Donna Berry 2019CHICAGO – Duct tape and rubber bands hold a lot of things together in the early years of building a brand, said Andy Arquette, chief financial officer, fairlife LLC, Chicago, a wholly owned business of The Coca-Cola Co., Atlanta. Speaking at The Chicagoland Food & Beverage Network’s first event of the new year on Jan. 14, he said it took about eight years for fairlife to firmly establish its brand in the marketplace, but the path was not what the company originally planned.

The fairlife brand and company evolved from a high-protein dairy shake originally launched by Dallas-based Select Milk Producers as Athletes HoneyMilk. In 2012, Select Milk Producers reached a national distribution agreement with Coca-Cola, whereby Coca-Cola eventually acquired a 42.5% stake in fairlife. Athletes HoneyMilk soon was re-branded and re-launched as Core Power, fueling the way for more dairy product innovation using an ultrafiltration processing technology developed by Select Milk Producers.

On Jan. 3, 2020, Coca-Cola acquired the remaining equity stake in fairlife. Days after, fairlife introduced refrigerated creamers made with the company’s nonfat ultrafiltered reduced-sugar milk. In March, the brand ventured out of the fluid category and entered the frozen desserts space with a higher-protein, lower-sugar ice cream. Now fairlife is rolling out Good Moo’d, a line of lactose-free milks that contain 25% less sugar than the leading lactose-free milk in the market.

Getting to this place was quite the ride, said Mr. Arquette. The brand focused on delivering what consumers were looking for in milk but not getting. Then the brand needed to get it to consumers. That’s where The Coca-Cola Co. helped.

“When we created the (fairlife) brand, we really made sure we had the consumer first,” he said. “We were small in 2012. It was an unprecedented investment by Coca-Cola given the size of our company.

“When you’re young, you have to be very ingenious with where you spend, with how you get your brand out there. You have to get the product in their hands.”

Fairlife Good Mood milkCoca-Cola handles the distribution of the majority of fairlife products; however, production is managed by the fairlife team. All fairlife products are made with milk that comes from Select Milk Producers, which operates dairies in the Midwest, New Mexico and Texas. The brand’s processing and bottling plants are in Coopersville, Mich.; Dexter, NM; Goodyear, Ariz.; and Peterborough, Ont.

Part of the path to where the brand is today included building a strong reputation within the food sector. It was about combining fairlife’s entrepreneurial spirit and dedication to science, with the resources, reach and expertise of Coca-Cola.

“Small companies are very unique from each other,” Mr. Arquette said. “It depends on the founders and investors. There are a lot of different ways to lead, to manage people. And there are a lot of different solutions to problems.”

The approach cultivates the reputation; it’s about learning from mistakes, said Mr. Arquette.

“Put them on the table, admit them and learn from them,” he said.

This includes reformulating products and modifying marketing. What was key for fairlife is the brand never lost focus of its belief in milk, its natural health benefits and the company’s ability to develop great-tasting products.

“We have the best research and development team, the best science in dairy and in low-acid aseptic processing in the world,” Mr. Arquette said. “We have intellectual property.”

“We are still trying to adapt with getting consumers’ attention when they are not walking the aisles and looking for new stuff.” – Andy Arquette, fairlife

Coca-Cola saw the consumer need for value-added milk products. Its investment and plans for the brand at the beginning of 2020 did not follow what the company envisioned due to the pandemic, but that did not slow business. In fact, it may have helped corporate foster a stronger relationship with the fairlife team, which is the only Coca-Cola business to maintain a headquarters outside of Atlanta.

“We were very small and irrelevant from a numbers perspective in the Coca-Cola world,” Mr. Arquette said. “This evolved over time and we’ve both adapted.”

As fairlife continues its journey to become a global brand, it also recognizes marketing will once again need to evolve. But Mr. Arquette has no doubt there’s increased consumer desire in health and nutrition since the pandemic, and it will continue.

“It’s difficult to launch new products in this environment,” he said. “But consumers love innovation. They love trying new products. We are still trying to adapt with getting consumers’ attention when they are not walking the aisles and looking for new stuff.”

It appears fairlife has embarked on another journey: The path to being a global brand within The Coca-Cola portfolio.