“We've had conversations with retailers that are really thinking about this functional soda space as a refreshing new part of the aisle,” said First, who co-founded Nantucket Nectars in the late 1980s and has spent the last two decades working with emerging beverage brands as a board member and investor (he’s currently an operating partner at Stride Consumer Partners in addition to the day job).
“And some are considering creating a section in the mainline aisle for these, functional, carbonated soft drinks,” added First, who launched Culture Pop (SRP $1.99/can) in June 2020 (not the ideal time to launch a soda brand, he acknowledges) and is now sold in around 1,200-1,500 doors including seven regions of Whole Foods, distributed by UNFI and KeHE along with a bunch of regional beverage or natural foods distributors.
'People love bubbles'
“People love bubbles,” said First, and they’re looking for something a bit more interesting than a zero calorie flavored sparkling water or a traditional ‘diet’ soda, that still delivers when it comes to calories and sugar (made with 23-24% organic juice, herbs and spices, Culture Pop has 40 calories and 6g sugar from fruit juice per can with no high intensity sweeteners).
“The idea was basically using organic fruit and spice to reinvent carbonated soft drinks," he said. "At 40 calories, it's very difficult to create bright, complex flavors, but the unlock for me was really the combination of fruit and spices, sweet and savory, a familiar fruit flavor with a bit of heat or spice, so our Orange Mango flavor has chili and lime.”
'At this point in my life, I couldn't resist. I wanted to do it again...'
The idea for Culture Pop struck First a few years ago while he was in a restaurant with his kids and tried his son’s mocktail. “I remember the mocktails had sprigs of rosemary with juice, and I’m a beverage guy, so I’m sitting there staring at my son's drink thinking, Oh, my gosh, why hasn’t anyone done this in a soda?"
Fast forward to 2019, he said, “and it was like, at this point in my life, I couldn't resist. I wanted to do it again…”
While Culture Pop cans feature the phrase ‘probiotic soda,’ and ‘fizzy and gutsy,’ the brand is emphasizing fun and flavor a bit more than functionality with the packaging, said First, who admits it’s been a rollercoaster ride launching a new beverage brand in the middle of a global pandemic, with retailers retrenching, out of home channels drying up, sampling and events off the menu, not to mention soaring input costs and supply chain disruption.
“For everyone I talk to right now, the biggest issue is logistics. It’s crazy, and it goes beyond just the cost of freight, it's the service, the reliability, the ability even to get trucks.”
'We don't want to go everywhere too quickly'
The focus over the next 12 months is “performing well with the retail partners we are in today and driving velocity, and then selectively working with new retailers.
"We don't want to go everywhere too quickly, we want to make sure we can support retailers with good execution at retail, building merchandising assets, good promo calendars, and having the right people working in the stores.”