Soda has an iconic place in American culture. For many Americans, the sweet, bubbly beverage conjures up nostalgia for beach vacations, childhood celebrations, and trips to the movie theater. Marisa Zupan not only wants to celebrate this legacy but modernize it for today’s consumer with the launch of United Sodas.
Cleverly packaged in a rainbow of colors with an assortment of flavors, United Sodas is a new direct-to-consumer brand that’s on a mission to reinvent soda into a high-quality, better-for-you beverage. We caught up with Zupan to learn more.
ForceBrands: How did your background in advertising and brand strategy lead the concept for United Sodas?
Marisa Zupan: My background working as a brand and marketing strategist with companies like Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Absolut, and AB Inbev gave me a decade of education in the beverage category. Soda was particularly compelling to me because it had such a deep relationship with America but we’ve been watching it falter for years. The idea to reimagine soda for a new era seemed like an insane and exciting challenge. From there, United Sodas was born.
FB: What inspired you to launch a product in an already highly competitive, saturated category? What sets United Sodas apart?
MZ: During my career and as a beverage fanatic, I saw that while other categories in this industry were evolving to become more relevant and healthier, such as sports drinks and sparkling water, soda remained the enemy in the public eye. No one was paying attention to soda for the right reasons. I realized there was an opportunity to change that by creating a product that was answering the needs of people today: organic and natural ingredients, full flavor, variety of choice, thoughtful design, integrity. When we were doing focus groups at the ideation phase of United Sodas, we learned that while many people swore off soda due to its traditional, unhealthy properties, there were always fond memories of the category engrained in people’s mindsets (the movies, road trips, etc.). We wanted to create a soda that people could come to and create new moments with.
FB: How do you think launching United Sodas during a global pandemic will shape the future of the brand?
MZ: Through all of this, we’re learning some reaffirming lessons about how we built this brand from the beginning and how it will shape it for the future.
We made several conscious decisions a year ago that we now feel immensely lucky to have made. We decided to keep the team small yet highly skilled and experienced, we were fastidious about selecting production partners and we created a brand vision that transcended our product. We obviously had no idea how those decisions would protect the team and brand in the midst of a global pandemic. It is clearer to me now that our decisions were driven by the desire to create a resilient business, not just an efficient one, and why I am confident that our brand is set up to succeed.
Further, while we did have some brick-and-mortar retail plans in the works for launch, the current climate has caused us to adjust that strategy and put more resources into making our e-commerce and direct-to-consumer capabilities even stronger. The current situation has accelerated the adoption of online grocery, which means we at United Sodas are optimistic about our offering — both due to the fact that it’s better-for-you, but that it also shows up directly on your doorstep.
FB: Did you have any hesitation in launching the brand during COVID-19? What were the challenges and the opportunities?
MZ: Of course I had moments during all of this where I wondered if it made sense to launch, but I am so grateful for the support of my team and trusted partners that made me confident in our decision to keep moving forward with the launch. Our team has had to be nimble and extremely patient as we figured out the timing for our production run, packaging and distribution, so coordinating all of this with our partners has certainly been a challenge. It’s also given us an opportunity to discover superpowers outside of our roles: Our VP of Marketing is now the keeper of the financial spreadsheets, I’ve taken on the hat as our main copywriter, and our Operations VP is now an expert in structural packaging design. As I mentioned previously, we did need to rethink some of our go-to-market strategy, but still felt like now was the right time to launch as Americans are looking for this type of product while remaining at home — not to mention, our design aesthetic is something that many can currently resonate with.
FB: Given the current climate, what does your distribution strategy look like?
MZ: We’ve been focusing on our e-commerce channel and doubling down on the DTC capability. We’re prioritizing making sure that all of our partners are able to meet the anticipated demand with their safety and well-being of the utmost importance, so that we’re able to deliver our product safely directly to people’s doors. At the same time, we’re optimistic that retail channels will be an important consumer touchpoint and are figuring out when it makes sense to do so. Our long term goal is for people to be drinking United Sodas at their favorite local bars and restaurants, on ferries and in line at their local bodegas.
FB: Who is your target audience and how are you reaching them?
MZ: We’re going after the consumer who cares about where they spend their money and wants a connection to the brand. The variety of flavors we offer from classic to unconventional (think Strawberry Basil, Extra Peach, Toasted Coconut) can appeal to a wide range of ages, moods and palettes. Our goal is to replace people’s diet soda indulgence along with becoming a beverage they drink just as often as sparkling water or kombucha. Everyone is a soda drinker at heart, people just didn’t have the right soda to drink anymore.
For now we are reaching our target audience through our dynamic digital marketing strategy, through Facebook/Instagram and Google’s tools, and audio networks. Eventually, we’ll be engaging in ‘real world’ settings: out-of-home, transit, events, partnerships, and retail.
FB: As a female leader, are there any other women you admire most in the industry that you’ve leaned on for brand building advice?
MZ: So many! I’ve really benefited from speaking to and watching friends and former collaborators across so many categories such as Jackie DeJesu Center of Shhhhowercap, Lauren Wilson of Lauren’s All Purpose, Lane Tabb of Novae Res, Gabi Koshgarian of Blankbox, Trinity Mouzon of Golde, and Rachel Tippograph of MikMak.
FB: How are modern beverage brands being built differently today? What approaches must they take in order to be successful?
MZ: Beverage has been dominated by a brick and mortar retailer market; online DTC has been slower to take hold for this category. But behaviors toward online grocery are changing and, as I said above, accelerating. As such, data and technology are playing an increased role for beverage brands. Those that invest in owning and learning from the relationship with customers and potential customers will be on the forefront of understanding new behaviors and adjusting their business accordingly.
Interested in learning about career and brand building opportunities in the beverage industry? Explore our BevForce division.