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From Syrup to Success: How Swoon Navigated It All with Jennifer Ross

Co-Founder of Swoon

In this episode of Gooder, host Diana Fryc talks to Jennifer Ross, co-founder and co-CEO of Swoon, a line of zero sugar lemonades and teas. Jennifer shares how their company pivoted during the pandemic to create a new product line and the challenges and successes they faced while expanding distribution. She discusses the importance of providing healthier drink options and the impact it can have on people’s health. The episode also delves into their collaboration with the iconic brand Barbie and the lessons they learned. Jennifer offers tactical advice on listening to customers and being open to feedback, which led to the creation of Swoon Syrup, a monk fruit-based simple syrup that is 200 times sweeter than sugar but without any glycemic impact. This conversation explores the complex process of creating a health-focused business and the importance of adapting to different ways of working.

Today’s episode is hosted by Diana Fryc of Retail Voodoo, connect with her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dianafryc/

Key Takeaways

  • Pandemic Pivot: Swoon’s Drink Adaptation
  • Crafting Healthier Beverage Options
  • Enhancing Lives through Healthier Drinks
  • Empowering Partnership: Swoon x Barbie Collaboration
  • Swoon’s Customer-Driven Growth
  • Swoon Syrup and the Power of Monk Fruit
  • Lessons from Corporate Collaborations
  • Crafting the Iconic Barbie Brand

Quotes

“Our aim was to craft a beverage that wasn’t just for diets or diabetics, but rather a delightful, natural, and sugar-free option that everyone could enjoy.” -Jennifer Ross

“Prioritize listening to your customers and fearlessly make adjustments to exceed their expectations.” -Jennifer Ross

“We overcame challenges and reaped the rewards. Looking back, those obstacles were the catalyst for our successful product line.” -Jennifer Ross

Chapters

00:00 | Introduction
03:39 | A Personal Need Turned Health Revolution
07:14 | Crafting Monk Fruit Syrup from a Mojito Inspiration
09:11 | Home Formulations to Retail Success
10:40 | Swoon’s Flavorful Twist on Zero-Sugar Drinks
12:42 | Empowering Women Beyond Appearance
14:27 | Unique Experience Working with Barbie and Mattel
16:10 | Barbie Collaboration: Amplifying Swoon’s Impact
18:59 | Customer-Centric Approach: Power of Feedback
23:26 | Pivoting to Refreshing Lemonades and Iced Teas
25:16 | From Pinch Me Moments to Nationwide Recognition
26:59 | Conclusion

This episode is brought to you by Retail Voodoo. A brand consultancy focused on building,growing and revitalizing brands in the food, beverage, health and wellness industries. If youare ready to find a partner that will help your business create a high-impact strategy thatgives your brand an advantage, please visit

https://retail-voodoo.com/contact set up a discovery call today.

Produced by Heartcast Media.
https://www.heartcastmedia.com/

Transcript

Diana Fryc:  

 

Here’s a quick disclaimer. The views, statements and opinions expressed in this program are those of the speakers. The statements are not intended to be product claims or medical advice. Hi, Diana Fryc here and I am the host of the Gooder podcast, where I get to talk with the powerhouse women in the food, beverage and wellness categories about the business of consumer-packaged goods, branding and leadership. This episode is brought to you by Retail Voodoo. Retail Voodoo is a brand development firm providing strategic brand design services for companies in the food, wellness and beverage industries. Our clients include Starbucks, Kind, Rei, PepsiCo, Hikey, and many other market leaders. So, if your goal is to crush your competition by driving growth and disrupting the marketplace with new and innovative ideas, give us a call and let’s talk. You can find out more@retailvoodoo.com. Okay, today I get to introduce you all to Jennifer Ross or Jen, who is the co-founder and co-CEO of Swoon, the zero-sugar beverage brand. Reinventing the classics like lemonade and iced tea, she co-founded the brand alongside her friend and former Harvard Business School classmate Christina Blankfind. Did I get that right?

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

Yes, you did.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

Woohoo. Two points. Okay. Jennifer was diagnosed with type one diabetes at the age of six and has long been an advocate for the advancement of diabetes research. While still in high school, she founded and organized Rocked the Cure, a concert to benefit JDRF, which raised over $200,000. And now she’s tackling sweetened beverages. And so, I’m just going to welcome you, Jen. Nice to meet you.

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

Nice to meet you too.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

Yeah, great. And you are in New York? Yeah.

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

Yes, right in Manhattan.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

Right in Manhattan. So you have to tell us a little bit about those of us that are not in the East Coast area. We’re seeing Manhattan and San Francisco kind of going a little bit weird and people are leaving. Is that really happening or is that just make believe?

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

I think being here and living here, it doesn’t feel quite as bad as the news is making it out to be. Honestly, the city feels very busy and vibrant and has a ton of really positive energy, so it’s definitely not as bad as what people kind of have in their minds.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

Yes. Good. And I suspect that Broadway is probably a big driver of a lot of that. I mean, you’ve got a lot of business in there, but in regards to attracting people, the arts in New York has just come back in full force and that’s probably helping a lot.

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

Definitely. There’s so much arts and culture here in New York that people want to come and visit. And I definitely think, again, the city is back with people living here, with tourists coming, there’s just still so much to do and see and really everything’s back open now.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

Yeah. Awesome. Well, let’s talk about what we’re here to talk about and that is Swoon. Now, for those of you that aren’t familiar with it, or for those of us that aren’t familiar with Swoon, why don’t you tell us what Swoon is and what it stands for? What’s its mission?

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

Yes. So Swoon is a line of zero sugar, lemonades and iced teas, a healthier twist on the classic drinks that we grew up loving. And we really started it out of a true personal need. As you said earlier, I’m type one diabetic. So I have grown up trying every sugar free drink under the sun, everything from Crystal Light, vitamin, water, zero like, you name it, and I’ve had it. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really realized just how bad sugar is for everyone. Over 50% of adult Americans are pre diabetic or diabetic. And that’s really a direct result of diet and exercise. And the diet is consuming excess sugar. And sugary drinks are actually that number one source of excess sugar. Really, we really wanted to create something that wasn’t a diet or diabetic drink, but with something that didn’t have sugar that was all natural and tasted great and was fun. I remember having memories of a kid sneaking pink lemonade because it was delicious, but it was also because it’s what all my other friends were having. And so, of course, wanting to be part of them and not feeling kind of othered as a kid and then even as an adult, food and drink are such a part of your life and your lifestyle and kind of things that you do every day without even really thinking about it. So being able to kind of make an impact, to give people options to choose drinks that aren’t filled with sugar will be having a direct impact on people’s health, kind of without even thinking about it. So it really is something that is very near and dear to my heart.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

Well, and you’re right about food being cultural, really. Whether it’s a personal family culture or a global culture, you’re transported back to either childhood or a place that you visited or just someplace familiar. And what I love about your product, I’m going to show it here just a minute, because your team was so nice to send me some samples, which I was sharing earlier with Jen that my teenage daughter and her friends ripped into and I had to go into crisis mode and save some cans for myself. What I love is you’ve got some classics here. All of these are familiar classics. So it’s not like some sort of mysterious flavor that maybe you’re not comfortable with. These are what you would expect to see at an everyday function or an everyday household. Like the lemonades, like the half and halfs, and the iced teas are really great. So I love that you’re really focused, at least right now. Maybe you might be changing in the future, but right now just these classics are super great to have in that format for everybody to have.

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

Yeah, exactly. We really kind of just wanted to go back to the classics, to the drinks that everyone knows and loves, and just say, you know what? You can take sugar out, and they can still be great. We’re not adding so many other things into it or making them drinks that you don’t know what the names are or what’s in the ingredient list. So it really is just a better version of the classic.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

Great. Well, talk a little bit about how the idea came about. How did swoon come about? What happened? Was there an AHA? Did you work on it for forty eight days? What did that look like?

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

Yeah, so it actually really started with swoon syrup, which is a monk fruit based simple syrup. And monk fruit is our sweetener. It’s from the Low Hand Glow plant. It’s native to Southeast Asia. It looks like a gourd. It’s two hundred times sweeter than sugar. There is no glycemic impact. And my partner Christina is half Cuban, and she was making mojito, actually, and making simple syrup, which is literally sugar and water. And I’m sitting there, and I’m like, I can’t drink that. And then she’s like, I don’t actually even want this. So then it really was this idea of, like, can we actually create a sweetener that is all natural and isn’t sugar? And so I spent a lot of time working on the mouthfeel, the taste, the texture of that, of swoon syrup. And as we then made it, and we’re sampling people on it, you can’t frankly sample people on a syrup.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

We were lemonade, okay?

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

We were using water, freshly squeezed lemons, and swoon syrup. And some restaurants and places in New York started putting it on top, and we were getting feedback like, can I buy this? Can you? Can this? I want this. And so that really was the genesis of it. And then as we really looked at the market, there was so much happening sort of in the beverage space, but not so much happening in these true classics in the lemonade and iced tea space. So, again, our thought was, like, if we want this, there must be other people that want it as well.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

Yeah. Wow. Okay, so tell me about those early days then. Now you’ve turned this into a product, and you remind me, how long have you all been around? Two, three years. A little bit longer.

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

Yeah, a little bit over two years.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

A little bit over two years. Okay. So was this a pandemic project? Was this a passion project?

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

We had this launched and had the syrup pre pandemic, but then the line of lemonades came out during the pandemic. That was something we were formulating in our houses, getting samples sent from the food scientist, tasting it with whoever we were quarantining with at the time and really kind of bringing it to life then, which was very interesting. And then I really brought it to market in retail stores, starting in New York. Like you said, we’re both based here in New York and our team here and really kind of walking it down and going up and down the street to retailers once the city started to open up, and then from there, really expanding distribution.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

So you guys were literally going to the stores yourself. You didn’t go walking the streets?

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

Initially, yes, and then yes, obviously then started to work with distributors, retailers. But I think one of the things initially, it’s so important to get that feedback, to get the feedback from the retailers, get the feedback from the customers, not just in the early days, but always, but especially in the very beginning, getting just that initial feedback and that.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

Initial feedback, the adoption, where were you seeing that from? Were you seeing it from a particular demographic? Were you at different parts, certain parts of the country? What was that like?

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

Started it based in New York since we were here. So that’s where we got kind of a lot of our first adoption. But I would say it really does span kind of male, female, different ages. What a lot of people liked was they could have it, they could give it to their kids because they’re not getting their kids juice these days. And it really was approachable. So it wasn’t something that only, like, a certain group or niche group of people understood. And a lot of times our customers were coming to us from flavored water or flavored sparkling water that have already opted into zero sugar but wanted a little bit more flavor.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

Well, I want to talk a little bit about well, I hear it’s exciting times at Swoon, and there’s an amazing partnership happening. I would love for you to talk about this collaboration with a very famous blonde is what I’m going to say.

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

Yes, we are super excited about our partnership with Barbie on our lemonade. So it’s Barbie pink lemonade. Yeah, it is a very cute can and very drinkable and very delicious.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

Yes.

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

And for us, it’s super exciting. Both Christina and I grew up playing with Barbie, so have memories of that. But I think what we love is how Barbie has evolved over time. We’ve had countless, like, hundreds of careers. She’s done so much for whip, female empowerment and all of that. So, again, it is part nostalgia, but also really, we really feel like Barbie supports women of today and really echoes our mission of sort of, like, evolving the classics and making things better. And so it really, for us, was a dream partnership between our lemonades and the end.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

Yeah. Well, I am absolutely in alignment with the Barbie of today, but even I’m going to say I’m a little bit older than you. I’m just going to put that out there. But even when I was a kid I played with barbies. Yes. The focus was really about her visuals, but Barbie had a Corvette, she had an RV, she had a multi floor apartment. She had all sorts of careers. Even at that time, Barbie has always been a little bit forward facing, and I’m going to say she’s had a little just not been given her due, I think. And so for me, it’s really exciting to see this resurgence. But then to be able to see women like yourself that are powerful in your own right and excited about the collaboration is super fun, too. I really do think that being a woman, you don’t have to look like Barbie to be powerful, but you certainly can look like Barbie and be powerful. Why does it have to be restricted to a certain way of looking in order to be a really powerful and strong woman? So super excited about that. And this, I got to tell you, this is my second one. I drank the other one that came in my packages. It’s called Barbie pink lemonade. It’s super yummy. I would recommend you guys getting a hold of that. Tell me, what is it like to collaborate with an iconic brand like this? Did certain things come up that you didn’t consider? Or did you learn certain things about, first of all, the brand that you understood, but then also the business of collaborating with a brand like this?

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

Yeah, I mean, Barbie and Mattel are obviously a huge corporation and a very small company. So I think that’s obviously been, I wouldn’t say a learning curve, but just different than how we sort of operate on our daily lives and things and working with all of the different facets within the company, everyone sort of handles something else. And as you were just saying, Barbie is such an icon and is such a brand, so obviously they have to be so protective over that, as they should be. And so for us, I think one of the great things about being a startup is you can just try things, you have an idea and you put it into action. And that obviously doesn’t happen with larger companies for good reason. And so it definitely was different in working with that. But the team and everyone we’ve worked with has been unbelievable, has kind of held our hand in the process, obviously showing us how the ropes work, how to work best with them, which has been fantastic. And there’s so much that goes behind Barbie to make Barbie. So it’s been really wonderful seeing all of that.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

Okay. And this is related to the movie coming out, or is this mostly just about the product?

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

So really, this is directly with Barbie. I think obviously we’re all feeling the halo of the movie coming out. It’s hard to ignore, but something that we were really excited to do directly with Barbie.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

And how does a collaboration like this help you with your personal mission of reducing sugar and sugar free kind of lifestyle.

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

It really helps in so many different ways. I think ultimately we really want to be in everyone’s fridge, in everyone’s pantry. So to be able to do that, you need to have a ton of awareness, a ton of distribution. And given how much awareness Barbie has, we are able to benefit from that. We’re able to benefit from getting more awareness, bringing people into the brand that they didn’t know about before because maybe they’re interested in Barbie and then want this product. The other piece of it is retailers have really gotten behind us. I think a lot of them really also believe in everything that we were talking about, about why Barbie is so great and what they’ve done for female empowerment, and they want to also be behind that as well. So we’ve really been able to get secondary placements and displays and retailers, which has been awesome, which just gets more awareness. So they get hopefully more people buying the product and then therefore reducing more sugar consumption.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

Is there any chance that there’s going to be little mini swoons in a little Barbie home here in the future? Is that something you guys mean.

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

I would love that.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

That’d be super cool. I love that.

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

Yes, anything? Mini is very cute.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

Yes, I know. And super cute. Again, my daughter is in junior high and some of the stuff that the kids are into sometimes I’m like, okay, there’s this brand called Minis. I don’t know if you’ve heard this. And quite literally there are these little packages of mini sized CPG food and beverage brands. I’m no joke. They’re like this big and she loves them. And it’ll be like Kellogg’s Cornflakes or something. I don’t even know how it became a thing for kids to get excited about having these mini brands, but it’s literally called Mini Brands, and she’s got a whole collection of them on her shelf in her room. It’s bananas.

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

Oh, I have to check it out. No, I’ve not heard about that.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

Yeah, who knew, right?

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

Right. Yeah.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

Oh my goodness. Well, tell us a little bit about what kind of advice you either give or would like to give to people following in your footsteps. And we could take a look at this in two ways. One is changing behaviors in consumers, and the other one is building a brand. And I think sometimes they’re not exactly the same. So when you find yourself giving advice, what do you like to tell people about? How are you going to do this to make an impact?

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

When I think about giving advice, I really think about what is tactical. I think when we were starting this out, we didn’t have food or beverage experience. And so we really wanted to talk to experts in the space, people that have been through it, but so many times a lot of those people have been super successful and so they are many stages away from where we are and I think things evolve and change. So it’s kind of like what can you think about what it was like in the early days and what can you actually put into action? But one of the pieces of advice that we got early on, which is so important and something we still do is really to listen to your customers and don’t be afraid to make tweaks for us on the product, whatever we put out right after COVID, we loved it but was super tart and customers didn’t like it. They wanted something that was a little sweeter so we had to kind of go back and add a little bit more monk fruit, make it a little bit sweeter and in our minds like oh my gosh, we just launched this, how can we not? We can’t change this. And it is at the end of the day, you can continue to make things better over time. It doesn’t have to be perfect from the beginning and recognizing that and recognizing you are going to evolve and you are going to change and make those changes from listening to your customers and really being open to feedback across the board, that’s great.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

And you said something about getting advice from people in the industry and I’m curious if that was easy for you because in my experience our firm has worked with retailers, we’ve also worked with many, many brands and I’ve always found the beverage category to be really much more intense for lack of a better description. And I don’t know if it’s because it’s more competitive than in other categories, but it sounds like maybe you didn’t have the same experience as some of the other folks that I’ve interviewed in regards to getting the advice that you needed to go to market. Can you share a little bit more about that?

 

Jennifer Ross:

 

Sure. I mean I do think the beverage category is very competitive just by the nature of every there is only limited shelf space. Everyone wants to be in that cold case. There’s really only so many products that can be in there. So because of that it is competitive. But what we have found is that the beverage and food space, I think people have been very generous, have been very open with sharing know-hows or just answering questions whether we meet them at conferences or in sort of flat groups or just get connected through networking. I’ve actually found that yes, the category might be very competitive but people themselves have been very generous.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

Oh, that’s awesome. That’s great to hear from Jen, because I won’t say that you had any unique experience, but I would say that your experience might be different than a lot of others. I don’t want to make it sound crazy, I feel like I’m over-dramatizing it, but I’ve seen it be a little bit more of a battlefield in the beverage space. It might be that the barrier to entry might be a lower barrier to entry when it comes to product development. And that might be part of it.

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

Yeah, I think it definitely is a lower barrier to enter it, but then kind of once you scale, it does end up getting very competitive.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

I’m wondering if you might have a story here before, because we’re getting close to the end here. But I have a question that I asked my last guest that I just recorded literally an hour ago. And the question is this every once in a while, probably more often than not, a situation happens within a company or brand where everything that you wanted to have happened, something goes sideways and it ends up being the best thing that could have happened either in the moment or to that or to the brand. Do you have one of those beautiful Oops moments that you can share with us?

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

Yeah, I don’t know if this was an Oops, because it in a way happened to a lot of people, but I mean to everyone. But the impact here. However, as I was saying, we had started with our Swoon syrup and we had plans to launch it via food service in small kinds of liquid stick packs. Think of a liquid splenda in May 2020. And right in the beginning of COVID when food service amongst everything else shut down and we had all these plans, things that we had been working towards, and not again because of an Oops on our part, but frankly, just because of what was happening in the world to everyone, we couldn’t do that. And so, like I said from there, that’s when we really pivoted into the lemonades and iced teas and I think that in a way, has been a big blessing. We’ve seen a ton of success now with this line of lemonades and iced teas. So in the moment, it definitely was like, oh my gosh, what are we going to do? All of our plans, we literally have to scrap and scramble to figure out what we’re going to do. But once we got through it, and again, kind of looking back on it, two and a half years later, three years later, we’re able to see that it actually was a great thing for us and a forcing mechanism to launch this product line, which we’ve had a ton of success with.

 Diana Fryc:  

 

And what are you proud of now in this moment here? Coming up on three years for you, what’s a moment that you’re feeling like, yeah, I can’t believe that happened. That’s pretty great.

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

I mean, I have to say, this still even happens to me. Like, when I’m out in a grocery store or on the street somewhere and someone is drinking a Swoon or they’re talking about they’re like, oh my God, you’re the founder of Swoon. I love swoon. Even though we’re five thousand doors across the country still have this moment of like, oh, my gosh, people outside of my family know about this. So I think kind of no matter what, there really is a pinch me moment every time.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

That’s awesome. Well, tell us, what could we be looking forward to? What’s next for Swoon? Do you have some new flavors coming out?

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

We have some new flavors coming out later on this or earlier in the summer on the iced tea side of things, which we are really excited about to kind of continue that offering there for healthy iced teas. That’s what we’re really focused on.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

Excellent. That’ll be fun. Do you have a heavy distribution up here in the Northwest? I didn’t take a look at that.

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

We’re definitely in some of the Albertsons in your area, and now we definitely have some others, but I’m just frankly forgetting. But if you go to Tasteswoon.com, you can put in your address and you can see where all the stores that were sold are.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

Excellent. Okay, well, we’ve been talking with Jennifer Ross, co founder and co CEO of Swoon Jen. Where can people learn more about you and your brand?

 

Jennifer Ross:  

 

You can check us out on our website@tasteswoon.com, taste, or follow us on social and instagram at swoon.

 

 Diana Fryc:  

 

Excellent. Okay, well, thank you for your time today. I’m so happy to have met you, and I look forward to seeing what’s next. And I’ll go, and now I know where to find the product. Destiny. You guys probably use Destiny on your website, and I’ll take a look at that and stock up for my daughter and her friends. And I want to thank all of you listeners for your time today. If you like this episode, please share it with a friend. Otherwise, have a great rest of your day, and we’ll catch you next time on the Gutter podcast

 

Produced by Heartcast Media.

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For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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