Prime Timers

Wet Profits

Amid the montage of potables chilling in your local beverage section, it's exciting to view a small group of premium soft drinks posing as lava lamps, persuading us to ignore their boring aluminum competitors.

So exactly how do start-up beverage entrepreneurs create enough consumer interest and accomplish the feat of securing a section of the corporate-dominated shelf space? "With luck, creativity and by providing refreshing alternatives," says Tom Vierhile, general manager of Marketing Intelligence Service, a new-product-reporting firm in Naples, New York. "It also depends on picking your spot in such a way that the larger companies won't be interested."

With a number of avenues to choose from--the homespun/old-fashioned approach, the nutraceutical/herb-enhanced approach, the new/exotic flavor approach--tapping such niches is exactly what will keep the big guys from stepping on the small guys' toes. "If you're a small guy, you're not gonna come up with another cola knock-off," says Vierhile. "You're going to come up with product niches that are perceived as underserved."

But aside from the obvious necessity of creating a product that tastes great, has a cool package and boasts something more than the average soda, new drink businesses still have the task of achieving distribution and shelf space. "That's one of the biggest challenges for small beverage companies," explains John Sicher, editor of Beverage Digest. "[Securing distribution] takes a ton of entrepreneurial spirit and energy."

It was such entrepreneurial spirit and energy that prompted Hoby Buppert, 27, to put into action a business plan he devised during his last semester at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Buppert soon created his own line of soft drinks made with the naturally caffeinated Amazonian Guarana berry. After witnessing the popularity of highly caffeinated beverages in European dance clubs, Buppert decided to launch BAWLS (Brazilian American Wildlife Society) Guarana, to the guarana-savvy dance-club mecca of Miami in 1996.

Part of a $200,000 bank loan went to designing BAWL's distinctive packaging: a bumpy, cobalt-blue, 10-ounce glass bottle that Buppert says gets lots of attention. He distributed the bottles to local clubs and cafes himself in a company van until his prayers were answered by Arizona Distribution, who soon spread the product all over Florida. The company has since helped put BAWLS Guarana in 16 states.

Cluing in to teen lingo can help a new drink stand out as well. By using marijuana-related slang for its highly caffeinated line of carbonated beverages, called Bong Water, Merrillville, Indiana's Real Things Distributing Co. has definitely grabbed the attention of young adults, all the while promoting its alcohol-free sodas as an alternative to drinking and drugs. Bong Water further captivates with its strong-smelling, grapefruit-guava mixture boosted with 105 mg of caffeine and a good percentage of your recommended daily B and C vitamins.

Achieving PR through grassroots marketing, Real Things focuses on convenience stores, taverns, health stores, and smaller mom-and-pop operations for its shelf space. By targeting niche markets, whether with exotic flavor blends or provocative package designs, beverage companies like Real Things have been able to get bottles on shelves.

And although experts admit it's no simple task building new beverages to the national level, one thing's for sure: Creative formulation is extremely key when bringing new, exciting concoctions to the parched masses.

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This article was originally published in the March 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Prime Timers.

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