Up close with... TalkingRain
September 15, 2009
Bill Meissner, president of TalkingRain, says the Preston, Wash.-based water company that makes the Twist and Activwater brands has been around for more than two decades, but acts a lot like a startup. As a veteran of companies such as SoBe and Fuze, that’s exactly where Meissner is most comfortable. He took over the reins at TalkingRain in January, and has made it a priority to expand those products in the same way he helped build his previous brands.
“It’s really important to find brands that can be optimized through marketing,” he says. “If you look across the large line of products we have, all of them have got fantastic liquid and most of them have fantastic packaging. So I think they present great opportunities to a marketer to sort of introduce into that explosive growth phase. That’s what we’re trying to do here.”
TalkingRain has a strong presence in Washington, and has a popular line of bottled waters from an artesian well connected to the company’s plant. In the remainder of the country, the company has focused on its enhanced waters, and is working to build distribution and sales infrastructure for those products. So far this year, he reports the company’s sales are up about 6 percent in an overall down market.
Activwater is a flavored electrolyte-enhanced water. With only 25 calories per serving, and six flavors, the product line is positioned squarely against the sports drink market. Twist is a line of eight flavored waters with 9 calories per serving. In addition, half of the Twist line is USDA Organic certified.
“I believe there is this paradigm shift where people want something different,” Meissner says. “They don’t necessarily want diet, and they certainly don’t want sugary sodas.”
He adds: “We don’t have any full-calorie products here. Everything we do is in line with this paradigm shift where consumers are just wanting healthier products. We’ve been poised there for many years, and as people become more aware of our brands, we’re seeing growth amidst industry declines.”
TalkingRain incorporates full-calorie sweeteners into its products, but in very small amounts, keeping the calorie count low. Activwater uses a blend of organic cane sugar and erythritol, while Twist uses agave nectar.
Meissner says the company has hit on the “holy grail” of sweetener systems in options that are both natural and low-glycemic. He cites a recent Harvard School for Public Health study that recommends the creation of a new category of beverages that use less sweetener in order to retrain the American palate to a lower expectation of sweetness.
“We achieve exactly what that study asks for in that we have a 70 percent reduction in calories from a sugared soft drink,” he says. “We have less than 1 gram of sugar per ounce of beverage in both Activwater and Twist.”
With the goal of expanding the Twist and Activwater brands, the company brought on a couple other new faces in addition to Meissner this year. It added Kevin McLafferty to head up sales and expand distribution, and Scott Barcenilla to take on marketing.
With experience in both alcohol and non-alcohol products, McLafferty has been charged with building a hybrid distribution network that includes direct store delivery as well as other routes to market. The team already announced one recent distribution coup, with an agreement last month that puts Activwater in 7-Eleven stores in the Northwest.
Barcenilla hails from Crown Imports, where he handled marketing for the Corona beer brand, and has taken on the challenge of creating lifestyle branding.
Both brands have begun marketing tie-ins in recent months that connect with core consumers. Twist has been a sponsor of singer Kenny Chesney’s concert tour, and the company has sampled product at concert events. In addition, the company has found an audience in yoga enthusiasts, and has positioned the brand in local yoga-related locations.
Activwater is slightly more male-focused, and the company established partnerships with NASCAR driver AJ Allmendinger and Burton Snowboards.
While Talking Rain is putting its emphasis on the two enhanced waters, it hasn’t forgotten its bottled water roots. Meissner admits bottled water is facing tougher times these days and says TalkingRain is emphasizing its artesian well source as its difference.
For the future, however, Meissner sees more work to be done in low-calorie, low-sugar products. The company is looking into satiety-related concepts, as well as a continuation of the low-calorie sweetener systems it has developed with Twist and Activwater.