When Darrell Duchesneau asked people what they thought the “purple stuff” was in the refrigerator during Sunny Delight commercials in 1984, everybody had a different answer. Friends would say it was grape soda, grape juice or a juice drink.

That one drink could be something to everybody sparked an idea in Duchesneau, chief executive officer of Funktional Beverages Inc., Spring, Texas. ‘Purple’ became a brand when the company released Purple Stuff, a purple-colored soda in three flavors with anti-anxiety properties.

“The idea of the company had been germinating in my head for multiple years,” he says. “It was more of an evolution than it was an initial kind of strategy. It was a lot of pieces of the puzzle coming together.”

The puzzle came into full view when Duchesneau decided to capitalize on the growing beverage industry trend of combining flavor with function.

He established a business partnership with Randy Traver, the company’s Utah-based chief operating officer, and hired Tim Lucas to be the company’s chief marketing officer. Drawing on his experience in the fresh juice industry, Duchesneau knew quality and taste were critical, he says. So, in 2008, Duchesneau and Traver developed an anti-anxiety beverage that tasted like mainstream sodas.

Purple Stuff’s three flavors – Classic Grape, Berry Calming and Classic Lemon-Lime – use functional ingredients, such as L-theanine, rose hips and valerian root, to give the soda anti-anxiety benefits. Purple Stuff also provides vitamins B3, B6 and B12. The beverage has 50 calories and is sweetened with crystalline fructose. The soda is packaged in 16-ounce cans, and the company plans to release multipacks in 2011, Duchesneau says.

The combination of flavor and function has helped Purple Stuff appeal to the 13- to 34-year-old demographic, Duchesneau says, because the combination of ingredients can provide a number of benefits. L-theanine, an amino acid that has been said to have mental focus benefits, is “the magic bullet” ingredient, he says. Funktional Beverages also uses valerian root because it has shown to help relieve stress, Duchesneau says.

Funktional Beverages also produces a concentrated version of Purple Stuff in shot form. The 3-ounce shot contains L-theanine,valerian root, and vitamins B6 and B12. The shot is available in Classic Grape flavor.

Drawing on his experience selling custom cocktail mixes, Duchesneau says he originally set out to combine the functional aspects of relaxing with a beer or glass of wine with the sweet taste of a soda. Early on in Purple Stuff’s development, Duchesneau wanted to create a relaxation beverage, but some of the ingredients needed to produce it were not on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s generally recognized as safe list.

“I kind of toyed with the idea of something that would relax, but it got too much into being a medicine more than a drink,” Duchesneau says. “…That was kind of the goal – to do the functional side without what everybody else is doing, which the experts said, ‘It has to taste like medicine to prove it works.’”

Growing with social media
The result has been what Duchesneau and Lucas call the “first viral beverage.” The company’s website, mypurplestuff.com, features humorous videos and a photo slideshow of celebrities holding cans of Purple Stuff on the red carpet. Nearly 60,000 people said they “like” Purple Stuff on Facebook, with 60 percent of its Facebook fans being 13- to 17-year-old females.

When a consumer cannot find Purple Stuff in his or her area, Funktional Beverages will send them a T-shirt and samples of the soda, Duchesneau says. The company has sent packages to consumers as far as Ireland, he says. That people know of Purple Stuff even where it does not have distribution is a testament to brand building through social media marketing, Duchesneau says.

“We get hundreds and hundreds of posts,” he says. “Some weeks we get thousands of posts.”

Duchesneau points to the company’s growing number of Facebook followers as evidence of demand for Purple Stuff. Currently, Purple Stuff is distributed regionally in about 30 states, and the product has state-wide distribution in Arizona, Hawaii and Utah, Duchesneau says. Purple Stuff also is available as far away as Guam and New Zealand, he says.

Purple Stuff appears in retail accounts such as QuikTrip in Arizona, QuickChek in New Jersey,

Wal-Mart in Hawaii, 7-Eleven in Pennsylvania, Daily’s in Tennessee, and Smith’s and Harmons grocery stores in Utah, along with other independent retailers.

One struggle for the company has been expanding distribution partnerships beyond beer distributors, Duchesneau says.

“The biggest break is going to be when a soda distributor picks up a few states,” he says. “…We don’t have to be the biggest. We have to be the best, and that includes meeting the shelf demands our customers require us to have.” BI