Sometimes a brand just gets lucky. Boston was the right kind of market for Vita Coco, the new coconut-water drink. And summer was the right season.
"We knew there was a place in this community," recalled Jane Prior, Vita Coco's evp/global brand strategy and development. "But, much like every other community that we tried to break into, we had no money. We had limited resources. We didn't want to hire an agency or a sports agent to get us there, so we had to figure out how to do it ourselves."
The solution: teams of field marketers – all over the country in key strategic cities – were given one single mission: "In your market, let's get the product into the key sports teams … We don't care how you do it: just get it done. Whatever it takes, just get it done. But we're not giving you anything except the product … No money. No other opportunities for negotiation. Just get it done with the product.
"Amazingly, they were able to do it, whether it was through the equipment manager, the security guard at the gate … or people in the front office."
Then the Boston Red Sox called back. A free case or two had arrived in the clubhouse, and the ballplayers had responded. In fact, they were drinking so much of the stuff that Boston was coconut-dry.
"We could no longer supply them," Prior told the Association of National Advertisers' (ANA) 2015 Brand Masters Conference in Dana Point, California. "Our local market manager was coming to us every month saying, 'I'm out of product! The Red Sox are taking it all!'"
What had begun as a stab-in-the-dark promotional giveaway with New England's most revered ballclub turned out to be a new stream of revenue: "They started buying the product."
And the seeding at Fenway Park had thus provided a foothold in New England.
Today, some five or six years later, Vita Coco is available in more than 100,000 stores in the US alone, and in 13 other countries around the world. And the brand's culture-based, disruptive, nimble marketing program – not to mention the Red Sox – have put the beverage ahead of comparable products offered by the Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo in what has rapidly become a $600 million-plus category.
Explained Arthur Gallego, Vita Coco's global director/corporate communications, "What we've discovered since the company was founded in 2004 is that our success is really lined in embedding ourselves in popular culture."
And the informal baseball endorsement pointed the way to a more formal program with Marshawn Lynch, a notoriously uncommunicative running back for the Seattle Seahawks.
Madonna, Rihanna and a host of other celebrities would soon add their endorsements to a steadily growing roster of stars and athletes. This stood in stark contrast to the situation in 2004, when Vita Coco was trying to establish itself in what Prior called "a mecca for hipsters" – namely, the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Williamsburg was home to one of the company's two co-founders – the other was in Brazil trying to piece together a supply chain. So, as a starting point, Brooklyn was a practical necessity: "Mike was distributing the product from his backpack on a pair of roller blades," Prior told the ANA delegates. "It was a place he could get around.
"But, much more importantly, Williamsburg represented an amazing cultural hub for the brand – a place where musicians and artists were setting cultural boundaries … not following trends, but really finding trends.
"That's what we were able to tap into."
Not only were these hipsters health-and-nutrition smart, "They also were food snobs, always looking to try something new." Word of mouth was thus an important part of the brand-building process. (And, Prior admitted, "Our CEO has an actual, major, serious aversion to agencies. So, for the most part, we've done almost everything in-house.")
People did begin to talk: Vita Coco, it seemed, had powerful recuperative powers for those crippled by too many cocktails the night before. And when people talked in Williamsburg, they listened in other pockets of New York. Consequently, Vita Coco began to build a shelf presence in the Lower East Side and the West Village.
In time, magazine editors living in those neighborhoods paid attention, and someone at Esquire called Vita Coco "the new Gatorade". But, unlike Gatorade's mixture of water, table sugar, dextrose, citric acid, table salt, sodium citrate, and monopotassium phosphate, "We were selling coconut water," Prior explained.
And, in doing so, it was supporting a new beverage category: Vita Coco was a "natural functional" drink. And although the "old" Gatorade scored points in the "functional" ledger, it wasn't natural.
In 2009, the Coca-Cola Co. (with Zico) and PepsiCo (with O.N.E.) began competing for shelf space. "At that stage, we had started to elevate a seeding strategy" – the same program that had found traction in Brooklyn, lower Manhattan and Fenway Park – "and take it to the Hollywood elite," said Prior.
"We wanted to make sure we maintained that category position and we maintained the role as the brand that the category was going to become synonymous with … So what did we do?"
One word: Madonna.
And – no surprise – it was Madonna with a spin: according to Prior, the endorsement inked in 2010 was unlike almost any other. Instead of paying Madonna for her endorsement, the Queen of Pop not only lent her image to the brand, but "actually put her money on the table for Vita Coco. And that was a really, really big deal. It really showed her support of the brand, her belief in the product proposition, and it totally supported her lifestyle.
"She was a pop icon, she was a huge fitness enthusiast and she was a savvy businesswoman, so it completely legitimized the category and delivered insane local buzz for us," with an estimated 1.5 billion impressions in just six months.
Added Gallego, "Measuring impressions is a very antiquated way of measuring coverage. But we still haven't seen a better way to cover it. And we had coverage in the US. We had coverage in Japan. We had coverage in the UK. We had coverage in Brazil."
Celebrities rallied to support Madonna's mark: Sofia Vergara; Jared Leto; Leonardo DiCaprio; Shia LaBeouf ("Before he went crazy," Gallego noted); and Anna Paquin.
But it wasn't as if Coca-Cola and PepsiCo had given up. Zico grabbed basketballer Kevin Garnett from the Gatorade lineup, and Vita Coco needed another star every bit as bright as Madonna. And it found one in Rihanna, "a huge breakout star in 2011," Prior told the ANA audience. "She was the absolute right brand ambassador. And she was a fan of the drink.
"In March 2011, we approached her team. Three weeks later, we were on the set of her 'Man Down' music video in Jamaica, shooting the campaign. Sixty days later, we were on billboards in London, Los Angeles and New York with a fully integrated campaign."
And not only was the marketing effort largely unsupported by an agency, it also didn't have the research underpinnings an agency usually brings in support of such work: "We didn't ask the consumer or anything like that," Prior noted. "We went with our gut. And it was a big success."
Luck also remained a brand driver. With no prompts, Vita Coco was featured in questions on the game shows "Jeopardy!" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire". Noted Gallego, "We talk about being embedded in popular culture and these shows are based on popular culture.
"And by seeding writers, producers, and talent, we've been integrated into segments on 'Entourage', 'Two Broke Girls', 'Hawaii Five-O', 'How I Met Your Mother' and 'Parks and Recreation'. Again: none of them paid for; all out of real love for this brand."
If Vita Coco follows form, its next spot for seeding will be China. In the summer of 2014, the company's founders – returned from the streets of Williamsburg and Brazil respectively – sold 25% of their company for a reported $166 million to Beijing-based Reignwood Group, which owns the rights to produce Red Bull in China.
The infusion of capital certainly will mean aggressive market expansion as a variety of Vita Coco products roll out all over the world. And there's one other change that's likely to alter the way it goes to market: just weeks it announced plans for expansion into Asia, the brand signed on Saatchi & Saatchi/New York as its first agency of record.
Source: Warc, Geoffrey Precourt