The Five Elements of Coconut Water's Success ~ Brand Mix

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Five Elements of Coconut Water's Success

Photo: Rin-Tin-Tin (Flickr CC)

As Al Ries pointed out recently, pioneering a new product or service category can cost a fortune. Think Webvan. Or, if you don't have a fortune to spend, and you have to build a category from scratch, it can take forever. So, when a category as distinctive as coconut water emerges from the primordial new product soup, quickly and without a huge investment spend, it's worth taking a look at the elements of its success.

Coconut water certainly seems to be headed in the right direction. In just five years, it's become a $35 million category (according to Merrill Lynch) attracting both consumer and manufacturer attention. And it's succeeding even though it has had to fight consumer perceptions that coconut products are unhealthy (specifically that coconut milk is very high in saturated fat) and that the product is apparently an acquired taste So, how?

NPR interviewed two of the entrepreneurs who have been building this new category and here are five of the elements that they talk about:

1) Existing market: Coconut water may be a new product to the States but it has been around for a long time in other countries, specifically those in the tropics. When Mike Kirban, co-founder of Vita Coco, was considering market entry, one of the reasons he settled on New York was because of its high concentration of immigrants from countries where coconut water is already popular. These consumers represented an opportunity to get some early sales while figuring out how to get those unfamiliar with the product on board.

2) Distribution: Another advantage of NYC is that the retail market still has a large number of independent food markets/delis that provide the opportunity for a store by store sales approach. Slow developing and potentially frustrating as this approach might be, it gives new products the time to gather some momentum. Gerry Khermouch of Beverage Business Insights describes the relationships between entrepreneurs, distributors and store owners in this kind of market as: "the yeast that allows new drinks to develop before they hit hard to crack chains like 7-Eleven."

3) Competition: Perhaps the most unexpected element of success is the fact that several companies entered the market more or less at the same time. As Mark Rampolla, founder of Zico points out, this helped them all gain credibility with retailers, distributors, investors and sales people as they figured: "Hey, if there are multiple brands that are being successful in a category, it must be legitimate."

4) Focus/positioning: The main competitors in the marker, Vita Coco, Zico and O.N.E. beverages, all incorporate expected tropical elements (There's a lot of sky blue, and palm green.) And each, to some extent, talk about the relevant functional benefit of the product (tons of electrolytes) but each has picked its own target and refined the positioning to tell a more specific story. As a Forbes article notes: Zico has focused on sports enthusiasts (and yoga lovers in particular), Vita Coco on young, urban hipsters as likely to use coconut water in a cocktail as drink it straight and O.N.E. is targeting moms and babies.

5) Category protection: Al Ries, posting on Brand Strategy Insider, talks about category killers, category leaders who launch line extensions to absorb or kill potentially new categories rather than let them thrive independently. (An example he uses is Diet Pepsi and Diet Coke absorbing the diet cola category established by Diet Rite.) But coconut water is too distinct and far enough away from the reach of big players to be killed off like that. Its challenge was proving relevance not differentiation.

I'm sure that these are not the only important elements. Entrepreneurial zeal, luck and hitting the right consumer trend at the right time are important too. What else?

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