Essentia Water Brand Strategy Case Study: When the Revolution is an Evolution

03.25.19 / David Lemley

The natural channel of better-for-you beverage brands is exploding. But it’s important to note that being the best-selling brand at Whole Foods in this category doesn’t necessarily equate to profit and meaningful growth. So how do you increase market share and grow your brand while keeping your loyalists (both internally and externally) and invite the rest of the world to join? The short answer: brand evolution.

But if your brand enjoys enough traction to even begin asking this question, it’s likely that people inside your business are becoming more inclined to make decisions based upon collective assumptions, internal bias, and outdated information – and then call it research. This is a recipe for disaster.

To avoid this, understand that data is the baseline that will take brand strategy from subjective hope and evolve it into clarity and the confidence to move forward so that you can grow your beloved brand and keep it relevant to your loyal followers while attracting a ton of new consumers.

It’s a matter of sequencing.

Insight That Will Impact Your Brand Strategy Looks Like Bad News

In our rapidly changing world, audiences, statistics, and truths evolve more rapidly than ever. Good data provides more than answers and statistics. It also shines a light on relevant opportunities and provides insights. These insights often look and smell like bad news. But, to the open-minded brand owner, this is truly good news — in the same way that complaints from customers and employees are a gift to the leadership of your company. These insights are a clear roadmap to effecting real and positive change.

Data Has a Shelf Life

Due to technology, the pace of modern life, and our fast-changing lifestyle, the shelf life for data is fleeting. In the case of Essentia Water, the report on bottled water was only a couple of years old but dangerously outdated. Many small to mid-sized brands may only purchase these types of syndicated consumer data reports every few years, but that habit is risky.

What became evident during category and competitive audits with Essentia was a disconnect between the data reported and what was currently happening in grocery stores around the country. A newer version of the same report revealed a hint of what we were starting to see in the physical world. Their audience was shifting from predominantly female, Caucasian yoga enthusiasts living in Los Angeles to a Hispanic, ethnically diverse psychographic that transcends traditional demographics such as income bracket, race, age, and education. The world was changing beneath their feet.

Key insights included:

  • Men, parents, and acculturated Hispanics are core users of bottled water.
  • 50% of all bottled water users prefer premium offerings.
  • A stunning 82% of net consumers want an additional function from their water.

In the case of Essentia Water, the insight (bad news) was that they had been spending their marketing dollars talking to a small census of people who loved them but couldn’t consume any more of their product. The good news was that from the new data we could see a much broader audience-to-be who was thirsty for but unaware of Essentia.

Audience Segmentation Helps Keep Your Brand Loyalists in the Boat

Using the insights above led us to segment Essentia’s audience in ways that would allow them to keep their original core user of health-conscious yoga enthusiasts within a tribe of believers.

Use audience segmentation to force meaningful difference between your brand and its competitive set. This hard work will help you and the rest of your company get past comments, like, “C’mon, water is water.”

Further research into Essentia's audience uncovered some commonalities in how this audience-to-be views the world and their role within it:

  • They focus on results and strive to be the best at anything they do.
  • They work hard and squeeze as much into their lives as possible.
  • And then they are grateful, viewing life as an opportunity to do more with their time, for others, and for themselves.

We called them, “The Overachievers.”

Trend Analysis Will Help Make Sense of Research and Data

Research and data analysis needs to go way beyond purchasing or searching for a free report. It needs to include scenario planning (the discipline of using data, market intelligence, and anthropology to answer the question of not “if” the future is going to be different but “in what ways” will it be different). In order to make a viable future for your brand to live in, we separate these scenarios into three areas:

  • Things we cannot predict or control
  • Things we can predict and control
  • Things we can influence but not control

Now that we have some possible futures, we can establish brand positioning hypotheses using three critical components:

  • Reliable consumer and market research
  • The brand’s purpose beyond making and selling product
  • The business goals of the leadership team

Viewing the trends in category context keeps them generic. Filtering the trends through your brand positioning makes them unique. Add to this the research that illuminates the most likely shifts in societal norms, your brand’s reputation, and its opportunity in a carefully crafted set of likely futures, and "ta-da" you have a unique and ownable brand.

In the case of Essentia, we found that nobody believed anything bottled water brands were saying about themselves because the market was flooded (pun intended) with unbelievable claims that none of these brands could prove. Including Essentia.

And this mistrust wasn’t limited to water, food & beverage. It seemed that the biggest trend we had uncovered is that companies and brands regularly misstate the truth and claim innocence (because everyone is doing it) and call it marketing. No wonder marketers get such a bad rap. As a result, consumers automatically mistrust your claims unless your brand can prove them quickly and transparently.

A few years back, Essentia participated in a clinical study that proved their water is twice as effective at hydration than the leading brands of bottled water. Essentia had never published the study because their legal team discouraged it and there was a general belief that loyalists would be put off by the study. My team saw the study as a silver bullet.

Armed with this information, our audience segmentation, and current relevant data, we worked with Essentia to get the study published and accredited to the third party. So now we had proof. Cold, hard proof. It was time to pick a fight.

Pick a Fight with the Biggest, Strongest Enemy Your Brand Can Find

To most traditional marketers, this may sound like engaging in competitive warfare via the four Ps of marketing (product, price, place, and promotion). That’s a wrong impression of this particular strategy. Instead, we are talking about creating a movement that people can get behind. It goes beyond your product offering and the reason a brand engages in change: the need for differentiation.

For example:

  • Nike doesn’t compete with Adidas, Mizuno, and Reebok. Instead, Nike tackles racism, poverty and social justice.
  • Lululemon isn’t competing with Zella, Oiselle, and Prana. Instead, Lululemon fights the stress of modern life on behalf of time-starved women everywhere.

This makes brand evolution into a brand revolution. The heart of differentiation is belief, credibility, and authenticity. Since reality exists in language, we work on changing the words that will come out of the mouths of the company, their leadership, sales teams, managers, and frontline employees. It all starts and ends with brand positioning and brand language.

In the case of Essentia, they took on youth empowerment and the future of water:

  • Essentia’s tagline: Overachieving H2O
  • Essentia’s brand positioning: The future of water
  • Essentia’s manifesto: We are here to put a flag in the ground and tell you that a better you starts with a better water.
  • Essentia’s call to arms: Join the #essentianation

All of this invites discovery, sharing, and inclusion in an optimistic life that transcends the marketing hype of other, well-funded, long-standing industry players.

How do I know? Essentia is posting jaw-dropping growth for its second straight year using this playbook.

  • According to Bevnet, Essentia was the fastest growing performance water brand in the U.S.
  • According to Food Navigator, it posted 84% growth in 52 weeks.
  • Essentia closed the third quarter of 2018 with continued growth at retail, adding over $25 million in sales to further reinforce the brand's leading position within the premium bottled water category.
  • With an 8.8% share of the premium water market in Period 10 2018, Essentia delivered 34% of category growth, marking the brand's highest share ever. Essentia's top 16 U.S. markets each grew more than 100% over the last 52-week period compared to Q3 2017.

According to Karyn Abrahamson, Essentia's VP of Marketing, “Our team couldn’t be more positive or excited about the new strategy, packaging, and integrated marketing system. We are exceeding monthly numbers far beyond what we could even imagine.”

And it’s given shape to their causes and give back program, establishing The Essentia Foundation: Believe (to empower underprivileged youth). Their brand positioning along with the marketplace acceptance has given them a platform in a global conversation to feature their proprietary process (for creating the best water from any source) as the future of water. All illustrating that ultimately, your beloved brand and can be precious to a lot more people if you use data, discipline, clear communication, and gut instinct to invite other people to join your movement.

We helped Essentia Water disrupt the bottled water category. What’s your brand’s toughest growth challenge?

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