The dynamics of the beverage industry have changed in recent years, with consumers drinking fewer carbonated soft drinks and opting for such perceived better-for-you choices as iced tea, bottled water and pure juices. Savvy marketers are learning to take better-for-you to a higher level and are creating beverages that appeal to the needs of specific consumer segments. For the children’s segment, beverages must satisfy both the gatekeeper in terms of ingredients and price, as well as the actual consumer — the child — who must be attracted to the beverage’s flavor and package.

A food or beverage qualifies as being a “children’s product” when it has a taste children love; nutrition children need; or entertainment children crave, according to Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md. Taste alone is not sufficient to qualify a product as being “for kids,” which is defined as the demographic with a single-digit age. The product must meet at least one of the other criterion — nutrition or entertainment. This is accomplished through product formulation, packaging and marketing. Ideally the product possesses all three of the characteristics, said David Sprinkle, research director and publisher at Packaged Facts.

According to the market research firm’s seventh edition of “The kids’ food and beverage market in the U.S.,” retail sales of children’s foods and beverages reached $23.2 billion in 2013. To put this in context, children’s foods and beverages accounted for roughly 3.5% of the $639 billion in total retail sales of all foods and beverages in the U.S. in 2013. Packaged Facts projects retail sales will grow to about $29.8 billion by 2018, driven by continued economic recovery, strong product development, and increased demand for health and wellness products suitable for growing children.

Retail sales of food and beverages for children are outpacing the total market, up 4.4% from 2012 to 2013, compared with 2.9% for traditional foods and beverages in the same categories. This is why makers and marketers of packaged goods are turning to America’s youngest consumers to boost sales. This is particularly true in the beverage segment where there is a need for better-for-you with an appeal to children.

“The kids’ beverage market is very much still in its infancy, providing additional incentive for players to innovate new product lines that can be adapted to kids’ needs and desires,” Mr. Sprinkle said. “However, marketing kids’ beverages can be a tricky business. While these products are targeting the child user, companies and brands must first gain acceptance by the purchaser — the parent. Obtaining parent approval is most often achieved through healthy brand positioning and socially responsible efforts.

“Millennial parents — who like to have products tailored specifically for them — are proving to be willing consumers when it comes to products that are made specifically for kids,” he added.

The latest innovations

Most drinks specifically marketed to children historically have featured added sugars or artificial ingredients, said Jina Wye, vice-president and general manager of Vital Juice Co., Seattle.

“Today, parents are more educated than ever about the imperative to provide their children good-quality nutrition,” she said. “Kids’ beverages today must deliver upon parents’ needs.”

To do that the company recently added four children’s varieties to its line of cold-pressed, high-pressure processed juices, which is technology that allows for nutrition and flavor retention. Launched in 10-oz plastic bottles and sold chilled, the child-friendly organic offerings are branded as Captain Carrot, Green Gorilla, Mr. Squeeze and Mrs. Beet. All four varieties are about 90% juice and 10% almond milk, with the latter providing protein and a creamy texture.

“We saw that kids were enjoying our core juice lineup and tweaked the formulations to make them more kid friendly,” Ms. Wye said. “We added cartoon characters to the packaging to add a playful, accessible element appealing to both moms and kids. But like all our juices, everything is made from 100% whole fruits and vegetables with no added sugar, agave or stevia. What’s most important, as with any product, is the taste, and seeing children’s reaction to Green Gorilla — our best-selling kids’ juice — is proof positive.”

Sneaking vegetables into children’s diets is one strategy and Sneakz Organic, Denver, is making it easier with its namesake beverage. Sneakz is a milkshake with one full serving of vegetables (broccoli, carrots and sweet potato) in every shelf-stable 8-oz box.

“Sneakz is on-point with consumer trends, from the increased demand for healthy kids’ products to igniting new news in the dairy category,” said Allison Fowler, co-founder and chief marketing officer.

Atlanta-based good2grow markets namesake no-sugar-added children’s beverages, including 100% fruit juices, V-Blend (fruit and vegetable juices) and Juicy Waters (flavored waters). They are packaged in child-friendly plastic bottles with spill-proof, character-shaped caps.

“Our founding mission is to help improve the health and happiness of kids by making nutrition fun, as well as accessible and affordable for parents,” said Jim Scott, founder and chief executive officer. “We are striving to create a strong foundation for smart eating habits by shaping children’s attitudes toward healthy foods and beverages. By offering a beverage parents want their children to drink in a package kids want to drink from, we’re setting them on the right path to better nutrition early on in life.”

With 28% less sugar than 100% juice products, V-Blend comes in tropical fruit medley and strawberry kiwi varieties. Both contain 71% juice from apple, carrot and beet concentrates and rely on natural flavors to obtain their descriptive flavor.

Juicy Waters comes in fruit punch and grape flavors. The drinks are a blend of 25% juice and reverse-osmosis purified water. Each 8-oz bottle contains 30 calories. There’s also a calorie-free unflavored water with added electrolytes for taste.

“We saw an enormous opportunity in the water category to deliver a truly better-for-you product that actually tastes great without excess calories,” said Carl Sweat, chief marketing and commercial officer. “We’re excited to fill that void in the market. Our new Juicy Waters collection provides moms a fun solution to get their kids excited about drinking more water, and staying hydrated, healthy and happy in the process.”

True Drinks Inc., Irvine, Calif., also recognized an opportunity in the children’s water category and developed AquaBall, a line of vitamin-enhanced, zero-calorie, naturally flavored waters that carries the tagline “Water. Only better.”

“The market has always been flooded with sugary, high-calorie drinks, and while many larger companies have tried to move towards better-for-you formulations of their old brands, none have ventured into the truly innovative, removing sugar altogether,” said Kevin Sherman, chief marketing officer at True Drinks. “We asked ourselves, what would the perfect kids’ drink look like? It would focus on hydration, starting with purified water instead of a juice base. It would have essential B and C vitamins to boost energy and immunity. It would add only natural fruit flavors and no artificial colors. Most importantly, it wouldn’t contain sugar, which is why we chose to use stevia, a natural plant-based sweetener with zero calories.

“Those are the factors that appeal to the purchaser, the parent. To appeal to the consumer, we created packaging in a fun shape that’s easy for kids to hold, with characters that are collectible and keep them reaching for more.”

AquaBall comes in a 12-oz grenade-shape bottle in four varieties: berry, fruit punch, grape and orange.

In December 2014, Lance Leonard, president and c.e.o. of AquaBall, said that during the past 52 weeks, AquaBall experienced same-stores sales increases of more than 448%.

“We are driving the kids’ drinks market in revenue, units and per-door sales due to one factor — that we are the healthiest kids drink option on the market,” Mr. Leonard said.

Mr. Sherman added, “We’re very proud to be the first mover in the category having no sugar, and we expect competitors to follow our lead.”

Other companies are following AquaBall’s lead, and providing their own unique spin. For example, Ladera Ranch, Calif.-based Drink Blocks L.L.C. markets a namesake children’s beverage that is not only a collectable, it’s a toy and a fun way to learn a new language, either English or Spanish, depending upon the individual. The plastic bottles are stacking blocks and come in four flavors: apple, fruit punch, grape and orange. The blocks sport a bilingual label of either numbers 1 to 10, letters A to Z, or an array of colors. The naturally flavored waters are sweetened with stevia.

Not only do children have their own specially formulated waters, they are getting their own tea and coconut water, too.

This past summer, FAL Healthy Beverages, New York, launched Coco Joy Kids in single-serve cans and bottles adorned with Disney characters. Made from young, green coconuts, Coco Joy Kids comes in four flavors: banana, pineapple, strawberry and watermelon.

Tea, hot or chilled, long has been viewed as a family beverage; however, tea’s naturally present caffeine has been an obstacle with specifically marketing tea to children. Recognizing the need for better-for-you children’s beverages, a number of caffeine-free teas have been introduced in recent years.

For example, Louisville, Ky.-based Rooibee Red Tea, uses organic rooibos tea to make Rooibee Roo. The drink relies on a touch of organic cane sugar, still containing fewer calories (50 per 8-oz bottle) and less sugar (12 grams) than most children’s drinks. The three flavors are: cherry, mango and orange.

Drazil Foods L.L.C., Edina, Minn., developed Drazil Kids Tea, a blend of herbal teas infused with real fruit juices. The drinks have half the calories and 35% less sugar than 100% juice and come in four flavors: Grape Bliss, Punch Passion, Tropical Burst and Yummy Berry. Herbal teas are naturally caffeine free and rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, according to the company.

Little Me Tea, Lawrenceville, Ga., uses a blend of white, rooibos, chamomile and hibiscus teas to make its namesake beverage, which is the only organic, Non-GMO Project Verified children’s tea and juice box. The teas come in four varieties — berry, fruit punch, grape and tropical — and are sweetened only with fruits and vegetables.

As Mr. Sprinkle of Packaged Facts suggested, there’s a great deal of opportunity in the children’s beverage sector. The keys are flavor, fun and getting the gatekeeper’s approval.