A born creative, Benjamin Witte first started his career in Silicon Valley on early-stage tech before realizing that his talents were better suited for entrepreneurship. After joining up with two friends as partners on a creative brand studio and experimenting with CBD oil, Benjamin decided it was time to reinvent the beverage category and write his own playbook. From product personalities to experimenting with a new line of streetwear, Benjamin shares an inside look at how the brand is thinking creatively and challenging industry norms. He also shares how the company is thinking about incremental revenue streams, omnichannel distribution, and the type of talent needed to continue the brand's growth.
Why a CBD beverage company?
I ended up joining two friends Justin Hauser and David Hess as partners in a brand studio where I looked at a bunch of different ideas until landing on the initial idea for Recess, which I spun out to focus on full-time. I had started to see CBD bubbling up on the periphery of the natural food space and began to experiment with CBD oil myself, as I’ve always been a naturally hyper and wired person who felt easily overwhelmed with the stresses of everyday life. Once I started using CBD oil regularly, I felt more balanced and even-keeled and as a result, I became more productive and creative. ... Stress and anxiety is one of the biggest issues of the 21st century as a result of technology, social media, and the tumultuous times we live in.
When I started to study the beverage space, my main realization was just how brand marketing-driven the space is. Due to the fact that each beverage category comprises a few brands that capture all of the enterprise value, the benefit of building a category-leading brand could be enormous. However, I could not just run the playbook of today’s big beverage brands—I would need to think differently.
Between the highly-regulated CBD industry and the highly-competitive beverage category, what single most important factor has enabled you to break through and find success?
"Everything we have done to date has been through the lens of bucking trends to some degree."
If I had to say it was one thing I would say we probably broke through because we've been pretty obsessed with trying to do things slightly different than CPG brands before us. Everything we have done to date has been through the lens of bucking trends to some degree. From the poetic copy, the aversion to slapping product benefits all over the packaging, to the surreal pop-up shop we created, to an Instagram feed that spoke differently and wasn't really just pictures of cans next to salads or pictures of people smiling holding the can on a beach, to cans that developed personalities, to the matte finish and minimalism we used to stand out on the shelf next to the maximalist Red Bull or LaCroix's of the world. ... We understand our product but, I think more importantly, we understand how our product relates to people.
What’s one major learning or aha-moment you’ve had about your brand since launching in 2018?
I think the biggest breakthrough was letting each flavor develop a personality, an archetype of someone you know. It happened organically, but we knew we were onto something as Peach Ginger became kind of self-obsessed, messy, and iconic on Instagram. So we built out personalities for the other two flavors. This became our strategy for launching the three new flavors as well: Coconut lime is the hustler, Blood Orange is the yogi, and Black Cherry is the goth. You can only post so many different angles of a can or bottle or talk about ingredients for so long—but with each ‘can’ having a unique perspective on the world there’s endless content to be made (and marketing to do).
What’s something new and innovative you’re working on now?
We are introducing Recess Realitywear, a full apparel collection that our internal creative team designed in their spare time. We will be designing clothing and objects ourselves or in collaboration with other brands or people and then doing product drops through various digital channels. This is an experiment for us, but we think it could become a core component of our overall marketing strategy and will ultimately help us drive sales of our beverages.
Why is a beverage brand making clothes?
Ultimately, our strategy at Recess is to connect with the creative community by actually being creative ourselves. ... Creating clothing and objects is a natural extension for us and fits well within the Recess brand world we are creating. Having the ability to create and sell clothing and other objects as a component of various marketing programs is a strategic asset and capability, especially since it is revenue-generating. We are developing an entire Recess brand platform that we can offer and leverage with select partners.
While customer acquisition is a huge focus for direct-to-consumer brands, how are you approaching and thinking about customer retention efforts?
We are focused on making Recess as widely available and easy to buy as possible and by continuing to create digital content and experiences that people look forward to engaging with daily. ... With our new website, we are introducing robust subscription capabilities for consumers and the ability for retailers throughout the country to purchase Recess directly from us via our online portal at wholesales prices. I think we are just scratching the surface of ways people can engage with Recess.
How do you see this disrupting the traditional distribution model between brands and retailers?
Part of my thesis when I started Recess was that premium beverages were especially well-suited for digital brand building and an omnichannel distribution strategy. ... I think traditional retailers and distributors have felt somewhat threatened by the growing importance of digital, fearful that ecommerce sales are a pure substitute for retail sales. However, I think they are starting to realize that this is not true and that e-commerce sales are in large part incremental for the best brands. It is in the best interest of retailers and distributors to work with brands that have a large digital presence and sophisticated capabilities because ultimately, these are the brands that will win.
What’s been your marketing approach during the Pandemic?
"Our sense of humor brings some much-needed levity to this situation."
When Covid-19 arrived, we discussed internally if and how we would approach talking about this moment, but ultimately recognized that we were well suited to speak to it in the unique Recess way. We have used the can personalities to speak to many of the issues we are all dealing with—endless zoom calls, roommate territory disputes, and toilet paper hoarding. Our sense of humor brings some much-needed levity to this situation.
What type of people and skills do you look for as you continue to grow the company?
As a result of the unique regulatory dynamics in CBD, it was especially important that everyone on our team be resilient and have an entrepreneurial spirit, a long term outlook, and an ability to be innovative and very strategic. That said, there are many aspects of the beverage industry that require institutional knowledge where we aren’t looking to reinvent the wheel. Our Chief Sales Officer Mike Sharman previously lead sales at Essentia Water, Zico Coconut Water, and Vitamin Water; our Head of Supply Chain Laurie Breton is a 20-year Dr Pepper operations executive and previously lead Supply Chain at Bai, and our COO Simon Goode was CEO of a nutrition bar company called Promax Nutrition before this.
On the brand side though, we want to think in an entirely different way compared to most CPG organizations. So that generally means finding incredible talent in brand and marketing from outside the CPG industry so that they bring a fresh perspective to beverage brand building. Our main creative partners at Day Job aren’t your typical CPG agency, in fact, we were their first beverage client.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
"I’ve grown comfortable with the fact that not everyone will understand each component of our strategy right away..."
One of my favorite quotes is from Jeff Bezos: "inventing and pioneering involves a willingness to be misunderstood for long periods of time.” As an entrepreneur building a new type of beverage and consumer brand, I have realized how true that is. There has been a playbook for building beverage brands over the past twenty years that I think is becoming increasingly outdated. Recess is taking a new approach to building and scaling a beverage business, and I’ve grown comfortable with the fact that not everyone will understand each component of our strategy right away—but I am confident that over time they will see and understand it more clearly.