At what point in your life did you realize that so much of the food you really, truly love is just terrible for you?
For kids, treats are currency. Finish your dinner to get dessert. Stop kicking the back of the driver’s seat and maybe (maybe) we’ll still stop for ice cream.
In adolescence and young adulthood, it’s apartments piled with pizza and take-out boxes and Big Gulps for breakfast. What’s more comforting than a McDonald’s burger and fries when Michael Jordan himself is telling you just how great it is?
As you get older, though, things such as fat, sodium, and caloric content are no longer a foreign language. Super Size Me puts the dark side of that gastro-nostalgia into frame. Your eyes no longer scour the cereal aisle for the Technicolor, instead focusing on the browns and beige. Now all these one-time totems of junk food joy have become symbols of guilt (and maybe worse), and we’re constantly on the lookout for alternatives that deliver taste without all the unhealthy baggage.
A new soda startup is hoping that it’s cracked the code that will give you all the joy and flavor of sugar water, without any of the guilt or by calling itself something else, such as “flavored seltzer water.” United Sodas of America is a New York-based company, launching with 12 unique flavors that span the spectrum of color and taste. Cherry Pop, White Coconut, Sour Blueberry, Young Mango, Strawberry Basil, Gingery Ale, and more—all with 30 calories, organic sweeteners, and no artificial flavors.
“The marketplace is so crowded right now with alternatives to soda, right?” says founder and CEO Marisa Zupan. “They position themselves as such. ‘We are a seltzer. We are a tonic. We are a hint of whatever.’ To differentiate ourselves, we knew that wasn’t what we needed. We wanted to go straight for soda. Everyone’s running away from soda. We had to go straight for soda.”
Zupan knows the turf. She is a former strategic brand consultant who has worked with major brands like Coke, Pepsi, as well as the booze giants Diageo and Pernod Ricard. To create the look and feel for United Sodas, she teamed with designer Alex Center, who has led design for Vitaminwater, Smartwater, and Powerade. They came up with the name first and decided that in order to embody the variety and diversity of a name such as United Sodas of America, they couldn’t just have three flavors and two colors.
“The spectrum of color had to be bright, bold, and match the flavors, and the flavors themselves then had to represent a spectrum,” says Zupan. “So we needed to develop the flavors so that when you saw them all together, it represented variety. We couldn’t develop seven flavors that could only be expressed through the color red.”
Zupan and her team came up with 100 flavor possibilities and slotted them into color ranges, switching them out and around to see how they all worked and looked together. The result is a modern, colorful look, with a matte can finish that stands out immediately. “It was an intricate process where flavorists, designers, and strategists were all coming together to impact the product.”
United Sodas original distribution plan was a mix of direct-to-consumer sales and targeted, regional retail. As with many businesses, the pandemic has thrown that plan off, putting the bulk of the heavy lifting on direct sales. The company will deliver to 50 states via FedEx, offering a 12-can sampler box or variety theme pack (four cans of three flavors). It also has a monthly subscription service.
The decline of traditional soda sales has been well documented, along with the biggest players snapping up smaller brands to make up for those losses. Coke has bought such brands as Vitaminwater, Zico Coconut Water, and Honest Tea, and Pepsi spent $3.2 billion on SodaStream.
But there are still pockets of opportunity in the market for making good versions of things that are bad for us: Witness Magic Spoon cereal or Halo Top ice cream.
Zupan is betting that United can deliver that for soda.
Interviewing prospective customers, she kept hearing the same things over and over. At first people would say they never drink soda anymore—it’s bad for you.
But by the end of the conversation, after they became more comfortable, that answer changed.
“They started to say things like, ‘But when I go to the movies, I always have to have my Coke and my popcorn.’ Or, ‘When I’m doing a cross-country road trip with my dad, I always need a Dr. Pepper,'” says Zupan. “Underneath it all, it shows that we’re still really soda drinkers at heart. We just don’t have a soda to drink anymore. So that was really the opportunity that we wanted to develop a product to answer.”