CEO banks on star power of Mark Wahlberg and Sean Combs to take AQUAhydrate to next level: ‘The premium water category is literally on fire’

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Actor and producer Mark Wahlberg is an investor in 'performance water' brand AQUAhydrate
Actor and producer Mark Wahlberg is an investor in 'performance water' brand AQUAhydrate

Related tags Water

One brand of bottled water is much like another, right? Wrong. Whether your preference is 'artisanal' spring water naturally filtered through volcanic rock or electrolyte infused ‘performance’ water, the premium segment is “on fire”, and celebrity-backed AQUAhydrate is poised to cash in, CEO Hal Kravitz told FoodNavigator-USA.

AQUAhydrate – a purified water filtered via reverse osmosis and UV light that is ionized to raise its pH to 9.5 and infused with a proprietary blend of electrolytes – has been floating around for a few years.

However, it started taking off in 2012 after Mark Wahlberg, Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs and The Yucaipa Companies boss Ron Burkle invested in the brand, said Kravitz, a Coca-Cola veteran who took the helm in January.

“We’ve been aggressively increasing distribution ​[AQUAhydrate is now in 30,000+ locations and growing rapidly], sothis year we’ll probably do around $25m in retail sales and over the next five years we could be as big as $150m, even $200m at retail, so that’s a pretty aggressive growth algorithm.”

The premium water segment is growing at four times the rate of the rest of the category

While it celebrity backers and novel formula are propelling the brand forward, it is also operating in a segment of the market that’s growing strongly, he added: “The premium water space is a category that is literally on fire right now​. It’s growing at four times the rate of lower-priced water, while the high pH segment ​[in which AQUAhydrate sits] is growing at twice rate of premium water."

Overall sales of bottled water are up about 5% year on year, he said. But within that, "Sales of regular water, which accounts for around 85% of the market, are up around 4-5% year on year. But premium water, which accounts for 15% of the market, is up around 20%, because people are willing to pay for a high-quality product.”

Sean Combs at iHeartRadio music festival-source-aquahydrate
AQUAhydrate investor Sean 'Diddy' Combs drinks AQUAhydrate at the iHeartRadio music festival. Picture credit: AQUAhydrate

While the L.A.-based brand is strongest in the west coast, it is starting to build a significant presence along the eastern seaboard and the central states in chains from Kroger to GNC, he adds.

“We’re in about 25% of grocery stores and 7% of c-stores so we’re really just scratching the surface. As for chain drugstores, there are around 20,000 of them and we are in something like 2,000, so there is a lot of runway in all of these channels.”

Premium water, which accounts for 15% of the market, is up around 20% YoY

Retailers see the growth in premium waters and are starting to allocate space accordingly, he says, although some “don’t fully understand this subset ​[alkaline waters] of the premium water category, so we have a lot of education to do​. Butif you go to Whole Foods or Sprouts – which are usually the first to adopt new trends – there is a significant space devoted to higher pH waters.”

AQUAhydrate is also doing well in gyms, cycling studios, yoga studios and all retail formats targeting people on the go where single bottles sold for immediate consumption is a focus, he said.   

I got to understand what Mark and Sean could do for this product

As for Wahlberg (a fitness enthusiast who discovered AQUAhydrate while filming The Fighter​) and Combs (who says he didn’t have a water brand he felt ‘loyal’ to until Wahlberg introduced him to AQUAhydrate), they are both brand ambassadors and active team members as well as investors, says Kravitz.

aquahydrate bottle
According to the company, “The AQUAhydrate process adds a unique blend of electrolytes and a natural trace mineral concentrate licensed exclusively to AQUAhydrate. We then purify the water through an advanced UV purification process, and run the mineralized water through our proprietary electrolysis process that changes the structure of the water raising the pH to 9+.” Picture credit: AQUAhydrate

“I got to understand what Mark and Sean could do for this product… what a marketing machine they could be, especially on social media ​[Combs alone has 10.7m twitter followers]. They can basically reach out to 40 million people at the flip of a switch, and there’s only one other brand that’s bigger in terms of social media and that’s Coca-Cola.”

Asked if the explosive growth of AQUAhydrate has started to attract the attention of any large CPG companies, he said: “Wedon’t have a definite strategy of building and selling and right now we’re focused on growing, but if we get to the right size and we are still operating as uniquely as we are I am sure we’d be very attractive to a Coke or a Pepsi. But the big companies often look for you to be at $50m to $75m in wholesale sales before they get really interested​.”

We are a mass market product

So who’s buying AQUAhydrate, and do the claims made by the brand stand up to scrutiny, given that skeptics argue that purveyors of alkaline water are at best well-meaning and at worst snake oil merchants duping credulous consumers with a product that will be neutralized by their stomach acid within seconds of consumption?

According to brand manager Evan Cunningham, while replacing electrolytes lost during intense exercise is most relevant to people engaged in intense or prolonged bouts of exercise, AQUAhydrate is nevertheless targeting a mainstream audience.

We are a mass market product, so we’re targeting everyone from serious cross fit athletes to everyday people that want to perform at their best.

Hal Kravitz
AQUAhydrate CEO Hal Kravitz says the product is competitively priced with other premium water brands such as FIJI and Evian and in-line with other functional beverages such as Vitaminwater and Gatorade.

“We are operating in a unique position as we’re able to provide the functional benefits of a sports drink like Gatorade without the sugar, calories and flavoring. We have twice the electrolytes of leading electrolyte enhanced waters such as SmartWater, a higher pH and a proprietary blend of 72+ electrolytes and trace minerals.”

Is there any science behind alkaline water?

Asked whether drinking ‘alkaline water’ would have any lasting effect on the pH of your body, he said: “We know people are eating a lot of acidic foods these days andadding AQUAhydrate to the mix means your body doesn’t have to expend so much energy to get back to a neutral pH.”

Asked if he had any clinical data to support these claims, he added: “There is a lot of science behind things like acid tide and the importance of homeostasis for your body’s regulatory process​,” although he did not reference any specific studies and acknowledged that “some brands​” in this space are making disease prevention claims that cannot be supported by the scientific literature.

While the buzz around alkaline water appears to be a key selling point for AQUAhydrate, meanwhile, the product label does not make any specific claims about the benefits of a higher pH (‘9+’), simply stating: ‘Supercharged hydration... alkalized water with electrolytes,’ ​although the website expands on this with the phrase: ‘Elevated alkalinity to bring your body back to balance.’

RD: There is limited research to support the alkaline diet claim

Asked for her opinion about the claims made by AQUAhydrate, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Joy Dubost RD, CSSD, told FoodNavigator-USA that the added electrolytes may benefit people engaged in prolonged bouts of physical activity, adding: “Depending on the rate of sweat it may be beneficial to those who are involved in more endurance type sports."

Mark Wahlberg drinks AQUAhydrate2
AQUAhydrate is privately owned by a multinational group of investors including Ron Burkle, Mark Wahlberg, and Sean Combs. Picture credit: AQUAhydrate

As for the benefits of a higher pH, however, she was more skeptical: “The big issue is the claim around alkalinity… There are alkaline diets which claim to provide health benefits including reducing risk of chronic disease. With this type of approach, there is an elimination of acid-producing foods like refined grains, added sugars, alcohol, meat, dairy, wheat and processed foods. Advocates of the diet claim if you consume this diet you can change your body's pH to be less acidic. As a dietitian I do not promote removing food groups but believe in a balanced approach.

“There is limited research to support the alkaline diet claim in athletes” ​she said, citing two studies (click HERE​ and HERE​), but added: “In general, the results have been mixed and not compelling enough to encourage athletes to begin following this type of diet or consuming products that support this dietary approach. Also one would have to follow this diet not just consume one product to make a shift in pH.”

Snake oil?

Other have been less charitable, however, with gastroenterologist John Petrini telling the Wall Street Journal​ that our bodies have developed very effective mechanisms designed to keep our blood within a narrow pH range (between 7.35 and 7.45), and that regardless of the pH of the food or beverages you consume, they will exit your stomach the stomach at a pH of about 6.8.

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