Water is an essential element to life, but sodas and sweeteners tend to be crowd pleasers. How do you innovate, disrupt and grow in a seemingly-gated category? Just ask creator and founder of hint, Kara Goldin. A product birthed out of a personal quest has become the number one independently owned non-alcoholic beverage company, reporting $100 million in sales in 2018. Below, Kara invites us to understand the tenacity, consumer awareness and purpose it takes to challenge the long-established beverage industry.
Tell us about your background and why you chose to start hint?
"I delivered the first 10 cases of hint to Whole Foods on the way to deliver my fourth child."
I was a sales executive at several tech startups and helped build AOL’s shopping channel into a $1 billion business. I was taking a moment to decide my next move and I wasn’t feeling 100%. I realized I had a serious diet soda habit and looked at the label one day and decided it was time to pay attention to what was going in my body. I tried plain water but I found it boring…the rest is hint history. I started slicing up fruit and putting it in my water. After a few months, I lost weight, my skin cleared up and my energy level really improved. When I realized there was nothing like it on the grocery store shelves, I decided to make it myself. I had the passion and the purpose, which were salient to success. I was totally inspired to create something that helped people lead healthier lives. I delivered the first 10 cases of hint to Whole Foods on the way to deliver my fourth child.
What’s one major challenge you’ve had to overcome as an entrepreneur?
In the beginning, the biggest challenge was to be taken seriously even though I didn’t have a history in the beverage industry. When I first started hint, I met with a beverage executive who told me unsweetened flavored water couldn’t be done (“Sweetie, people like sweet”). I was determined to create an alternative to everything out there with no sugar, diet sweeteners or preservatives and we had to approach it in an untraditional way which required partners who were willing to think differently and innovate. The lesson: Never give up and never take no as the final answer. Trust your instincts, find a road, even if it’s less traveled, and surround yourself with other ingenious and passionate believers.
What defining characteristics make Hint Water a Challenger?
"...we had a vision and despite being told it was impossible, we stuck to it."
We were the first beverage company to sell on Amazon and then directly to consumers on our own website. Our DTC business has really taken off this year and accounts for almost 40% of our business. We are a consumer-driven brand and want the consumer to choose where they buy our product. We communicate our irreverence in everything we do, including our website, social media, commercials, and advertising. Whether it’s relaying our mission to help people lead healthier lives and drink more water without sugar, diet sweeteners or preservatives, reinforcing our mission with taglines like “Drink Water, Not Sugar,” or raising awareness with deeper discussions about diet sweeteners and other sugary additives. The idea is that you can drink more water without compromising on taste or quality. We are now the #1 independently-owned, non-alcoholic beverage company in the US because we had a vision and despite being told it was impossible, we stuck to it.
How do you keep a pulse on the evolving preferences of your consumers?
I love knowing about our customers, hearing from them, listening to them and being able to talk to them with some context. We communicate on all two-way platforms including our website, social media, email and customer service channels. We know that the customers prioritize taste, they want something healthy but they don’t want to compromise on taste… Our new lemon flavor, for instance, took years to get just right and when we launched a month ago, it was a huge hit. We launched our kids water earlier this year as we learned that parents were really looking for a healthy alternative to all the sugary drinks out there like juice boxes. They sold out within hours. While we don’t necessarily launch exact flavors on request, we do have an ongoing dialogue with our consumers, they feel they are being heard and we have an idea of what they want.
What are the biggest changes in your industry and how are you staying ahead of them?
I think the biggest change is that massive companies are expanding into our field. Some are buying smaller companies to round out their offerings and some are introducing new products. After years of doing what we believe in (and what the major beverage companies said was impossible), we are seeing the landscape significantly expand. Water is literally running over soda and other sweetened drinks. From the perspective of our overall health, this is a super positive trend. hint has always been about great quality and great taste—our proprietary recipes will always distinguish us and our disruptive omnichannel mindset will always connect us with consumers everywhere.
So what’s new for the brand?
We have just completed a total refresh of the brand. We really never had a moment before now to focus on the superficial and we always wanted to refresh the look to make it really stand out on the shelf and at the same time capture our playful independent spirit. We were inspired by nature and bold colors and we used modern and artistic interpretations of shape and character to communicate each flavor.
Of course, the mission of hint remains the same, now everything feels modern, clean and colorful. We’re really making that emotional connection to the consumer with new beautiful labels, new expanded website and new subscription and rewards programs. Having that direct interaction with our customers in addition to traditional retail has really given us amazing insights.
You also expanded into a line of sun protection products last year. What led to that move?
"At the end of the day, I consider myself a consumer advocate."
I discovered precancerous cells on my face and after many visits to the dermatologist, I learned that when I used skincare products or cosmetics containing oxybenzone, the cells would grow. Meanwhile, I learned parabens, preservatives commonly used in sunscreens, have been linked to hormone disruption and breast cancer—no, thank you. I wanted a sunscreen without harmful ingredients that smelled amazing and felt awesome, too. I couldn’t find it so I made it myself and used our proprietary fruit essences to scent each flavor—pineapple, grapefruit, and pear. At the end of the day, I consider myself a consumer advocate. I care about health and helping people get the healthiest product they can—without sacrificing enjoyment.
What one trait is most critical to leading a Challenger Brand?
There are always times when you are presented with shortcuts or alternatives that may be better for the bottom line, for workload, and so on but do not reflect your mission or the values that underlie it. While it’s always a good idea to incorporate innovations, you don’t want to do that at the expense of your purpose and vision.
What advice would you give to other marketing pioneers?
Hold onto your baby, and never let someone else’s experience overrule your gut. Also, look and listen, and be open to finding a gem that could help you amplify your message even louder.