged consumer base. Finally, Jane also discusses the new Vita Coco Sparkling drink, with which the brand plans to disrupt the sparkling beverage market.

PSFK:  How have you seen your consumer base transition from the fashion and lifestyle niche to a larger mass-customer market? 

Jane Prior: I think in our early days, fashion was one of the core influencer-communities that adopted the brand. In the early days, we relied on influence marketing to build a brand. Brand awareness through word of mouth is so important to us—people telling others why and when they consume Vita Coco. Understanding why they love the brand is vital to our success.

We have been around for 15 years. We’ve been growing exponentially, especially for the last 10. Our brand’s consumer base of yoga influences, fashion influences, music influences is evolving to encompass a much more mainstream consumer base. Now, basically, any consumer who’s interested in health and wellness is our target customer for our coconut water. Our brand’s ethos lies in our consumers being able to live balanced lifestyles. We believe that we can help in any part of your life. This core value makes us a very accessible brand and line of products for a wide array of consumers.

How do you appeal to a more mass consumer? 

It’s a couple of things. Taste can be a barrier for us. Coconut water can have an acquired taste for someone who’s never had it before. We like to joke that sometimes it takes three times to fall in love with the product and fall in love with the brand. You just give a try a couple times. Then eventually you fall in love with it, and then you’re addicted. For a more mainstream consumer, we have other product offerings such as our pressed coconut one. It’s coconut water with the pressed meat from a coconut. It gives the beverage a real traditional coconut taste.

People are sometimes surprised when they try coconut water first because it doesn’t taste like coconut or the coconut that they historically know—taste of a candy or a piña colada. This product actually has that coconut taste. It’s helping us to appeal to a more mainstream consumer and, maybe, someone who’s previously has been more skeptical of coconut water.

Our Sparkling product is another one. We’ve had a number of consumers say, “I’m not a huge fan of coconut water, but I’m a big fan of Sparkling.” It’s a way to get the benefits of coconut water with a slightly different taste profile, for a different part of the day, and a different experience. 

Everyone today speaks about the importance of authenticity. How do you think the simplicity of coconut water relates to this prevailing modern consumer ideology?

For consumers these days, some of the most important things, on a product level, are clean ingredients and simplicity. In our case, we have these naturally occurring functional benefits, which I think is so unique. That’s why Vita Coco plays so well with the way that consumers are thinking today, how they’re selecting their brands, and then making their product choices. I think we’re very lucky to be starting with an ingredient that is so special. Really for our core base product, we don’t have to do much—it’s such an amazing product.

I think that consumers appreciate that. From a brand perspective, authenticity and transparency are also so important to a consumer. That’s why we’re very, very transparent with our consumers about all our product—what’s in them, how we make them—because, again, that’s what consumers want. They want to understand what they’re consuming.

They don’t want ingredients that they can’t pronounce. They want to be able to say, “Hey. I can read this ingredient panel. It’s super straightforward. I get it. I understand carbonated water. I understand coconut water. I understand grapefruit juice. I understand what’s in this product, and I feel good about putting it in my body.” That’s very important to us as a brand and when we develop products. It fits with the ideology of the consumer these days.

How do you keep that niche feel when you’re appealing to a mass market?

Like I mentioned, in the early days, we definitely had a very niche consumer in that we appealed to a much wider consumer base. I think it’s just about maintaining the credibility and authenticity that has made us who we are.  It’s our baby. That’s how we treat it, and that’s how we want to convey it to consumers, whether it’s our early-adopting niche consumer, or whether it’s a more mainstream consumer. We believe that everyone deserves the right to have great products and to have great experiences with them and the brand.

Do you believe your digital channels create an ideology for your brand rather than a line of products in themselves?

Absolutely. I think these days consumers expect more from brands. It’s not enough just to be a product. That’s really important to us and important that we can build that to consumers. That’s why experiences like this help to convey that through all of our digital. They give customers a reason to follow and engage with us.

I can see your brand doing DJ yoga sessions.

We’re actually doing the morning rave this fall. That’s a great place. It’s such a perfect occasion for us. It takes place the first thing in the morning. You’re working out. You’re having fun. It’s a perfect place to get your daily dose of Vita Coco.

When communicating to all these audiences, how do you integrate your social channels with your real-life experiences?

That’s the beautiful part. It’s like social and digital give us an opportunity to be so targeted. Whether it’s through online or offline channels, we have an opportunity to be very targeted to make sure we have the right message to engage a new consumer who, maybe, doesn’t understand the benefits of coconut water.

Then, for someone who’s more familiar with the brand and has tried our products, we can get a little deeper with that person and talk about some of our other initiatives. We have a corporate social responsibility program that we don’t talk too often about but we do a lot of partnerships on the ground—in the Philippines, in particular, where we source our coconuts from.

That’s a story that resonates with someone who understands coconut water and has been consuming it for a long time. Their knowing that we also do good for the communities that we source from adds credibility to the brand beyond the great product that we offer them. By connecting this experience with social media, we create the most immersive experience for both consumers and influencers.

For influencers, obviously, we have very targeted, curated content this week that’s a little bit special for them. Then we give that more mass experience to the rest of our consumers who can enjoy the space. Then, hopefully, they share the moment that they have with their fans through their social channels.


Do you believe that occasion marketing better enables consumers to link the different areas of their lives with one cohesive and fluid brand?

Believe it or not, a lot of people, especially outside New York, have never tried coconut water and don’t necessarily understand the benefits. For us, occasion-based marketing is a great way to help someone understand how to make it fit into their life. When you get into the technical aspects of the product, it contains electrolytes, potassium, and natural sugars. Consumers don’t necessarily understand that. They think it’s good for me and something great to help me replenish post-workout. I get it. That’s for me.

That’s the role that occasion-based marketing plays for us. You may be a consumer who has a great interest in health and wellness, but you’re not a super-big fan of working out. Then there’s another place for your products for you. Occasion-based marketing enables us to segment the consumer. It also helps to educate people on why and when to use the brand.

Do you think that providing experiences or education is more important for consumers?

Ultimately, experiences. However,  with a product like ours, education is very important. Consumers have so much choice. There are so many alternatives out there. Coconut water is unique. There are not many products that have naturally-occurring benefits. There’s no science to this product. This has existed for thousands of years. People all over the tropics have been drinking coconut water forever. It’s such a simple concept. It’s so intuitive when you tell someone.

At the end of the day, oftentimes people say, “Coconut water. What is that? How does it fit into my lifestyle?” Education is important. The experience is so key to bringing people into brands and helping them fall in love with brands. People don’t fall in love with products. They fall in love with brands. For us, it’s an important combo, but ultimately experience wins out.

For younger consumers, products like milk and soda are falling out of favor. With its wellness-oriented consumption patterns in mind, do you see Vita Coco making itself into a lifestyle beverage brand like a healthful Coke, for example?

Absolutely. Ultimately that’s our ambition as a brand—we’re a beverage platform. We’re not just one product of coconut water. We have multiple products for multiple occasions. We see ourselves as a better-for-you brand across multiple categories in the same way. There are so many categories that are open to disruption. You have carbonated soft drinks, which have obviously been falling out of favor for a long time now. Sparkling water [is] a big part of the trend of people looking for sparkling but wanting something better, and that’s where Vita Coco comes in. Sparkling is such a key player.

People just want that effervescent sparkling experience, but they don’t want all the bad stuff. Then with milk, it’s the same thing. Dairy milk is also getting a bit of a hard time these days. People are concerned about the GMOs, about hormones in dairy milk and looking for plant-based alternatives. We have a great coconut milk that’s a plant-based alternative that gives consumers another reason to come into the brand.

Ultimately, we do see ourselves as a platform similar to a Coke or a Pepsi. The beautiful part for us is we’re starting with good-for-you products and good-for-you ingredients. We won’t and will never compromise on that. We’ll always be about products that provide real nutritional benefits to consumers with clean ingredients. Our brand’s mission is to enhance your life, not negatively affect it.  



Do you think that your various products enable consumers to associate your brand with a variety of different spaces and occasions in their lives?

That’s the idea. It’s like we can fit into your life in any part of the day. Our portfolio allows us to do that—whether it’s cooking with our coconut oil, making cocktails with our Sparkling, recovering with a Vita Coco pure coconut water in the morning when you’re hungover or when making a smoothie before running to a workout. We have a product for almost every occasion. That’s really unique as a brand to be able to fit into people’s lives in so many ways.

How have you created your product extensions? 

Many of our product inspirations are from our internal teams. We’re a very passion-led company. We don’t necessarily rely on massive consumer research or insights to develop our products. We have very intuitive feelings about what our consumers want.

I meant to do an amazing base product and base ingredient with coconut. There are so many things that you can do with a coconut. That’s usually where our inspiration starts. We’re like, “What can we do with a coconut that’s going to bring benefit to our consumers?” That’s how we got to our coconut milk product, which is unique.

Most of the non-dairy products on the market have added sugar and are very watery. Because we use coconut water and coconut cream as the base, it’s rich, creamy, almost dairy-like experience but with no added sugar and none of the negative stuff of dairy and all of the good stuff of a plant-based alternative. 

I’d like to say that we do tons of consumer research and have a lot of insights to inform our innovation. The truth is we’re a very entrepreneurial, founder-led organization. Many of our innovations come from our passions, our insights and our intuition about what consumers are looking for and understanding those trends. So far, it’s made us pretty successful. I think our new sparkling beverage product is going to be a big moment for the brand. Our milk and our oil products are already quite a big success.

Besides the product itself, how do you think the packaging influences consumers’ perception of the brand?

The packaging has been really important to the brand. It’s super disruptive, especially on our core product. It’s not very polished the way a lot of brands are in terms of how they communicate. I think with our Tetra coconut water, the packaging has always been very telegraphic of coconut water. When people think of coconut water, they think the tropics. Many people have tried it, whether they’ve been on vacation in Brazil or whatnot. I think the packaging is very evocative of that. It’s been an important disruptor for us. When you see us on-shelf, you can pick us out.

Do you have any type of membership programs?

We have a VIC community, which is our influencer community that’s managed by our team in New York. Many of the influencers who will be here this week are part of that community. They’re people whom our consumers aspire to be as far as their wellness, or workout, or mindfulness choices are concerned. They play a very important role in driving that word of mouth about the brand and helping to educate consumers, frankly, about when and why to use coconut water.

The next big space that we plan to disrupt is the energy category. We recently, as Vita Coco, have made our first acquisition of RUNA Natural Energy, which is an energy drink made from guayusa leaves. It has a ton of naturally occurring caffeine. There are 150 milligrams of caffeine in a 12-ounce can. With that product, we are planning to take on another big commercial beverage category, energy drinks, and disrupt the current market space with a natural alternative. Our brand’s value proposition is to disrupt conventional categories with better-for-you alternatives.

How does that influence the spaces that you’re in?

We always are asking ourselves the question: “What’s a conventional category that has been very established and is ripe for disruption?” Many beverage categories are composed of products that have a lot of artificial ingredients or sweeteners and the like. We know that we can potentially create better-for-you alternatives. That’s a big part of how we identify opportunities for the brand.

With the pop-up space being so saturated, how do you differentiate yourselves?

Consumers still love immersive brand experiences, if you can make it fun and interesting. That’s why this content is so important. Partnering with other wellness experts and wellness brands to give consumers something unique and something special is what the expectation is, and also the only way that we’re going to break through.

Developing mass appeal while staying true to the brand’s ethos and image allows Vita Coco to compete in the beverage market, engaging a consumer base around health and wellness qualities. For more on strategies and tactics that allow brands to grow their appeal and business, see PSFK’s recently released report, the Occassion-Based Marketing Debrief.

In an ever-expanding world of options, consumers increasingly are looking to find meaning in their experiences and purchases. They seem to buy based on how products make them feel and how brands enable them to engage with their offers. Particularly suited for experiential marketing and shopping are wellness brands, who are moving to design interactive stores and products that fit with consumers’ desires for retail with meaning. To this end, coconut beverage brand Vita Coco is focusing on cultivating inclusivity, community, authenticity and transparency in its brand experience.

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