Vita Coco is dominating the UK beverage market with its all-natural, nutrient filled, delicious coconut water, but where did it all start? One evening in a Manhattan bar in 2003, two childhood friends met two Brazilian women. When asked what they missed from Brazil the most, they simply replied “Aqua de coco” … A year later Vita Coco was born.
What qualities do you feel you posses that make you a successful businessman?
I am passionate about brands, food and drink, business in general and working with people. I have a great ability to be both strategic and tactical. When you’re in start up mode, it’s all hands on deck, roll your sleeves up and throw yourself in, but you also need to be able to set the compass in the right direction to ensure the business heads in the right direction, as getting the balance right is key. I think I’m also good at keeping things simple. Our whole business plan sits on one A4 piece of paper; anyone who picks this up should be able to get a good idea about business and strategy. Finally, I think that understanding is extremely important. You can never do enough for your customer or consumer, they are the people who make your business or brand, so you must understand their requirements.
How did you initially get involved with the foods and drinks industry?
I think I’m one of the few people who can say they’ve taken a vocational route all the way through. I started with a food marketing degree at Newcastle University then I found myself joining the graduate scheme at United Biscuits before going to Coca-Cola and innocent before setting up my own business. Mike Kirban, the original Vita Coco founder offered me the opportunity to launch Vita Coco in Europe and there’s been no looking back since.
What have you learned from your previous involvement with Coca Cola and the Innocent Smoothie brands?
Definitely to keep things simple; so many companies over complicate things when simplicity is so much more effective. Also I’ve learned the need to continue to evolve. If you stay still or just try to do the same things slightly better, someone who is truly being innovative in their offering will overtake you. I’ve certainly learned the benefits of being at an entrepreneurial business like innocent so I’d suggest doing something like this if you ultimately want to do your own thing. I know I have a lot to thank Jon, Adam & Rich, co-founders of innocent for, and I believe today Vita Coco offers budding entrepreneurs the same environment to learn.
The number of product introductions to the coconut water market has increased by 540% in the last five years. Why has coconut water become so popular?
In warmer climates coconut water has been nature’s best secret, having been drunk for generations. In Brazil it is consumed in greater quantities than orange juice so to many, it is not a new thing. In natural & specialty shops such as Wholefoods or Planet Organic, 6 years ago, the no.1 selling packaged beverage including any cola or water was Vita Coco 100% natural coconut water so the demand was already there in these environments showing the underlying potential.
However, mainstream popularity has risen through. The general macro consumer trend based on ‘you are what you eat’ is quickly becoming ‘you are want you drink’. People are increasingly looking to seek out natural drinks for a more balanced and healthier lifestyle and that is why Vita Coco & coconut water is becoming so popular. Vita Coco has zero fat, cholesterol and half the amount of sugar that can be found in traditional juices and smoothies.
Our customer partnerships (supermarkets, retailers, café deli, independents) have enabled us to get Vita Coco into more shops which has meant Vita Coco is much more accessible; which in turn has helped drive visibility and trial of Vita Coco. As well as positioning ourselves as a lifestyle drink we also have made great progress in the sports channel where we have over 1,100 sports outlets stocking us from Yoga, Pilates, Cross Fit all the way to national gym chains such as Virgin Active, Nuffield Health, David Lloyd. Given coconut water is naturally isotonic and full of electrolytes, particularly potassium. People are switching from synthetic, artificial sports drinks (you’ll find the sports drink category is in decline) in favour of Vita Coco and this year we’ll also be attending over 100 mass participation sports events across the UK to help people stay hydrated with Vita Coco.
The brand and business has also received a lot of attention; celebrities have even helped raise the profile and we’ve managed to get Vita Coco in front of many consumers in the UK which has helped us make the brand more mainstream.
What are the health benefits?
The coconut water comes from young green coconuts. It is jam packed full of potassium and naturally occurring electrolytes which helps the cells in your body maintain water balance – it is important to re-hydrate to keep your body in tip top condition.
How do you keep the product as natural as possible?
Vita Coco is based on one single ingredient: fresh natural coconut water. This is clean and simple with no colourings, preservatives or flavourings and our products are never produced from concentrate.
In which locations is coconut water most popular?
Globally, coconut water popularity is rising; in the next 12 months in the USA, the category will hit $1bn and in the UK next year, the category will hit £100m. What is really exciting is having recently launched Vita Coco into markets such as Ireland, Germany, Paris, Benelux and Sweden, we are seeing the same promising signs as we have seen in markets such as the USA & UK.
Within markets, Vita Coco & Coconut Water has ubiquitous appeal and is becoming popular in so many channels; at work, in the gym, in the mini bar, becoming a firm favourite at lunchtime, on the go whether it’s consumed as a mid morning or mid afternoon refreshing drink but also, especially with our recent launch of orange, Vita Coco is appearing in the breakfast table as a great way to start the day.
How have you marketed the health aspects to different areas of the world?
We consistently position Vita Coco as a 100% natural lifestyle and sports beverage across the globe with some local tweaking where needed and ultimately we let consumers decide why Vita Coco is important to them.
From where do you source the raw ingredients?
We produce and pack our coconut water at source across 5 different countries.
What would you advise to small businesses thinking of trading internationally?
I would advise them to make sure they do their research properly and go deep in a few markets rather than spreading yourself thinly. This prevents any diluting of the overall business and the brand, which, in the drinks industry, counts for a lot.
How did you develop the Vita Coco brand?
Mike Kirban & Ira Liran, the original founders developed the brand after meeting two Brazilian girls in a New York bar. They asked them what they most missed about Brazil and ‘Aqua de Coco’ was the response so Vita Coco was born. Oh and by the way, Ira married one of the two girls and moved to Brazil, so that’s a nice story, and two great things came from that initial meeting!
Are there any other drinks brands you think could hold their own in the market, and if so, how will you ensure Vita Coco remains on top?
At headline level, what Red Bull has achieved in the sports & energy arena or what innocent has achieved in the chilled juice or smoothie sector is what Vita Coco is looking to do in the coconut water sector, which today is the fastest growing category in non-alcoholic beverages with Vita Coco the fastest growing brand.
Two years ago there were six brands in the UK & we had a 76% share of coconut water, today there are 29 brands and we have a 91% share, but there are some good new brands emerging which is exciting for us as we want other brands to help us grow the overall coconut water category and then it is up to us to make Vita Coco the brand of choice.
You’ve even had the music artist Rihanna represent the brand last year. Can you tell us more about that?
Rihanna was Vita Coco’s first endorsed celebrity “face,” and appeared in two advertising campaigns, in 2011 and 2012. As the most famous female pop star in the world then, and now, her association with Vita Coco supported the increasing worldwide awareness of the brand.
What’s your personal favourite flavour?
Today it’s pineapple where we blend in whole crushed fruit with the coconut water, but next month it will be one of the others, no doubt!
Have you any plans to expand the brand and sell coconut oil for example?
We’ve got a big opportunity on coconut water with awareness in the UK below 5% so this remains the main focus but we’re also looking at other innovation for 2014. I can’t really reveal too much at this stage, but watch this space!
What kind of turnover are you looking at achieving in 2013?
In Europe this year we’re looking to exceed £35m at retail value having delivered 90% growth the previous year to £19.6m.
How do you like to relax and unwind away from work?
Any spare time is with my wife Penny & our two-year-old Oscar albeit I sneak out for a run or bike ride whenever I can as often this is where I get my best thinking time on the business.
Can you please offer some advice to other entrepreneurs in the beverage industry?
Of course! Be clear what competitive advantage you offer whether it is meeting an existing need state more effectively or else meeting a need in a new innovate way. Build the brand from the bottom up in the right customers through the right marketing tools. Listen to your consumers and you can never do enough for them.
Finally, if you were stuck on a desert island, what one item would you take with you?
Assuming that desert island has a coconut tree, I’d take a machete so I could crack open the coconuts!