Former beverage execs’ new venture revives the
No-Cal Soda brand
Going from being a top beverage company executive to running a
start-up can be a surprisingly tall order. Fortunately, Mike Weinstein,
former Snapple Beverage Group chief executive officer, and Brian
O’Byrne, former Yoo-Hoo/Orangina Co. chief executive, are up to the
Collectively, the pair, who met while working together
at Cadbury Schweppes, marketed beverage brands including Snapple, Yoo-Hoo,
Mistic, A&W, Stewart’s, Orangina, Squirt, Vernor’s, RC and
Diet Rite. But after taking early retirement, both were itching for a new
challenge. They partnered to form INOV8 Beverage Co. LLC in January 2005.
“The whole idea was to create trademarks,
concepts, strategies and packaging, and to develop flavors and brands, and
either sell them to bigger companies or commercialize them
ourselves,” O’Byrne says.
As a small company, INOV8 lacks a large
infrastructure, so selling ideas at the concept stage was its original
thrust. However, that’s been a challenging process. “The one
thing we have discovered is that larger companies are not really open to
outside ideas as much as we thought they would be, or in my opinion, should
be,” Weinstein says. “The ‘not-invented-here’
syndrome is very strong. We felt that getting a product into the
marketplace and getting a little bit of buzz about it will make them easier
to sell than at the idea stage.”
The pair chose No-Cal Soda-Pop, the original diet soft
drink, as its first project. The No-Cal brand dates to 1952, when it was
developed as a sugar-free soda for diabetics. Today’s carbonated,
no-calorie soft drink is available in four flavors: Clementine, Cherry
Lime, Chocolate and Vanilla Cream.
No-Cal was popular in the New York City area where
Weinstein grew up. As he and O’Byrne searched for a diet drink idea,
Weinstein began digging into what had become of the brand. Research
revealed that the trademark was abandoned, and a No-Cal revival was on.
“We did some
consumer research and we found the idea of using that original name as a
vehicle to give us a retro feel around a brand, which is a hot trend
particularly among young people, and as a brand name that exactly described
the proposition without having to use the word ‘diet,’ was a
strong one,” Weinstein says.
No-Cal is positioned to appeal to consumers seeking
healthier drinks with great taste, but it’s also designed to inject a
sense of fun into the category.
“The whole idea of drinking soda, there’s
no fun anymore in doing it,” O’Byrne says. “It used to be
if you drank a soda, it was a treat. What we
wanted to do was to add some fun back into drinking soda. We wrote some
awfully corny poems and put them on the back of each bottle, created a
character for each flavor to give it an amusing touch and wrote stories
about the characters. It’s a product that reminds us of simpler
Today’s No-Cal isn’t an exact replica of
the original recipe. Instead, Weinstein and O’Byrne worked with
ingredient company Givaudan to create the updated product.
“Because we’re so small here, it was like
the movie Ocean’s Eleven — we decided to round up all the
guys we like to work with, Givaudan being one of the flavor houses that
really had worked well with us,” O’Byrne says. “We wanted
flavors that had no diet aftertaste, and a mixture of New Age flavors like
Clementine or Cherry Lime, and old-fashioned flavors. Chocolate was one of
the original No-Cal flavors, and Vanilla Cream is a gourmet, old-style
The product is co-packed by Crystal Soda Water Co. in Scranton,
Pa., which produces a number of gourmet sodas in glass bottles.
“We wanted to start out in glass because
it’s a great package to communicate retro,” Weinstein says.
“We think that as this evolves, it can easily go into multi-serve
plastic, or for that matter, into other forms that are perhaps not
carbonated, such as a No-Cal iced tea.”
Sold primarily as a four-pack, No-Cal’s
distribution network started close to INOV8’s Westchester County,
N.Y., offices and has fanned out to encompass New York’s five
boroughs, Long Island, Northern and Central New Jersey, and soon,
Connecticut and Rhode Island. Supermarkets including D’Agostino,
Fairway Market and King Kullen carry No-Cal, and many New York delis also
sell single-serve bottles.
Hitting the streets
O’Byrne tapped industry contacts to establish No-Cal’s
distribution network, but it has also required some hard work.
“Having been in the business, we know a lot of people, but not having
a big staff, you’re out calling on everybody,” Weinstein says.
“Probably the hardest part is just not having the arms and legs to
get it done.” They also employ public relations services, but have
focused resources on production and distribution rather than investing in
traditional advertising and marketing.
While their industry experience is valuable, manning a
start-up has posed some interesting challenges for Weinstein and
O’Byrne. As major beverage company executives, they depended on an
army of brand managers, marketing managers and salespeople, but now do
everything themselves. One example of their learning curve was when they
realized neither one knew how to go about getting a UPC code for
“That’s just an illustration of some
little things that we have no idea how to do,” O’Byrne says.
“The brand manager would know exactly how to do that in two minutes,
so it was a lot of learning. You’re dealing with the guy who stacks
the product on the shelf, the store owner, the distributor’s
salesperson, the owner of the distributorship, designers —everybody
from top to bottom. We have a far greater appreciation now of people who
are on the front lines.”
Going forward, Weinstein and O’Byrne plan to add more
No-Cal flavors this fall as they continue working on other ideas.
“One idea is around what we call the
‘better drinking’ category, which are healthier ingredient
drinks,” Weinstein says. “We have what we think is a
blockbuster idea, a very different way to think about energy drinks.”
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The February 2020 issue dives into Essentia water, their high-pH and high aspirations for ongoing innovation. Speaking of innovation, this issue also features a special report on how (and why) the zero-proof functional beverage market is growing. Also, check out what types of rifts and shifts are shaking up the wine category and discount variety stores, as well as the latest ingredient highlights (hint: exotic fruits make an appearance). To cap it off, peruse new product releases, the latest appearances in packaging, and holistic approaches to cognitive health. Thirsty for more? Subscribe to get the latest stories delivered right to your inbox.
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