|17 Jan 2022|
|Written by Fabiana Papastefani|
|World Magazine Fall 2021 Edition- Rebirth, Reinvent, Reroute|
Some time around 2017 my brother Stefanos sent me an article about a startup brand named Whiteclaw. It seemed odd - sparkling water with flavor and alcohol, and being unsure of its purpose, we didn’t think much of it. Fast-forward to mid 2020 and hard seltzers -- now a designated category in the US and other international markets -- make up almost 10% of off-premise, supermarket beer dollars, with dozens of brands and flavors. This was our starting point: a proven new category of beverages with virtually no presence in Eastern Europe.
We sat down one day some time in July 2020 and wondered why there were no hard seltzers in Romania. What about the big brands? Heineken, Asahi International, Coca-Cola, Diageo and so forth seemed to have ignored this category’s monumental growth in favor of a conservative strategy. Given, this was just as travel restrictions, stay-at-home directives and sanitary measures were beginning to take effect globally. And it made sense, as launching new categories is exactly what corporations looking to minimize investor risk shouldn’t do during a pandemic. Fortunately for me and Stef, that gave us about a year to prepare our contender.
Our father, Jean Valvis, has built a number of nationally successful brands: Dorna, LaDorna, and most recently the Samburesti winery and AQUA Carpatica. He’s also launched products that were new within the Romanian market, such as PET-bottled mineral water and UHT milk, so his moral support for our project was immediate. Paired with the timing of a recent investment for a canning line intended for mineral water, we knew that the logistic know-how and physical infrastructure required for a hard seltzer were there. So under our father’s watchful gaze, Stef and I were left with the task of building the brand.
So where to begin for a hard seltzer? Market research in order to define the category is the first thing we did. How much does it sell and where? What are the average prices? Who consumes it and in what contexts? What other products does it take market share from? How is it advertised? What do existing brands taste like, and what are they made with? After answering lots of questions like these we had a clear picture of what the brand should look like, and a few things needed to advance in parallel: the creation of recipes, the visual identity of the brand, its pricing and product placement within the local market, and the advertising requirements of a product targeted at an 18-35 y/o audience. All of these needed specialist knowledge that Stef and I didn’t have, but we knew what we wanted.
The hardest part was designing the can itself and deciding what information to include. Too much color and people expect it to be sweet -- we confirmed this with two focus groups. Too little and people assume it’s some kind of tonic water. What symbol can we use for a category that’s 50/50 male/female-targeted, that appeals to anyone who wants to consume alcohol? Is there even a need for a main symbol, or will a good name suffice? No one knows what a “seltzer” is or why alcohol makes it “hard”, so we added “Fruity Alcoholic Sparkling Water”. That should be clear enough, but that it ignores the mineral water aspect. Gluten-free is big in the states, but does it matter if we state it on the can? No added coloring means the product is transparent, but that could seem artificial to most people who don’t know that all ‘natural’ beverages have added natural coloring compounds. How can the flavor be natural if the drink is transparent? Have you ever seen a transparent grapefruit? Well, the natural volatile compounds that give it taste don’t contribute to color at all. You can imagine the potential confusion. The final design is a balancing act between aesthetics and function, while maintaining the clean look of the general category.
Another important issue was finalizing the recipes for each flavor. Too little sugar and the natural fruit extracts taste bitter. Have you ever tasted a non-sweet peach? Too much and the calories go beyond the specified 99kcal/can. Citrus extracts are slightly bitter whatever you do, but using certain natural concentrates can make the product smell like dish soap instead of like a tasty Mojito. We worked directly with a provider of certified natural concentrates and went through about 19 rounds of corrections per flavor in order to confirm the final recipes, and I’m confident the final forms smell and taste delicious. Perhaps I’m influenced by the sheer quantity of lab samples that we (responsibly) consumed in order to reach a conclusion.
In effect, after one year and hundreds of emails and Zoom calls back-and-forth with food engineers, lawyers and about 10 agencies specialized in various aspects of running a brand, we’re on shelves. The website and Instagram pages are up, the TV commercial looks and sounds great, and I can proudly say we haven’t skipped any steps.
Although I think the product is good in itself, the hard part will be convincing people to try something they’re not used to, especially during a pandemic which doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. We expect it will take a while in order to explain why our product, Wet Hard Seltzer, is better, and time will tell if the product is a success. All I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed the process and look forward to applying this know-how to future product development. If anyone has ideas or would like to discuss, please reach out!
A word of advice for anyone interested in business ventures: if you haven’t already, set up an RSS feed with Feedly or equivalent, and pin it to your browser. Take a moment every day to read up on news within your industry of interest. It’s invaluable.
Read more inspirational stories in our Fall 2021 edition World Magazine
During the UK's first lockdown in the summer of 2020, I wrote an entire novel in two months! More...
In our pursuit of a better, healthier life More...