O’Loughlin, who has been on the board of REBBL since January 2015, took the helm in October after co-founder Palo Hawken (who launched the business in 2012) moved into the role of chief innovation officer, because she knew what a winner looked like after 25 years in the food and beverage industry, she told FoodNavigator-USA.
“I saw the magic in this company that I have seen in other successful companies… because it has three critical things:
“One, it has an incredible team that is hungry and has grit.
“Two, it has the brand X-factor. So the products have a real point of difference as there aren’t any other adaptogen beverages out there, but they also taste fantastic, so this is a brand that really can cross into the mainstream. The name, REBBL, which stands for roots, extracts, berries, bark and leaves, also really resonates with consumers.
“Three, this is a brand with a purpose, to support human dignity [via a long-standing relationship with Not for sale, which has a mission to end modern day slavery and human trafficking].”
It has the x-factor
The brand – which launched with ‘adaptogen-powered superherb tonics’ in 16oz glass bottles – went on to develop coconut milk elixirs in 12oz plastic bottles that have been a huge hit because they are built around the same ‘super-herbs’, but have a very indulgent mouthfeel and taste incredible, said O’Loughlin.
Retailers, she said, instantly recognized the value proposition, in that they bring something new and incremental to the grab-and-go beverage case (which is mostly built around refreshment, she said), and more importantly, they have delivered “killer velocity”, the primary thing retailers and investors are looking for from any new brand.
“Retailers are excited because it’s the first functional beverage brand to have herbal adaptogens and we can bring in completely new customers to the refrigerated case.”
What are adaptogens?
According to botanical expert Chris Kilham, aka The Medicine Hunter, adaptogens are claimed to reduce stress, both mental and physical. “To put it simply: Adaptogens help you adapt.” Key herbs on his list include: Ashwagandha, Eleuthero, Holy Basil, Maca, Panax Ginseng, Rhodiola Rosea, and Schisandra.
One of the best-researched ‘super herbs’ in REBBL’s armory is Ashwagandha, the flagship herb of Ayurveda (a system of medicine with historical roots in the Indian subcontinent), which has steadily been gaining traction in the US market in recent years, with consumers embracing its wide-ranging body of health benefits, which include supporting stress, cognitive function, sleep, metabolic wellness, adrenal function, sports performance, and more.
A shrub whose various parts (berries, leaves and roots) have been used by Ayurvedic practitioners as folk remedies for centuries, Ashwagandha “is especially effective at clearing the ‘mental fog’ and boosting parameters of cognitive performance,” claims Kilham, citing a 2014 study using a root and leaf ashwagandha extract found supplementation improved performance on psychomotor skills. Other studies have looked at the botanical’s effect in cognitive dysfunction associated with bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders, and its anti-inflammatory effects in diabetics.
Nevertheless, the team is being disciplined about securing new accounts, operating on the principle that you don’t build out distribution before you have the velocity in place, said O'Loughlin. “We will only go as fast as the market will support, and we’ve taken our time to make sure that our velocities are really strong so as we move to new accounts they stay strong; we want positive results before we go too far too fast.”
As for the channel strategy, the focus initially has been on natural and specialty stores, with the brand securing real estate in high-profile accounts including Whole Foods, Sprouts, and The Fresh Market. However, O'Loughlin is confident that REBBL will sell in the conventional channel as well.
From a geographical perspective, meanwhile, REBBL is now moving into new areas, said O’Loughlin, who is currently seeking investment to take the company to the next level (thus far REBBL has raised money via friends and family) and says there has been “a lot of VC interest as we are growing exceptionally well.
“Right now we are strong in the west coast but we’ve recently expanded to the south west, and we’re just pushed out into the east coast via the distribution centers of UNFI, and we’ll also be pushing into Chicago. But really, we have barely scratched the surface when it comes to the potential for REBBL, which is absolutely a national brand.”
But do consumers get what an ‘adaptogenic super herb’ is, and is there any hard science supporting the claims made about the said ingredients?
Some consumers do, and those that don’t will gradually discover what adaptogens such as ashwagandha and maca are all about as the concept gains traction, said O’Loughlin, who is well aware that making hard claims on pack about their miraculous health benefits is one sure fire way to land in legal hot water, so steers well clear.
“Adaptogens help your body to adjust to stress. If you are overly-energized they will calm you down and bring you back to homeostasis, and if you are under reacting to stress they will give you energy, but we’re still learning about them. I see it as ancient wisdom that is starting to be backed up by clinical research, but we don’t make any claims.
“It’s going to take time for consumers to understand, but we’ve been tripling every year so we are very happy. The tonics and the elixirs are both doing well, and they serve different purposes. The elixirs are more indulgent, satiating and can serve as meal replacement, and the tonics are more refreshing.”
The Not for Sale campaign, which is working to eradicate slavery and human trafficking, receives 2.5% of REBBL’s net sales. It also helps REBBL source some of its rarer ingredients, says CEO Sheryl O’Loughlin. “For some of our rarer, most important ingredients, we have contracts in place or are in the process of putting them in place, and if we don’t have contracts, we make sure we have back up suppliers in place.”
There will be good days and bad days
So what is keeping her awake at night in her new role?
Not much, says O’Loughlin. Which is not to say that running an early stage food company is easy, just that she has learned to go with the flow.
“I used to stay up all night all the time, but you have to get things in perspective. I had kids at home that I wasn’t paying enough attention to in the past because I was so worried about everything.
“You have to keep your eye on the ball, and keep working closely with the team, but you also have to accept that there will be good days and bad days.”