BROOKLYN, NY. — Pear elderflower, blackberry jam and cherry pop are among the dozen flavors featured by a Brooklyn-based soft drink startup with a celebrity following.
Launched last year, United Sodas of America, Inc. offers an assortment of carbonated beverages packaged in colorful cans with a minimalist design. The brand was developed as an answer to the question: “If soda was invented this year… what would it look like, and what would we want it to be?” said Marisa Zupan, co-founder and chief executive officer.
“We loved the name first and foremost because it spoke to the aspiration of what we’re trying to do, to be the next great American soda company,” said Ms. Zupan, formerly a brand strategist for companies including Coca-Cola, Nestle, Absolut, Target and others. “Beyond that, we built the brand around the brand name and developed the platform of variety, of better liquid with simple but really straightforward ingredients and a better nutritional profile.”
At 30 calories per serving, the drinks are sweetened with organic erythritol and stevia, plus a touch of cane sugar. Additional flavors include ginger ale, sour blueberry, strawberry basil, peach, orange nectarine, mango, lemon verbena, pear elderflower, toasted coconut and white grape.
The brand debuted online several months into the pandemic and quickly gained national traction, selling out its variety pack six times over the past year, Ms. Zupan said. United Sodas has since trickled out to select specialty retailers, including Erewhon, Foxtrot and Central Market. Some sell the full array of single cans, an unusual merchandising move for early-stage businesses but highly strategic for the company’s in-market success. Data show the more units available on shelf, the better the brand performs, Ms. Zupan said.
“We are a brand that needs to be seen in at least six to eight units in order for the brand idea to come across,” she said.
Its eye-popping hues have made United Sodas a social media hit, as users match cans to an outfit or the color scheme of an event, Ms. Zupan said. Some of the brand’s A-list imbibers include Justin Bieber, Gwyneth Paltrow and Hilary Duff. To nurture the buzz, United Sodas has an in-house concierge team that “handles VIP clients” and provides “white-glove service,” Ms. Zupan said.
“We love helping individuals, no matter who they are, use soda to do interesting things,” she said. “Who thinks about soda as an integral part of how you plan for your wedding day? That’s something we help people with. It’s been an interesting experience.”
In a recent interview, Ms. Zupan discussed how United Sodas is aiming to redefine the category.
Food Business News: Why did you launch United Sodas of America?
Marisa Zupan: My co-founders and I have experience in beverage from different angles. I come from a brand background. I worked with beverage brands my whole career and have always been fascinated by this space. My co-founders come from more of a manufacturing background. We all had an appetite for disruption and understanding what was missing in this space after all having been a part of it for a long time.
How did you come up with all these interesting flavors?
Ms. Zupan: We knew we needed the products themselves to communicate this idea of variety and variety of taste. The notion of creating a spectrum of color was really important. We wanted each of the flavors to represent a different part of that spectrum. In one sense, we needed to develop flavors that represented everything from red all the way through indigo and purple.
From the flavors themselves, we wanted to make sure we had a range from something more traditional like cherry pop, for example, or ginger ale, to something that seemed more modern, like strawberry basil or pear elderflower or blackberry jam.
Of course, there was also the dimension of working with our flavor team to make sure we had the best possible flavor of anything we wanted to make. Some of that had to do with what they had in their bag of tricks, what they felt were some of their most incredible flavors that only they could create. All of those things combined ended up with the range of flavors we have now.
There was a lot of iteration of what we call the base of the beverage. In order to maintain a consistent nutritional profile across everything, we have our signature base, which is an organic base of different plant-based sweeteners, including cane sugar. We did try iterations without cane sugar, but what happened was it started to taste kind of phony. What we realized based on the science of ingredients is real sugar, like a touch of real cane sugar, allows the brain to feel satisfied by the sweet taste. Otherwise it’s always going to be searching for something that tastes like cane sugar and not really be satisfied.
You are expanding your retail presence this year. Is there a home for United Sodas in conventional retailers?
Ms. Zupan: I think that our path to conventional is going to be an unconventional one. Purely based on the type of brand we are and the way we show up on shelf and the number of SKUs we have, we really need to make sure our conventional partners understand the strength of the visual aspect of the brand. There’s a lot of “Okay, we’ll put you on a lower shelf and multipack with two SKUs and see how you do,” and that’s not how our brand needs to get there. We really need to prove ourselves, our dynamism on shelf and the way we operate on the brand, which is on a variety level.
What are your most popular flavors?
Ms. Zupan: By far, online, the variety pack and themed packs far outpace any single flavor experience people are choosing. That way of shopping has become very signature to us. On shelf, we found when you have a variety of flavors, which we always do, they all sell equally. I know that sounds too weird to be true… We’ve seen the velocity numbers on this. It makes our jobs a bit operationally difficult because we have to maintain 12 SKUs in market. But it goes to show you if you balance the flavors in the way we have, where there’s a little something for everyone, you will get this even sell-through.
Where can you go from here with product development for United Sodas?
Ms. Zupan: It will be easy for us to develop new variants. It’s not like we have a hero flavor and everything else is just secondary. Everything we develop will be a well-thought-through launch that has to do with a flavor relevancy or seasonal or cultural relevancy that will tie into our product launch. We’re working on several of these right now.
The other thing we can do is innovate in how the cans show up together. In terms of how we market online, we can sell packs based on different combinations of flavors that speak to different seasonal, cultural and fashion trends. The way we can mix and match our own brand as it stands also helps us with an innovative approach to marketing. Can we combine flavors, for example, almost like the Jelly Belly idea, where if you combine two flavors you get a third flavor?
What challenges have you faced in your first year in business?
Ms. Zupan: A lot of challenges have to do with keeping up with demand. Our projections for retail were four times under what they ended up being. A double capacity problem is one thing, but a quadruple capacity issue is another thing because we don’t own our own facility yet. We’re very young, so we work with a network of copackers that are also under constraints.