At our “Building the Next $1 Billion Brand” panel at Expo West 2023, cosponsored with Whipstitch Capital, we interviewed leading insurgent founders about the growth stories behind their brands. In this installment, we feature our discussion with Spindrift founder and CEO Bill Creelman, who helped revitalize the once-stagnant sparkling water category. Creelman previously built the cocktail mixer business Stirrings before selling it to Diageo in 2009.
Q: What led you to believe that, as an insurgent brand leader, you could take on multibillion-dollar global competitors?
Creelman: I was a big soda drinker, but I also grew up on a farm in Western Massachusetts, which gave me a love for real ingredients. And we spent years and years trying to crack the code, including making a mess with pulp from fruit at our manufacturing facilities. We got very lucky that sparkling water has, in some ways, become the platform for innovation elsewhere into spiked seltzer and other categories.
Q: From product ingredients to supply chain to your route-to-market, you have always been extremely creative. Is doing things differently a priority in itself? Or have those just been the right choices for the brand?
Creelman: We're in a large category that hadn't had any real innovation for something like thirty years. And even though we knew that consumers have little brand loyalty in the sparkling water category, legacy competitors are so good that to compete, we needed to do some things differently. For example, we started in a small, growing niche of fast-casual food service (chains like Sweetgreen and Dig Inn) because we knew we were a better fit than legacy brand competitors.
Q: How have you thought about expanding distribution, and specifically, balancing growth with doing the right thing for the product and the brand?
Creelman: The conversation has changed a lot over time. We took a targeted approach to expand distribution by partnering with fast-casual food service chains, since we knew that was our target audience: people who are looking for better-for-you options at lunchtime. Our team understood that it would require education for both the retailers and consumers, but felt confident we could turn this audience into loyal brand fans by sharing Spindrift’s brand story, where our products fit within the beverage category, and where the company is headed. At first, retailers didn't know what to do with a sparkling water product that had color, pulp, or even a few calories, but we’ve been lucky to have open-minded and forward-thinking retail partners and are continuing to grow into those relationships today.
Q: How do you think about marketing and building a consumer base as an insurgent brand?
Creelman: We don't have an enormous media spend. What we do have is a strong connected community that we call "Drifters,” who see something they relate to about the brand which makes them want to share Spindrift with other people. We do a lot of one-on-one dialogue with them. It's a luxury to have an external perspective and to de-risk the changes we make.
Q: Now that you've expanded into alcohol, has the work in sparkling water and alcohol been meaningfully different?
Creelman: It took us a lot of time and tries to even figure out the initial Spindrift product and model. At one point, we were a purely refrigerated brand; at another, we were in glass bottles, and everything from our sourcing to production to distribution has shifted many times over. And in the meantime, sparkling water was having a significant renaissance, and a whole bunch of adjacent categories started to borrow from sparkling water. That made it easy for us to look at lemonade and tea and so many others that were ready to be "Spindriftified." And we've taken that same patient, experimental approach to trying out new products that we used with the first product.
Q: Are there any lessons you've taken from the original journey in sparkling water that you make sure to apply to your approach in new categories?
Creelman: You aren't starting from scratch, and there are things about the supply chain and working with retailers that you learn once and never really need to learn again. But you can't assume that just because something worked for one product or category, it'll work for another or that you don't need the same effort and focus the second and third time around because the brand is so strong. We treat the spiked product like its own new insurgent because that's the only way to succeed.