Strolling around New York this past summer, I found it impossible to escape the giant, redheaded visage of Rihanna—often staring out at me from the side of a bus barreling through a crowded intersection. The singer had temporarily eschewed her punk warrior aesthetic in favor of a frilly white frock and a tropical beach idyll. In her hand: a Tetra Pak full of Vita Coco coconut water. “Hydrate naturally, from a tree, not a lab,” the ad copy implored.
I’d always thought of coconut water as a treat only encountered when traveling. Sold from a roadside cement-block hut in Vietnam. Sipped from a wrinkled plastic bag pierced with a straw. But the product (which is simply the juice of a young, hacked-open coconut) has suddenly flooded the U.S. market. It’s ubiquitous in Manhattan bodegas, shoving aside the 24 oz. aluminum cans of Modelo. Category leader Vita Coco reports 2009 sales volume of $20 million, 2010 sales of $40 million, and expected 2011 sales of $100 million. Competitors boast similar growth rates. What’s driving this specialty beverage boomlet? And how long can it last?
The most important trend in the refreshment business—going on for more than a decade—is the flight away from sugary, carbonated soft drinks like Coke and Fanta (CSDs in industry parlance) and toward drinks perceived as healthier, more natural choices. The decline of the soda stems in part from the aging of our population; 60-year-old baby boomers are less likely than they once might have been to guzzle down a fizzy Mountain Dew. But there is also a general movement toward something the trend spotters call “wellness.” Achieving wellness, as best I understand it, involves cultivating a keen awareness of nutritional concepts, meditative techniques, and which brand of yoga pants make your butt look awesome.
In fact, the successful arrival of coconut water on these shores has more to do with yoga than you might think. The wellness trend has inspired several profitable beverage launches—inspiring massive bottled water brands like Dasani and Aquafina, alternative sports drink concoctions like Vitamin Water, and single-ingredient juices like Pom Wonderful. Both Vita Coco and close competitor Zico were launched in 2004, near the dawn of the current yoga craze, and their early success was built on the (supple, flexible) backs of yoga-loving women
In South America and Southeast Asia, coconut water is an anytime drink for all sorts of occasions. Vita was born when its founders chatted up a pair of Brazilian women in a Lower East Side bar, getting an earful about how much the gals missed the coconut water that was a daily staple for them back home. Zico came to be when CEO Mark Rampolla, upon returning home from his job as an executive for International Paper in Latin America, found he and his wife couldn’t live without the stuff. But the key to getting the beverage off the ground in the United States turned out to be yoga and pilates fiends who became the brands’ early adopters and first American evangelists.
“We couldn’t afford a $100 million marketing campaign to reach everyone,” says Rampolla, “so we needed to start small, with a targeted audience. We found out that yoga practitioners were fans of coconut water. They understood electrolytes but thought Gatorade was the antichrist.” Especially keen for the product were members of the burgeoning Bikram, hot yoga, community. “These were women who sweated a lot, who tended to travel and to be open to new tastes, and who didn’t like the DayGlo colors and all the added ingredients of the mainstream sports drinks.” As a result, the initial positioning for coconut water focused on hydration and the importance of replenishing electrolytes like potassium when exercising. Jet-setting yoga hippie chicks were also powerless to resist coconut water’s culturally progressive, world beat vibe.