From the high-tech world to no-sugar beverages
By Sarah Theodore
It’s said that
necessity is the mother of invention, and that seems especially true for
Hint Essence Water. The product was created by
former America Online executive and mother of four Kara Goldin, who says
she got into the beverage business because she was searching for something
she would feel comfortable buying for both herself and her children.
“I was looking for a beverage that would keep me
hydrated, that didn’t have all of the sweeteners, whether they be
sugar or artificial sweeteners,” she says.
Goldin says she pitched the idea of an unsweetened
water flavored with fruit essence to existing beverage companies, but when
she was turned down, decided to launch the product on her own. She enlisted
her husband Theo, a former Netscape executive, to serve as Hint
Inc.’s chief operating officer, and says the idea went from concept
to market introduction in nine months.
“My gut was that there was a market out there
for this product, so I would just develop it,” she says.
Based in San Francisco, Hint Inc. now carries 10
flavors of “essence” water in varieties such as
Pomegranate-Tangerine, Raspberry-Lime, Peppermint, Pear, Cucumber, Tropical
Punch, Lime, Apple, and new Mango-Grapefruit and Strawberry-Kiwi.
While the product originally was intended to be a
children’s drink, Goldin says the company quickly decided to make it
an all-ages beverage. “Today, we don’t label things as
‘kids’ separately because we don’t want to be in the
business of deciding which flavor adults like and which flavor kids
like,” she says.
“If you look at most beverages that are targeted
at kids, they’re highly sweetened, whether that’s with some
variant of sugar or concentrated fruit juice or an artificial
sweetener,” Theo adds. “They’re all pretty
powerful-tasting sweet things, but that’s kind of an artifact of what
people have been doing more than what you can get kids to drink ... [Hint
is] targeting a fairly sophisticated taste profile, but it’s a
mistake to underestimate what kids will do.”
An entrepreneurial spirit
Hint was not Kara Goldin’s first foray into
start-up companies. She started with AOL during its beginnings, and served
as vice president of shopping and e-commerce partnerships. She says
creating Hint was driven by a similar desire to develop a solution to a
need. “It’s very similar to how I felt back in the early days
of AOL and the Internet. I felt like this was something that definitely
needed to happen. Somebody needed to go and do it.”
It didn’t take long for the small start-up to
attract the attention of some big-name partners, including The Walt Disney
Co. The entertainment and media giant contacted Hint last summer as part of
an effort to associate its brand with healthy food and beverage companies.
The first collaboration between the two companies was a promotion for
Disney’s holiday film “The Santa Claus 3: The Escape
Claus.” Hint featured the movie’s star, Tim Allen, on bottles
of its Peppermint-flavored water, and ran an online promotion that gave
away tickets to the film.
The companies teamed up again for last month’s
release of “Meet The Robinsons,” with a similar tie-in on
bottles of Hint’s Raspberry-Lime flavor, and will partner on
promotions for the upcoming “Ratatouille,”
“Underdog,” and the second edition in “The Chronicles of
Like most start-up companies, however, the bulk of
Hint’s marketing focuses on special events, especially the ones
through which it can make some sort of social impact.
“We feel strongly that if you’re going to
spend money around marketing, that money ought to do something good for
people,” Theo says. “Most of our marketing efforts and dollars
are directed toward supporting charitable organizations.” The company
has given away product at fundraising walks for AIDS and diabetes as well
as golf tournaments benefiting leukemia research, and has an ongoing
relationship with Cure Autism Now, an organization devoted to making the
lives of families dealing with autism more manageable.
“It gives people an opportunity to try our
products in a great context where they’re outdoors on a nice day,
feeling good about the fact that they’re contributing to a cause
that’s important to them,” Theo says. “That’s a
great time for them to try something new.”
As newcomers to the beverage industry, both Kara and
Theo Goldin say they still are learning the
distribution ropes. The product first launched in the natural foods channel
and specialty stores, and has moved to up-and-down-the-street accounts as
well as some hotels.
“Even after you get distribution, it’s
still a store-by-store sell,” Theo says. “There are a lot of
people in that system who need to be convinced and onboard and reminded of
how great the product is on a regular basis.”
With two Internet backgrounds in the family, Hint was
able to cover gaps in its initial rollout with online availability.
“We do a significant business online,” Kara says. “We did
it because to get distribution in traditional stores was a much longer
process than we had ever imagined or what we were used to working in.
Internet speed is so much different than the food and beverage
But surprisingly, Internet marketing is not a big part
of the company’s overall strategy. “We put a lot of work into
our Web site to make sure our presence on the Internet was professional,
informative, clear and easy to use. But our focus really is on the
distributors and retailers that generate the bulk of our business, and
doing marketing in the physical world,” Theo says.
As part of the ongoing evolution of the brand, Hint is
readying a new bottle for rollout that will allow it to scale up production
for future growth. The new bottle is slightly taller than the original but
maintains the transparent labels and graphics. “It’s something
that will allow us to grow as we head toward summer,” Theo says.
Although it has only been in the beverage business for
two years, Hint doesn’t intend to stay in one place for long. As is
apropos to her brand, Kara Goldin will only hint at future opportunities,
but says: “We think there is a lot of work to be done in this
industry. We have a lot of great ideas and we’d love to see Hint be
extended in a lot of different categories.”