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Fitter, healthier, happier? How wellness drinks took over Instagram

Companies like LaCroix, Dirty Lemon, and Recess have boomed on the platform. Their sales pitch is less about a flavor and more about something stronger: a feeling.

Fitter, healthier, happier? How wellness drinks took over Instagram
[Source Images: FC (illustration), Dirty Lemon (photo)]

Earlier this month, Good Place star and body positivity activist Jameela Jamil took on an ambitious target: celebrities who endorse “skinny tea” brands on Instagram. She called out the paid content of Iggy Azalea, among other influencers, for what she described as a “betrayal to women.” She even went so far as to film a less-than-polite parody video.

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The internet quickly applauded the actress’ efforts.

That’s because everyone, at one point or another, has been subject to some celebrity–most recently Cardi B–hawking the dubious diet beverage product in their Instagram feed. Kylie Jenner pushed Teami to “get rid of tummy bloat,” Britney Spears swears MateFit keeps her energized, while Kim Kardashian claims FitTea “tastes amazing.”

All are paid endorsements. And while plenty of nutritionists dismissed detox teas’ diet claims, these brands still boast hundreds of thousands engaged followers. (Fit Tea has more than 1.7 million.) The Teami Instagram account is full of smiling, ecstatic women seemingly enjoying a life of sugarless tea on an empty stomach. They’re seen laughing, shopping, and posing in fashionable athleisure-wear amidst airy, perfectly put-together backdrops. It’s like Stepford Wives decided to lose those last 10 pounds.

They are not an anomaly. Health and diet beverages are keenly tapping into the emotional pulse of a generation on Instagram, where they’re not so much selling a product as they’re selling a lifestyle. For detox tea, it’s one of flat tummies and opulent white marble kitchens. But plenty of other direct-to-consumer beverage brands are grooming passionate audiences on the platform, too. These brands are reimagining the entire product and marketing process through Instagram, starting from bottle design all the way through to exactly when and how to post.

Their success is fascinating, considering consumers can’t actually try their product before ordering it online–they must simply trust that it tastes good. It’s less about flavor and more about something far stronger: a feeling.

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A beverage designed to be Instagrammed

In 2015, entrepreneur Zak Normandin was intrigued by the direct-to-consumer space. Normandin, who founded children’s snack company Little Duck Organics, witnessed the skyrocketing success of startups such as Glossier and wondered: why isn’t anyone doing the same thing for food and beverage?

After all, beverage consumers make emotionally-based decisions numerous times a day. Meanwhile, millennials are increasingly health-obsessed, with cold-pressed juice and kombucha replacing the vacuum left by sugary sodas. Nielsen reports that 67% of Americans say they prioritize healthy food purchases.

So in 2016, Normandin founded Dirty Lemon, a direct-to-consumer line of functional beverages (the industry term for products that purport to improve consumers’ health) composed of sugar-free lemon juice infused with bevy of natural ingredients designed to help the body function better, like improve digestion, reduce inflammation, and more. The brand’s beverages aren’t cheap–six bottles cost $65–and all products are sold exclusively via text message and delivered same day.

The brand launched solely on Instagram with just one flavor: charcoal. But Dirty Lemon quickly expanded into other trendy ingredients, such as turmeric, matcha, collagen, and CBD. Consumers may vaguely know the nutritional benefits of each ingredient, but don’t necessarily know how to add it to their diet.

“We take a lot of the guesswork out of that by incorporating the ingredients–and the perfect amount of that ingredient–into a ready to drink beverage,” says Normandin, who now serves as CEO. “They can enjoy it on the go, sitting at their desk at work, wherever.”

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On the company’s Instagram, the big, brightly-colored, bottles are marketed through aspirational yet relatable photos of good-looking people doing fun, chic activities. The brand’s voice has a sense of humor, and pokes fun at contemporary culture. It sounds like the cool, funny older sister who got invited to Coachella but blew it off to hit up an In-N-Out with her friends.

“[Dirty Lemon customers] spend a lot of time at work and when they’re not working, they’re going out to restaurants or the gym … we wanted to speak to those activities and easily incorporated into those activities,” he explains. “We created a beverage that fits into the places where consumers live, work, and play.”


This story is part of our series The Instagram Economy. Read the rest of the stories as they’re published this week here.


Beverages lend themselves to this kind of lifestyle-focused advertising. We consume them every day, unlike other product categories that are context-specific; you can drink a bottle in the car, at the beach, in the bath. A suitcase, no matter how trendy, can’t pull that off. Other brands like High Brew, which sells ready-to-drink cold brew coffee, have also established an audience on Instagram by staging products beside beautiful nature backdrops–hikes up a mountain or camping lakeside. That plays perfectly to Instagram’s strengths.

“People are using [Instagram] the same way we might use an escapist magazine–to look at things that are beautiful and imagine ourselves in a different situation than we are right now,” notes Elizabeth Crawford, deputy editor of Food Navigator, a food industry publication. “And a product can get us there.”

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Unsurprisingly, beverage startups now design their products with the platform in mind. More and more, says Crawford, brands opt for a streamlined look with less text that better suits a photo. Whereas functional product labels once featured half a dozen badges–gluten-free, non-GMO, vegan, etc.–designers now say all those labels clutter up an Instagram image.

Normandin says he designed the product specifically to stand out on a 2 x 3-inch screen. Dirty Lemon was to be the star of every post.

“It was not a very overly branded product. There are only a few words on the front, namely the brand name and the product name,” he explains. “I think lack of branding actually spoke to what consumers are looking for.”

Instead, much like Fiji Water or Coca-Cola, customers identify with Dirty Lemon based on the idea that the brand speaks to their sensibilities. The company has sold over two million bottles since launch, with a 60% reorder rate. Today, it averages north of 100,000 customers.

“We weren’t relying on the merit of the product alone–we were focused on building this lifestyle,” says Normandin, adding, “The power of the brand is actually more important than a product.”

Selling a feeling–and a community

Benjamin Witte, founder and CEO of the month-old CBD sparkling beverage brand Recess ($39.99 for an 8-pack), built his company around the feeling of being overwhelmed.

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Witte, a former designer and marketing manager, wanted to create an “antidote to modern times:” namely, deadlines, stressful news, and hectic schedules. Non-psychoactive Cannabidiol, he says, induces relaxation but also increases creativity. In that sense, Recess is designed to appeal both to people who feel overwhelmed, but who also yearn to be more productive and creative.

“This is not a beverage company, not a food company; I look at us as a consumer wellness company,” Witte tells Fast Company. He imagines the sparkling drink growing into a daily habit, much like coffee.

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The company’s Instagram feed seems to reflect the average employee’s need for a break: Calming images in soft sherbet-hued colors create a relaxed, dreamlike effect. Some relate helpful messages, such as, “Slowly put down your phone and walk away and keep walking.”

“We’re really marketing this mindset that we call ‘calm, cool, collected’ and create that association with productivity and the use-case of Recess,” says Witte, noting inspiration from companies such as Away. “We’re selling a feeling.”

Recess bet on Instagram because of the two audiences it hopes to cultivate: The first is the creative class–designers, artists, writers, and filmmakers–attracted to the visual nature of the platform. The second is the ever-expanding wellness community–fitness influencers, bloggers, healthy chefs. (Of the latter, says Witte, “They’re all selling sneakers and protein shakes [on Instagram]. It feels like you’re in like a QVC commercial.”)

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Recess aims to become the beverage of the creative community, much like Gatorade or Red Bull is to professional athletes. In that sense, using Instagram as its primary marketing tool makes sense: the platform is known as a breeding ground for niche communities that coalesce around a common goal, interest, or need.

“When [groups] find something, they go grab onto it and tell all their friends,” says Crawford. “So by marketing to a tribe on Instagram, a brand can really maximize its impact.”

That’s why mid-range beverage companies such as LaCroix opt for Instagram campaigns instead of TV or traditional advertising. They have a better chance engaging its target audience: The PEW Research Center found that 55% of 18-29 year olds and 28 percent of adults use Instagram. And it requires far less advertising dollars.

Instagram’s audience of 1 billion is less than half of Facebook, but it boasts far more engagement, which is “pure gold for these young brands who are trying to build up a following and might have limited resources to dedicate advertising,” explains Crawford. “And then the consumers are doing the heavy by lifting and sharing the post and creating buzz around live feeds.”

A bubble ready to burst?

While LaCroix’s sales more than doubled over the past two years to $225.5 million, Crawford hesitates to suggest Instagram drives substantial e-commerce sales. Social media experts believe it’s more adept at driving brand awareness. Consumers might rely on the platform to discover new brands, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to shopping off of it.

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Despite having launched his entire business around it, Normandin also shares his reservations about the future of CPG brands on Instagram. It’s since become “inundated” with ads, he says, forcing Dirty Lemon to pivot its marketing strategy in recent months. The company isn’t deserting its birthplace, but depending on it far less than in its first two years.

Too much polished content, says Normandin, has desensitized consumers. “We’ve seen basically everything on social media –food, intimate moments, brands etc.,” he laments. “It’s kind of lost its luster, so to speak.”

In 2019, Dirty Lemon will focus the bulk of its efforts on the next frontier of millennial interests: physical experiences. The company is shifting to retail with pop-ups and four stores, beginning with New York City.

With consumer tastes shifting so rapidly, Normandin admits the company now plans out month-to-month. The market conditions are just too quick to concretely plan out six months or a year ahead. With algorithms changing and fickle youth tastes, it’s hard to base an entire business around Instagram, even if it currently delivers. Social media platforms are just too tumultuous for long term strategies.

For newcomers like Recess, a crowded marketplace means each marketing decisions is heavily weighed. The brand only posts one image a day, and hasn’t even begun using Instagram stories yet. Witte says he’s focused on “creating experiences” with static images: “I look at each post is like a work of art.”

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In four weeks, Recess garnered nearly 12,000 Instagram followers and nearly 600 likes per post without any paid influence marketing /endorsements. That’s more engagement than all of the major upstarts (LaCroix, Spindrift ) outside of Coca Cola and Pepsi. Meanwhile, less than half the images feature the actual product, and only one mentions the star ingredient: CBD. As of press time, Recess sold out of its inventory.

That kind of success is something Witte is willing to drink to: “That engagement is really what matters.”

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