The sparkling beverage Allison (chief brand officer) and her husband Stephen (CEO) pitched to the Sharks featured the brand name ‘Mother’ (which couldn’t be trademarked) and came in a glass bottle that looked great at a farmer’s market, but didn’t pop on shelf in a busy grocery store.
The trendy, but somewhat polarizing, core ingredient - apple cider vinegar* - also featured prominently on the front of the bottle, which was putting some consumers off before they even tried it, says Allison, who went back to the drawing board with the inhouse creative team at CAVU and design agency Zero to transform Mother into Poppi, a sparkling ‘prebiotic soda’ in brightly colored, Instagram-friendly cans.
The new-look cans, which hit the market in March 2020, were an instant hit, with meteoric sales growth on Amazon and rapid distribution gains in retail accounts from Sprouts and Whole Foods to Wegmans, with some significant conventional grocery accounts set to come onstream in 2021, say the Ellsworths, who have just struck distribution partnerships with Big Geyser in New York and Classic Beverage in Southern California.
“We’re in about 2,000 doors now,” says Allison, who says Poppi is experiencing strong triple digit growth driven both by increased distribution and strong velocity/repeat purchases, “and we’re growing to over 16,000 stores in 2021, so there are some exciting announcements coming up.”
Poppi ingredients, raspberry rose: Filtered sparkling water, apple cider vinegar, raspberry juice., lemon juice, cane sugar, natural flavors, stevia
Each 12oz can (SRP $2.49) contains 20 calories and 5g sugar
“Poppi prebiotic soda fills a unique void in our portfolio, and I believe it has the right combination of taste, functionality, and packaging design to be our next 1M case brand.”
Jerry Reda, COO Big Geyser
“We have been impressed by the early performance of Poppi and our retailers are encouraged by the very high velocities they are seeing with this brand.”
Michael Blumfield, SVP Sales and Marketing, Classic Beverage of Southern California
‘We’re in the fastest-growing category in the non-alcoholic beverage market’
Like rival Olipop - which is also positioned as a fun, lower-sugar soda with benefits – Poppi is part of a new subcategory within the functional beverage set that is growing in the triple digits, claims Stephen, who says Poppi performs particularly well in the refrigerated functional grab and go beverage set where it’s sitting next to “kombucha and other products on a gut health platform that are at a higher price point… as opposed to sitting next to a $4.99 12-pack of shelf-stable soda.
“We’re in the fastest-growing category in the non-alcoholic beverage market."
‘Our big debut was supposed to be at Expo West… which didn’t happen’
So what has it been like launching a new-look brand during a pandemic? The original plan, says Stephen, was to showcase the new cans at the Expo West show in March: “Our big debut was supposed to be at Expo West… which didn’t happen, so we had to be creative.”
With demos, sampling and other tools traditionally deployed to drive awareness and trial going out of the window this year, Poppi has leaned heavily on digital marketing on platforms such as Instagram, says Allison. “We’re also looking into TikTok and having some fun with that."
So who is drinking Poppi?
“We’re capturing some older generations looking for health benefits, and Moms are reacing out to us to say their kids like it, and they like it because it’s got less sugar than [100%] apple juice," she observes.
"But with the packaging we’re also capturing the young Gen Z consumer who is not spending as much money on clothes, but is investing in health and wellness. It’s almost like a fashion statement, people want to be seen drinking poppi.”
Managing growth, and not going after shiny objects
While trying to manage rapid growth is one of the better problems to have as a startup, it has presented challenges, says Allison.
“We don’t just want to hire a bunch of people because we’re growing really fast, we want people to love working here, to be in this for the long haul, and build the company culture [which is doubly challenging in a pandemic-driven remote working culture]. But it can be difficult when you’re growing quickly and you just need someone.”
Stephen adds: “It’s a case of slowing down and not going after the shiny objects, in exchange for long term sustainable growth.”
*To make apple cider vinegar, apples are crushed. Yeast is added to start the fermentation process, which converts the sugars to alcohol. The alcohol is then converted into vinegar by acetic acid-forming bacteria.
According to the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP), a prebiotic is: “a substrate that is selectively utilized by host microorganisms conferring a health benefit.”
While the Ellsworths “don't claim to be experts on ACV or fiber or prebiotics,” and stress that they “lead with taste and how the product makes you feel,” Poppi is positioned and marketed as a ‘prebiotic soda’ and features the phrase ‘for a healthy gut’ on the front of pack.
The Poppi website also contains a dizzying array of health claims about ACV from ‘helps refine complexion,’ to ‘helps aid digestion,’ and ‘helps lower cholesterol,’ ‘promotes weight loss,’ ‘naturally detoxifies,’ ‘helps aid digestion,’ ‘helps stabilize blood sugar,’ and ‘promotes energy,’ without citing human clinical data to support the claims, although the Ellsworths stress that these claims are not about Poppi per se.
The Ellsworths could not point to human clinical studies specifically demonstrating the prebiotic effects of apple cider vinegar, although there is some published research on the ability of selected fruit pectins to function as a prebiotic (something that promotes the growth of beneficial gut bacteria).
“Due to the nature of the ACV process, the exact amount of pectin in each Poppi can fluctuate,” say the Ellsworths, “however, we do use unfiltered ACV to ensure that all the pectin contained in ACV makes it into the can.”
While it is unclear what impact the heat pasteurization process has on the other potentially healthful components in ACV, the acetic acid and fibers are not damaged, claims Stephen.