For most school kids, the beverage options available during school hours have dwindled over the past several years. National guidelines, as well as local regulations have limited the beverages sold in many schools to milk, juice and water. Not bad from a nutritional standpoint, but somewhat lacking in flavor and variety. The Switch, a 100 percent juice product with the bubbly appeal of a carbonated soft drink, is providing an alternative in many markets. And the good news for kids is that the brand is in expansion mode, making its way into new regions and new retail channels, as well.
The Switch was always intended as a beverage alternative for kids and teens, but the spate of school nutritional guidelines that took hold across the country proved to be the brand’s biggest sales opportunity. The carbonated juice product had enough of the “cool” factor to take on soft drinks, but as a 100 percent juice, it fit most new guidelines. The company sought and received exemption from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as one of the few soft drink alternatives to be sold in schools during lunch hours.
The brand hit a stumbling block with a bankruptcy filing in 2005. But Maura Mottolese, a former Snapple executive who took on the role of company president two years ago, says she had followed the brand since its beginnings and felt confident about its potential.
“The Switch has extremely broad appeal, so there are numerous opportunities for expansion and very robust growth,” she says.
With its valuable USDA exemption, the company decided to focus primarily on schools and build any retail expansion from that base.
“Foods and beverages that can be sold in schools have been greatly restricted over the past few years,” Mottolese explains. “A lot of school systems have taken an absolute approach, where now the only things they can sell beverage-wise are plain water, milk or 100 percent juice. If you think about teenagers, 13 to 18, these are consumers that are looking for something more than just those three items, and specifically, they are looking for the bubbly refreshment of a soda. It’s something that their parents allow them to drink at home, something that they buy for themselves, and they’re a little bit indignant that they can’t have the bubbly refreshment of a soda. That’s where The Switch comes in.”
At the beginning of this year, The Switch was available in about 3,500 schools. It has its base in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region, but beginning earlier this year, the company began a push into schools across the country. The company has added distributors in markets such as California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and South Carolina. In addition, it entered the grocery channel in its home market. During the past several months, the brand launched in Kings Super Markets in New Jersey, Big Y in Connecticut, D’Agostino’s in New York, and the brand will be introduced in Tops Markets in Upstate New York early this summer.
“For us, it winds up being the best of both worlds,” Mottolese says. “The young adults love it, and it meets the school’s nutritional requirements, which is critical. In fact, the kids love it so much that they go home and they ask their moms to buy it. We’ve been inundated with emails from parents raving about The Switch, asking where they can buy it for their kids.
“Our approach has been to roll into schools first on a regional basis, creating trial, awareness and demand through the schools, and then to target the grocery channel.”
Additionally, she says, The Switch is a natural fit for the natural foods channel. “The Switch is really a perfect fit for what I call a nutritionally astute consumer,” she says. “They appreciate the simplicity of the brand. It’s got no sugar in it, no preservatives, nothing artificial. We like to say, ‘It’s just juice, bubbles and vitamin C.’ That really is extremely appealing to a natural foods consumer who is looking for what we call a clean label.”
New people, new markets
The Switch has tripled in size during the past two years, Mottolese says, and she anticipates it will triple again in 2009. The company has added sales talent who are responsible for selling the brand in both schools and through the direct-store-delivery channel.
“Working with schools is a very different animal than any other class of trade,” Mottolese says. “It’s an extremely fragmented set of buyers with a long list of varied and rigorous requirements. So it’s a lot of face-to-face meetings, and detailed, fact-based selling.”
But no matter who the company is talking to — school administrators, distributors, retailers, kids or moms — the key to selling The Switch has been its clean ingredient label and getting people to try the product. The company believes sampling is its strongest sales vehicle and it samples product at both school and retail locations. In addition, most marketing is focused on product content.
“You can look at brands that have clearly targeted the mom or clearly targeted the kid and you run the risk of alienating one of them when you do that. So we have made all of our communication about the product itself,” Mottolese says. “If you look at our packaging, it says ‘100 percent of what you want, 0 percent of what you don’t,’ and then we actually list out the facts that support that. But we have done it in a graphic format that has some attitude and has some real appeal to a young adult and a late teen.
“For the younger kids, the brand is kind of aspirational to them. It’s cool, it’s kind of edgy, the older kids like it. And for moms it’s really about all the facts are right here on the package.”
One thing the company feels strongly about is the mainstream appeal of The Switch, and it has been committed to sticking with a flavor profile that has broad appeal. The Switch is a full-flavored product, and is available in Black Cherry, Fruit Punch, Grape, Orange Tangerine and Watermelon Strawberry varieties. This month, the company adds a new Lemon Lime flavor to the lineup.
“My goal has been to position the brand as a great-tasting alternative to soda for mainstream consumers, and I underline mainstream consumers because that mainstream appeal is really the critical piece,” Mottolese says. “Mainstream consumers are looking to make better-for-you choices, which means these are not absolute choices. They are not willing to sacrifice on taste.
“As we look at launching new flavors, one of the filters we look at for evaluating something conceptually is ‘Does it have mainstream appeal?’” she adds. “If it’s only going to appeal to a small group of consumers, it’s probably not right for The Switch.”
The brand’s young fan base also has meant venturing into new marketing media, including social networking. The company’s Web site offers contests, blogs and photo galleries in addition to product information, and The Switch has a Facebook following as well. Social media has the potential to build long-term brand loyalty, Mottolese says, because it gives consumers an opportunity to develop a relationship with the brand. But, she adds, social networks require more upkeep than most marketing media.
“It’s a huge time commitment,” she says. “You can’t just put up a Facebook fan page or sign up a Twitter account and let it lay dormant. You have to make sure you have the resources, whether it’s internal or at an agency, to constantly put new and different messaging up there so the content is new and liquid and relevant, and you have people coming back for more.”