While Marisa Zupan's company is entering the soda category with a line of its own better-for-you premium drinks, the founder and CEO of United Sodas insists she has no intention of taking on the cola juggernauts. In fact, Zupan admits she's a fan and occasionally will down one their popular beverages.
"Every once in a while I got to say I'll crack open a Diet Coke and it's super satisfying, and that's okay, " Zupan, who gave up regularly drinking Diet Coke after college, told Food Dive. "I think the idea that we're allowing people to have that moment without that 'uh oh' moment or situation. That's was one of the reasons why I thought it was a good idea to develop something else because I felt there was room in the fridge for something like this."
The idea for a healthier soda came while she was working as a consultant helping companies such as AB InBev conduct research and develop new brands. Zupan said each of United Sodas' 12 flavors, which skip the syrupy mix included in most sodas, are sweetened with organic stevia and sugar. The flavors and colors come from natural ingredients such as black cherry in Cherry Pop or peach in Extra Peach. Each soda has 30 calories.
"The big guys, I honestly really admire them. Coming into the market with a new thing is really just contributing to the options of what consumers want. I can only hope that we're offering something that they find value in and they would be interested in."
Founder and CEO, United Sodas
United Sodas, which only offers its soda in 12 packs, is pricing them at $34.99 including shipping. Shoppers can order a case that includes one of each can, all of the same flavor or a variety with a theme — like a tropical pack with Young Mango, Extra Peach and Toasted Coconut.
Zupan said despite consumer demand for healthier drinks, the soda category is ripe for a makeover because shoppers had long viewed the segment as an indulgence that was unhealthy. Instead, she saw white space in soda where consumers would gravitate toward a better-for-you option with premium ingredients. And with a better product, shoppers would be willing to pay more for it.
"Are we more expensive on the shelf than a 12-pack of Coca-Cola or Pepsi? Yes. Is it our intention to steal all the (market) share away from them? No. We're going after a different market, a different occasion, a different person." she said.
United Sodas is not the first healthier soda aiming to redefine a category under attack for its negative effects on consumer health. Wave Soda and Limitless are among the other new beverages to enter the space in recent years.
A move into retail?
United Sodas' dozen offerings range from Strawberry Basil and Sour Blueberry to White Grape and Lemon Verbena, but one flavor is purposely missing: cola. Zupan said companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are good at making the cola flavor. By adding cola, people would focus less on the other varieties that better define the United Sodas brand, and it would become the one flavor everyone would compare to Coke.
"The big guys, I honestly really admire them," she said. "Coming into the market with a new thing is really just contributing to the options of what consumers want. I can only hope that we're offering something that they find value in and they would be interested in."
Volume sales of carbonated soft drinks in the U.S. continue to slide. According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, preliminary data showed a decline for the 15th-straight year in 2019. More beverage choices overall and a push toward health and wellness have reduced consumption.
"Consumers are happy with the Cokes, Pepsis and Dr Peppers of the world. ... They like those brands. They like those products. They're just drinking fewer of them."
Managing director of research, Beverage Marketing Corporation
However, the segment is still popular. In terms of volume, soda is the second-biggest beverage category in the U.S. The use of higher-margin small cans and new flavor innovations by beverage makers were projected to push dollar sales of carbonated soft drinks to $76.5 billion in 2019, a record high.
United Sodas is eschewing retail initially and launching its brand direct to consumer. The reason, Zupan said, is because the beverage upstart wanted to have more control cultivating its relationship with its consumers; a connection that becomes harder when a retailer is added to the mix. She also has a digital background helping brands thrive online that gave her experience.
The company is speaking to retailers about carrying its sodas, but United Sodas doesn't have a firm timetable in place for when it plans to reach stores. When it does, it plans to be methodical and deliberate about who it works with rather than doing a widespread rollout.
"I'm not interested on being on any shelf, anywhere for anybody," Zupan said. "We will really want to make sure we're learning as much as we can by the places that we're strategically placed."
Gary Hemphill, managing director of research with the Beverage Marketing Corporation, told Food Dive last year that new, better-for-you sodas introduced by upstart companies will carve out a presence on the market among consumers turning to healthier and premium-type products. Despite this success, these beverages will likely remain niche products, with the carbonated soft drinks category as a whole continuing to be dominated by the big brands, he said.
"Consumers are happy with the Cokes, Pepsis and Dr Peppers of the world. ... They like those brands. They like those products. They're just drinking fewer of them," Hemphill said. Soda's "still a big place, a big category and I think some of these companies ... see that and they see an opportunity in developing what they would maybe describe as a healthier soda."