Kara Goldin: Consumers have evolved faster than the beverage category has

Hint Water CEO: Our goal is to build Hint to be a billion dollar brand

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Hint: No sweeteners, no preservatives
Hint: No sweeteners, no preservatives
While gaining significant distribution in the beverages market can be tough if you don’t have the might of a Coke or Pepsi behind you, Hint Inc CEO Kara Goldin is “not losing sleep at night wondering when they will call me”, she tells FoodNavigator-USA. “I would rather take this brand public.”

It’s taken 10 years of hard work, but Goldin now sits at the helm of the fastest growing flavored water brand in the country [according to data from IRI and SPINS].

And while competition has intensified with the entrance of brands such as Owater and Metromint, Hint is by far the number one unsweetened flavored water brand in the market, adds Goldin, who started cutting up fruit and throwing it into pitchers of water to wean herself off soda after the birth of her third child and realized there was nothing like it on the market.

“When I started the brand, frankly, I had no idea that I was starting an entirely new category, I was just looking for a product with no sweeteners in it. Now our goal is to build Hint to be a billion dollar brand… but I’m going to do what’s right for the brand, and I’m not running to do a deal with Coke or Pepsi.”

Growth is double digit in some segments and triple digit in others

She won’t disclose retail sales of Hint products, but asked if $50m was in the ball park for 2014 (a guestimate in press reports), she replies: “I will say that it’s more than that.”

Hint water CEO Kara Goldin
Kara Goldin: “We work with a small group of consultants that develop our flavors and we use real fruit essences and extracts of real fruit. We’re not buying flavors from a big flavor house.”

As for growth at Hint, which has carved out a significant niche in the category with its still and carbonated waters with a ‘hint’ of fruit, natural flavors and nothing else (no sweeteners, preservatives, or colors), she says: “Growth is double digit in some segments and triple digit in others.”

Growth is coming from picking up distribution in more channels, getting more real estate on shelf via additional SKUs, but also, most importantly, from strong same store sales (solid repeat purchases from existing shelf space in existing accounts), she says.

Sometimes people try and move too fast, and flood the market with their product and put it in any store that will have it. We’ve been careful not to do that. You can’t just put your product in there and then pray it’s going to sell.

“We’ve also bypassed a lot of those ‘pay to play’ deals​ [slotting fees etc] because there was such consumer pull for our product; people were asking for it.”

Meanwhile, Hint is also getting good secondary placements beyond the shelf-stable beverages aisle in chillers, end caps and displays in the produce category, or close to the pharmacy aisle, she adds.

It’s kind of a dirty little secret but traffic at some conventional grocery channels is not what it was

As for routes to market, there are opportunities in every channel for Hint, says Goldin, who has secured significant business and raised her profile by getting on campus at tech firms such as Google and Linkedin: “We’re nationwide in pretty much all the conventional grocers but we’ve not done club yet, so that’s an area we’re looking to grow in 2015.  Also foodservice is a huge opportunity.

“It’s kind of a dirty little secret but traffic at some conventional grocery channels is not what it was, because people aren’t shopping the way they used to. They are just going to the store to buy something for dinner that night​ [rather than the weekly shop], they are consuming things at work, at the gym, ordering them online – that’s a huge growth opportunity – so wherever consumers are, we want to be.”

Hint water strip
Hint Water is available in 15 flavors from blackberry to pear, cucumber and strawberry kiwi; while carbonated variant Hint Fizz is available in six flavors. The ingredients in Hint raspberry, for example, are: Purified water, raspberry and other natural flavors from non-GMO plants.

Consumers are making a conscious decision to drink water, but some find plain water boring and hard to drink

But how has Hint managed to succeed where so many other aspiring beverage brands have failed?

Hint Water portrait
Hint uses what Goldin describes as a “pseudo pasteurization process, not a straight hot fill” that enables her to add fruit essences without adding preservatives.

First, by coming up with something new that meets a consumer need for taste, convenience, simplicity and a short list of familiar natural ingredients, says Goldin, who notes that Hint is doing well throughout the country, not just on the east and west coast: “Consumers have evolved faster than the beverage category has…

“Consumers everywhere are making a conscious decision to drink water ​[rather than say, soda] but some people find plain water boring and hard to drink.

“There are thousands of beverage brands but I’d say half of them are copycats. There are some advantages to being second or third in a category because someone else is driving the bus, but what’s your USP?  We’re like brand X, but we’re in a red can. So what’s different about your ingredients? We have 2g less sugar. Well so what?”

It’s easy to drink your own Kool aid

She adds: “The other thing I hear all the time is people saying, we’ve got the ex-head of sales of this brand on our team, or the boss of this brand is on our advisory board. That’s great, but how does that make your product any more appealing to consumers? It’s easy to drink your own Kool aid.”

Fizz, the carbonated version of Hint, moved from glass to PET bottles last year and has been a big success

The key to success is to stay close to consumers, she says. “A couple of years ago we started hearing on social media that cancer patients on chemo were drinking Hint because when they drink sweetened waters they get nauseous but when they drink plain water it tastes metallic, so I was thinking, what are we doing to let people know about this?

“That’s the kind of thing that keeps me up at night. I’m constantly trying to figure out how to reach consumers in a way that’s speaking to their needs.”

If you’ve spent 20 years at a big beverage company you’ve got a lot of preconceived ideas  

So what would she do differently had she had her time over again?

Says Goldin. “I’ve made so many mistakes, but overall I’d say it’s not trusting my gut. I come from a tech background ​[Goldin was a senior exec at AOL before she went into the beverage business] and when I started I thought I needed to hire beverage people, people that understood the industry and had the contacts.”

hint water ingredients

But there are drawbacks, she says: “If you’ve spent 20 years at a big beverage company you’ve got a lot of preconceived ideas about the way things work, and when you ask why, the answer is ‘that’s just the way it is.'  

"It’s a mindset. Sometimes you have to say well why is that, why does this have to be the gospel, why does my products have to have preservatives? Why can’t I go to market without a broker? Why can’t I call Safeway myself? I’m constantly asking why.”

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