Listening to one’s gut is important. OLIPOP Co-founder and Formulator Ben Goodwin and Co-founder David Lester did just that when they parlayed the lessons learned from formulating, launching and selling their line of water kefir-based sodas (Obi Probiotic Soda) in 2016 into their newest beverage start-up: OLIPOP.
Founded in 2018 in Oakland, Calif., OLIPOP combines the benefits of prebiotics, plant fiber and botanicals to support one’s microbiome and benefit digestive health. In just three years, this “New Kind of Soda” is disrupting the carbonated soft drink (CSD) industry with a drink that’s as good for your digestion as it is delicious, the company says.
“OLIPOP is a healthy drink that doesn’t sacrifice the flavor of traditional soda we all know and love, and to that consumers have responded to in an amazing way,” Goodwin says. “Unlike traditional soda that packs around 135 calories and 39 grams of sugar, our flavors range from 35-45 calories each and have a little as 2 grams of sugar.”
The fizzy, functional OLIPOP is available in 12-ounce cans in seven indulgent flavors: Vintage Cola, Strawberry Vanilla, Orange Squeeze, Classic Root Beer, Cherry Vanilla, Ginger Lemon, and its newest flavor, Classic Grape, which launched in July. In addition to these classic flavors, OLIPOP has seasonal rotating flavors like Orange Cream and Blackberry Vanilla. The sodas, which can be used as mixers, are non-GMO, vegan, paleo and gluten free.
The brand’s first flavor, Cinnamon Cola, actually taught the duo a lesson as they learned that a third of consumers do not like the taste of cinnamon. “Despite it barely being recognizable in that flavor, those who didn’t like cinnamon assumed the taste would be spicy versus sweet and didn’t want to give Cinnamon Cola a chance,” Goodwin explains. “After realizing this was a major issue, we relaunched the flavor as Vintage Cola, removing the polarizing ‘cinnamon’ connotation. With a new name and updated packaging, Vintage Cola instantly took off and is today one of our most popular flavors. Having sold out within just a few days of launching, Classic Grape is also rising to the top of our best sellers list.”
Listening to consumer feedback resulted in what will soon be a fan favorite: Classic Grape. Noting that the company always receives flavor suggestions, the demand for grape became so large, “we couldn’t not respond,” Goodwin says. Classic Grape is made from real Concord grape juice with a hint of lime to create the perfect blend of sweet and tart, and is a grown up, deliciously nostalgic flavor.
After initially launching in 40 independent stores in Northern California in October of 2019, OLIPOP now is distributed across all 50 states in such retailers as Sprouts, Safeway, Kroger, Target and Whole Foods Market. The brand also has a locator on its website (www.drinkolipop.com). The brand’s current sales balance is around 30% eCommerce and 70% physical retail, Lester says.
“OLIPOP saw an incredible, 1,000% increase in top line revenue in 2020 (in part driven by our DTC business and we are on track to back that up with another 300% growth this year,” Lester says. “It’s clear that we’re filling a need for consumers who are looking for traditional soda taste profile and positioning.
“…The soda category hasn’t seen any real disruptive innovation since the launch of Diet Coke nearly 40 years ago,” he continues. “Our goal over the next three to four years is to reshape consumer expectation and pioneer the growth of functional soda.”
Rooted in research
As consumers seek out better-for-you, functional beverages, OLIPOP’s recipe for success is grounded in the co-founder’s individual and shared experiences in the beverage industry. Lester began his 10-year career at Diageo, the world’s largest global spirits manufacturers, and managed assignments in Sydney, Australia, and Sao Paulo, Brazil, before heading to Northern California to pursue other opportunities.
With a deep curiosity about nutrition’s effect on physical and mental health, college dropout Goodwin, at age 20, helped launch Kombucha Botanica and has since “auto-didactically accumulated experience and knowledge over time,” he says. The knowledge of the human microbiome and the ways it can be leveraged to promote overall wellness fascinated Goodwin, who has spent a decade to bring OLIPOP to fruition.
In 2013, the entrepreneurial team developed the aforementioned Obi Probiotic Soda, which became the precursor for Goodwin’s 18 months of research and development into creating a prebiotic sparkling beverage that optimized taste and digestive health benefits — OLIPOP.
“Through our individual and shared experiences, we saw that the functional pop category was a spare space that was aligned with our passions,” Lester says. “As consumers become more conscientious than ever before about what they are putting into their bodies, we think of OLIPOP as a delicious solution to meet this shifting consumer demand.”
As to which ingredients would bring OLIPOP flavor and functional differentiation, Goodwin explains that he started with clinical recommendations around prebiotic and fiber types that have the most well researched impact. “We have a proprietary combination of botanicals that we include for digestive and microbiome health — kudzu root, marshmallow root, slippery elm bark, nopal cactus and calendula flower,” he notes. “We’ve now completed our own clinical trials on our functional blend and the results have been outstanding.
“…At OLIPOP, we’ve worked to develop the trifecta of accessible branding, amazing taste and a research-driven functional formula that we can stand behind (OLISMART),” he continues. “Our core functional drivers are fiber, prebiotics and nutritional diversity as it’s this whole combination that provides the most significant benefits to consumers.”
Instead of chasing trends, OLIPOP is rooted in science. The company is partnering with leading microbiome researchers including Dr. Stephen Lindemann of Purdue University and Dr. Joseph Petrosino of Baylor College of Medicine. “We’re not just throwing in an unproven ingredient at a random, cost-effective level and making health claims,” Goodwin says.
Finding its voice
Noting that it can take years for consumer brands to properly find their voice, in its third full year of business, OLIPOP is still on the summit of finding its own voice as a company. “One thing we are very clear on, however, is being authentic in our communication,” Goodwin says. The company recently released a new digital streaming ad campaign introducing its New Kind of Soda to audiences to demonstrate that it’s delicious, low in sugar and contains prebiotics, 9 grams of plant fiber and botanicals to support digestive health.
As OLIPOP grows and attempts to reframe the soda category, Goodwin will continue to be the sole product formulator and drive the brand’s innovation and supply chain efforts, while Lester will manage marketing, brand building and eCommerce. The team will continue to divide other facets of their business such as retail sales, fundraising, hiring and cultural development.
In the meantime, Goodwin emphasizes that OLIPOP will continue to innovate and “raise the stakes” when it comes to flavors and dispelling myths that CSDs are bad for you.
“OLIPOP is not like other CSDs,” Goodwin says. “We want to continue breaking down the notion that if something tastes good, it must be bad for you and vice versa. We also want to keep educating the masses about the benefits of opting for low sugar, high fiber alternatives that do more than satisfy a craving and provide identifiable functional benefits, which we will continue to innovate around and explore clinically.
“Our flavors are the vehicle through which we deliver our beneficial formulation, and we are constantly thinking ahead about what customers might enjoy,” he continues. “As we continue growing, we’ll continue to develop new flavors that lend themselves to experiences and nostalgia that connects with our consumers.”
Taking the benefits of digestive health to as broad an audience as possible remains the company’s pivotal goal. “The start-up environment is extremely hard to predict and the challenge we are taking on is a monumental one,” Lester says. “I’m not sure exactly what the future holds for us, but we’re most certainly enjoying the journey.”