Hint ignites unsweetened, flavored water craze
Beverage brand grows from kitchen experimentation to national success
Trying to give up diet soda and get healthy but growing increasingly bored with drinking plain water, hint Inc. Founder and Chief Executive Officer Kara Goldin took her “little idea” and mantra to “drink water, not sugar” and developed it into a woman-run business with more than 150 employees and $140 million in sales, industry sources say.
Founded in 2005, the San Francisco-based hint Inc. was born with passion and purpose, growing from Goldin’s experimentation in the kitchen from adding sliced up fruits into water as a means to get healthy while also inspiring her husband and their four children then all under the age of seven, to try the healthier, better tasting waters.
The pursuit of a dream to help consumers’ lead healthier lives started when Goldin realized there was a lack of healthy beverage options in her life, and on the shelves. “I was not feeling well — I was overweight, my skin looked terrible with adult acne and I had no energy. After seeing a few doctors, it was clear that I didn’t want to take a bunch of medications so I decided to just try to think about what I was putting into my body,” Goldin recalls. “I looked at the ingredients in my diet soda and realized I had to give it up and start drinking water. Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, I found water boring so I started to slice up fruit and put it in the water.
“Not only did I love it, but my family would devour it every time I turned around. I looked in stores and there was nothing like it, they all had something added that didn’t seem necessary. Within several months, I lost close to 50 pounds, my skin cleared up and I realized I was onto something,” she continues. “I had a business that solved a problem. I thought if we could just get people to change their beverage like I did, we could help people get healthier faster.”
Today, hint is shaking up the status quo by giving consumers — even young kids — an easy, delicious way to drink water and build healthy habits from the beginning, the company says. With a portfolio of 27 SKUs of premium 100 percent, all-natural flavored waters with zero sweeteners, no calories and no preservations, the clean-label brand is fueling consumers’ thirst for water with such refreshing flavors as Blackberry, Watermelon, Cherry, Pineapple, Strawberry-Kiwi and Crisp Apple, it adds. The clean-label, non-GMO waters also are WHOLE30 approved and free from MSG, nuts, soy and gluten.
A twist on everyday waters
Available in three core lineups — hint still, which has 16 varieties; hint sparkling, a carbonated varietal that launched in 2011 and has eight flavors; and hint kick, a caffeinated variety that debuted in 2015 with three flavors — hint waters are packaged in 16-ounce BPA-free bottles. All the varietals contain just three ingredients: purified water, natural flavors and essences and are available nationwide and direct-to-consumer (DTC).
In late 2018, the brand’s latest innovation was born: a new hint kids’ lineup to end the “age of sugar water” by allowing children everywhere to fall in love with water instead of sugary drinks. Available in four, kid-friendly fruit flavors — Watermelon, Cherry, Blackberry and Apple — hint water for kids is available in 6.75-ounce Tetra Pak cartons and soon will be available at Costco and grocery and specialty stores nationwide, the company says.
Consumers’ quest for healthier beverages has led to bottled water becoming the No. 1 beverage based on volume for the third consecutive year, according to data from New York-based Beverage Marketing Corporation (BMC). The health benefits of functional and flavored water also are propelling growth in the global waters’ market, which is predicted to surpass $76.7 billion by 2026, states Coherent Market Insights.
Excluding online sales, hint water sales are experiencing double-digit growth based on data from Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. (IRI). According to the market research firm, hint water brands saw sales increase 60.6 percent in multi-outlets and conveniences stores for the 52 weeks ending Feb. 24.
“Hint is the No. 1 independently owned non-alcoholic beverage company in the U.S., and the favorite of Silicon Valley — all the tech companies including Google, Facebook, Instagram, SalesForce and more feature hint at the offices,” Goldin states. “We had local love from the beginning and it’s exhilarating to watch it spread across the country — and someday the world.”
In addition to being nationally available at such retailers as Target, Walmart, Safeway, Whole Foods Market, Costco and Sam’s Clubs, hint is available in foodservice outlets and has a strong online presence driven by the Goldin’s seven years as vice president of shopping and eCommerce partnerships at AOL.
As a result, Goldin has parlayed hint’s strong online presence on Amazon.com and the company website (drinkhint.com), which offers consumers special discounts and deals such as a limited-time TV offer for new customers to purchase 36 bottles of water for $36.
“Our pioneering direct-to-consumer (DTC) business has been extraordinary and accounts for almost 40 percent of our sales,” she says.
“Hint is distinct in so many ways — from the 100 percent unsweetened recipe, which means no sugar or no diet sweeteners to the quality of ingredients to the delicious taste,” Goldin enthuses. “We have an unrivaled selection of still water flavors and we have stayed true to our commitment not to add unnecessary ingredients and to remain environmentally thoughtful down to reducing the amount of plastic in our bottles by over 40 percent in the last few years.”
A vision for success
In the beginning, the former AOL executive was a “water chef,” mixing in fresh fruits to see what tasted best while trying to figure out the many steps of manufacturing, distribution and getting a product to market.
Goldin says her first employee, biggest supporter and “partner in vision” is Theo, her husband of 24 years who serves as the company’s chief operating officer. Together, the couple shook off naysayers, who told the determined entrepreneur that the project close to her heart would be “impossible,” she says.
“We were doing something very different … [and] well, at every step people told me it would be impossible, but I kept finding a way. I was so motivated. I wanted to help people lead heathier lives and this was our introduction,” she says. “In the beginning, it was pure grit and determination, and we self-financed, which allowed us to stay true to our vision — keep it 100 percent unsweetened without preservatives, sodium, gluten, soy, and at the same time do our best to be environmentally thoughtful.
“Luckily, hint water took off with consumers, our first 10 cases sold out overnight and it has been remarkable ever since,” she continues. “Consumer demand drove our success, plus instant acknowledgement in the tech world, the support of innovative retailers, some wise collaborations, our pioneering DTC business and much more.”
The first flavors of hint water were Tangerine and Apple, while Tropical Punch and Cucumber were released soon after, Goldin says.
The launch of the company’s first waters at Whole Foods — May 27, 2005 — coincides with another important date that the wife, mother and entrepreneur says she’ll never forget. “We launched at Whole Foods, the same day my fourth son was born. My husband and I delivered our first 10 cases to Whole Foods on the way to deliver our fourth baby.”
This event has helped keep her kids’ involvement with hint Inc. close to the entrepreneur’s heart. “To this day, my children, now 14 to 20, are my inspiration and my cleverest sounding board,” Goldin says.
As consumers’ thirst for the hydrating benefits of hint waters, new varietals and packaging including variety packs are boosting sales, the company says. When it comes to hint waters, the company’s most popular SKUs are Watermelon, Blackberry, Cherry and Pineapple. “We have just launched Ginger Sparkling and we are launching Lemon and Mango in the coming month,” she says. “At present, the waters are available as single-serve bottles and now 12-packs in grocery stores nationwide, but they are only available as 12-packs online.
“We do have three core variety packs which are super popular: the ‘top sellers variety pack’ includes Blackberry, Cherry, Pineapple and Watermelon; our ‘classic variety pack’ includes Watermelon, Blackberry, Pomegranate and Strawberry Kiwi; and our ‘sparkling variety pack’ includes Watermelon, Blackberry, Cherry and Peach. Throughout the year we may offer special variety packs like our 24-bottle ‘hint discovery pack,’ which has most of the flavors all together,” she says.
But beverage development is not the only consumer packaged goods item on hint’s radar. The company also launched SPF 30 mist sunscreens free of oxybenzone and parabens in three refreshing scents: Pineapple, Grapefruit and Pear.
New kids in town
Amidst a chronic obesity and diabetes health crisis, particularly among young children, Goldin says launching the aforementioned hint kids’ line on the company’s website in December 2018 was a dream come true. “We always wanted to do a special line for kids, but we wanted to have everything worked out with the core line first in terms of product, brand awareness and distribution,” she explains. “Having parents love hint from the start made launching the kids’ version a dream. Naturally, people were asking for it, there was nothing else out there like it.
“There are so many people looking for healthy alternatives to all the sugary drinks out there for children and hint fit perfectly into that space. It’s healthy and it’s delicious, too,” she continues.
Taking it a step further, Goldin continues to parlay her passion for healthy water by working with senators and congressional representatives to open up school lunch programs so that bottled water, flavored or not, is offered as a beverage option.
“At present, they only have milk, juice and tap water, and EPA tests have already shown that many areas do not have safe tap water. In fact, some cities have even turned off their water fountains to stop from poisoning the kids,” she explains. “Most of us are not aware of what’s going on with the water in our area and the beverage choices offered to our kids in school, but when you know, you can’t help but want to see things change — for the better.
“We worked closely with Michelle Obama on her ‘Drink Up!’ initiative and helped define ‘What is Water?,’” she continues. “Water does not have sweeteners in it. Water does not have color. Water does not have preservatives. Water does not have dangerous elements — that’s hint, no sugar, no sweeteners, no preservatives … [just] delicious flavor. And who wouldn’t want their children to have access to it.”
Even though many children were already drinking hint, Goldin says the company wanted to create something special, just for them. “The Tetra boxes are kid-friendly and familiar, they offer just the right portion size and they are easily packable — in lunchboxes, beach bags, backpacks, even back pockets,” she says.
An experiential environment
If Goldin wasn’t busy enough, last July marked a major milestone for the company — the opening of a brick-and-mortar store at 2124 Union St. in the Cow Hollow/Marina district of San Francisco, next door to the company’s headquarters. Like hint’s packaging, the 1,500-square-foot store features vibrant, primary colors, playful décor with a photo booth setup as well as a swing for two, hats, T-shirts and other hint merchandise. There’s also an experiential flavored water bar and counter-top with USB and AC ports for customers to come in, work and enjoy hint.
The decision to evolve into the retail space and facilitate ongoing conversation with its customers just made sense, Goldin says. “A store is an ideal way to get close to your consumers,” she explains. “With our direct-to-consumer business, we’re always in touch with our customers, and now with a physical presence, we can amplify our message to consumers and at the same time listen and observe. We’re extremely excited to introduce the hint lifestyle to consumers in a new and interactive way through an experiential environment.
“We chose the store to debut our new brand design, the elements, colors and aesthetics, which have now also rolled out on the drinkhint.com website,” she continues. “Over the last few years, we’ve really grown tremendously across all our consumer channels, however, people love stopping in the office to ask questions, learn more about hint, and buy some product. … We love the idea of being on Union St. in a more personal way and bringing something healthy and happy to our customers every day.”
Another viable, unmistakable part of the hint brand is Goldin’s vibrant personality, ingenuity and determination to inspire and help others. An active business speaker and writer, in 2016, she launched The Kara Network, a digital resource and mentoring platform for entrepreneurs. She recently launched her podcast Unstoppable, where she interviews founders, entrepreneurs and disruptors across various industries.
She notes that women have to look out for women and support one another. In a podcast in support of International Women’s Day, Goldin told her 1 million social media followers, “You have to love what you do; otherwise it will show.”
As a wife, mother, entrepreneur, role model, mentor and businesswoman, Goldin doesn’t believe there is such a thing as work/life balance for anyone. “There’s work and there’s life,” she says. “You do the best at everything you are doing and hopefully one makes you better at the other. Living a healthy lifestyle without compromising on enjoyment balances me. It’s drinking hint rather than soda, hiking in the morning and SoulCycle sometimes.
“In general, I rarely miss an event for the kids and I rarely miss a milestone for the company,” she continues. “In some ways, I think of the hint staff as part of my extended family so when something seminal happens I like to be there to celebrate or to troubleshoot if necessary. I bring my personal experiences as a woman and a mother into the boardroom and the product development lab. Now, I’m able to give back by being a mentor for other entrepreneurs like myself.”
Goldin says she feels “honored and humbled” that she is among other distinguished entrepreneurs in business. Among her accolades, she was named one of Fast Company’s “most creative people in business,” Fortune’s “most powerful women entrepreneurs” and Forbes’ “40 women to watch over 40.” The Huffington Post listed her as one of six disruptors in business, alongside Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.
Helping to get the word out about hint, Goldin has a strong media presence and has been featured in People, CNN and most recently on the “Today Show” with Maria Shriver where she told viewers that disrupting the beverage industry or making a million dollars wasn’t her biggest goal.
In the interview, Goldin said, “For me, it was really about solving a problem and 14 years ago, there weren’t any waters of this type in the market. I thought, ‘Wow, can I actually bring these waters to market to help other consumers get healthy?’ The answer was, yes.”
Looking back on the past 14 years, the intrepid entrepreneur says she wouldn’t change a thing. “The surprises, the challenges and the successes all made hint a dynamic company that looks beyond the obvious and me a can-do leader,” she says. “The future is bright for hint. At the end of the day, I consider myself a consumer advocate. I care about health and helping you get the healthiest product you can — without sacrificing enjoyment.
“… We will continue to launch into new categories with everyday game-changers without harmful ingredients and with our hint touch,” she continues. “We haven’t even started selling internationally. There’s no telling what’s next.” BI