Developing an alternative they could stomach – both figuratively and literally – was a key driver behind NOOMA, says Jarred, who wondered whether acid reflux symptoms his team members* were experiencing were being exacerbated by citric acid from sports drinks [it’s commonly used to improve taste and lower pH/extend shelf-life by slowing the growth of molds and bacteria].
“We didn’t want to use citric acid or other preservatives, we wanted to keep sugar levels down and we wanted to keep the ingredients list short and simple,” said Smith, who has secured shelf space for NOOMA (short for ‘no more artificials’) in 1,000+ gyms and fitness studios, natural and specialty retailers, and Whole Foods stores nationwide, and built a fast-growing business on Amazon.
Above all, he and Brandon wanted to create an accessible, organic certified product that would appeal to weekend warriors and elite athletes alike, by formulating something that would replace the fluid and electrolytes – specifically potassium and sodium – you lose when you sweat, without delivering too many calories.
Each carton contains water, organic coconut water concentrate (for potassium), sea salt (for sodium), organic natural flavors and organic stevia extract, delivering 30 calories per 500ml carton and no added sugar (the 5g sugar is naturally occurring from the coconut water).
Do ordinary consumers need ‘sports’ drinks?
While many consumers - who are just as likely to guzzle ‘sports’ drinks while watching the game or sitting in the office as running a marathon or playing hockey - can hydrate themselves pretty effectively with plain old H20 when not working out, acknowledged Smith, not everyone likes plain water, and NOOMA provides an alternative that’s refreshing, clean label, and “not packed full of empty calories.”
And this is actually what most consumers are looking for in a sports drink, whether they are professional hockey players or office workers who go to the gym a couple of times a week, he claimed.
“You’ve got to figure out who your target audience is and then ask yourself are you solving a problem that needs to be solved, or are you just solving your own personal problem?”
He added: “We’re operating in a big market dominated by two players [PepsiCo’s Gatorade and Coca Cola’s Powerade] but there was a gap in the market and we’ve come up with something that really seems to resonate with people. Innovation doesn’t have to be earth shattering in terms of formulation. People want something that will rehydrate them without all the added sugar and ingredients they can’t pronounce.”
‘We didn’t have a Eureka moment’
But success didn't happen overnight, acknowledged Smith, who has just secured B Corp status for the business: “We didn’t have a Eureka moment; it’s been a constant process of evolution, which began with a lot of googling, and a lot of networking, and a lot of ‘do you know someone who knows someone that…’ moments. We also listened to a lot of podcasts with people that have been there and done that and we read as much as possible, it’s a constant learning process. When you do 45 demos in 50 days you also learn a lot [about how consumers see your product].”
The packaging has also evolved. It used to be gray, but is now “fun, bright and simple,” in part to appeal to a broader audience (the gender split for NOOMA is around 50:50 whereas traditional sports drink brands have skewed more towards men, said Smith). He also wanted to “make it clear that NOOMA isn’t a protein drink.”
The NOOMA team (based in Cleveland Ohio) has also learned over time which events to support, what messages resonate, and which incentives work in different scenarios, said Smith, who said revenues have more than doubled each year compared to the previous year for each of the past three years.
Outdoor sporting events, for example, which might seem like a perfect fit for the brand, are not necessarily so, he observed.
“With a running event, for example, people might be really excited to see us, but at some other events, it’s been pretty clear that people would rather have a beer than an electrolyte drink."
*Jarred played for the Alaska Aces in 2012-2013, while Brandon played for the Missouri Mavericks (now Kansas City Mavericks) between 2010 and 2013.
NOOMA (MSRP $2.49/carton) contains water, organic coconut water concentrate (for potassium), sea salt (for sodium), organic natural flavors and organic stevia extract, delivering 30 calories per 500ml carton and no added sugar (the 5g sugar is naturally occurring from the coconut water).
An equivalent amount (500ml) of Mountain Berry Blast Powerade – which contains B vitamins and four electrolytes lost in sweat, sodium, magnesium, calcium and potassium - contains about 111 calories and 29g of sugar, plus several ingredients NOOMA's cofounders wanted to avoid, including high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, blue color #1, modified food starch and EDTA. (Its zero calorie version replaces HFCS with sucralose and ace K.)
Gatorade Thirst Quencher fruit punch, meanwhile, contains roughly the same amount of sugar and calories as Powerade, plus citric acid, modified food starch, Red color #40, and the emulsifier/stabilizer glycerol ester of rosin. It also has lower calorie options.