How an obscure drink from the Midwest became a millennial sensation

Seemingly out of nowhere, LaCroix has become a national phenomenon.

In recent years, publications have commissioned a steady stream of writers to unpack the success of what really just amounts to fizzy, lightly-flavored water in a can — but what a can!

How did this brand become a national sensation, particularly among millennials, after languishing for decades in relative obscurity in the US Midwest?

An in-depth look by Vox last year attributed its success to becoming the anti-soda favorite of LA television writers and finally a social media icon — not to mention a lot of people think it tastes pretty good.

Put more simply, savvy branding, clever social marketing on the cheap, and great timing has led to skyrocketing sales (though the company doesn’t publicly disclose the numbers for each individual brand, it is believed LaCroix has about 10% market sharefor sparkling waters and did $225 million in sales last year — growing about 30%) and a gushing share price for the LaCroix’s corporate parent National Beverage Corporation (up well over 500% over the last 5 years).

And yet, every explanation as to the brand’s wild success leaves one unsatisfied. Explaining tastes and trends is always a bit mysterious. Like walking past two equally good restaurants, with one packed and the other empty, there appears to be little explanation that goes beyond the anecdotal and speculative.

And LaCroix’s parent company won’t weigh in on its own success. It’s notoriously tight-lipped and, according to Bloomberg, doesn’t allow employees to give interviews. It’s 81-year-old CEO, prone to bizarre rants against investors(and whose story is worth reading about), has rarely, if ever, spoken candidly about the brand directly to the media.

One thing is for sure, LaCroix’s popularity really took off over the last few years and doesn’t look like it’s going to fizzle anytime soon.

The Rebirth

LaCroix (pronounced ‘la croy’ — but really should be ‘la krwa’) was born in the early 1980s in La Crosse, Wisconsin, near the banks of the Mississippi River.

It was started by the now defunct G. Heileman Brewing Company, seemingly as part of an effort to diversify beyond beer. The brand didn’t seem to gain much traction and it was sold to Florida-based National Beverage Corporation in 1996.

National Beverage, which has a portfolio of other drinks, ordered a reboot of LaCroix sometime in the early 2000s. The history of its rebranding is well-documented but the gist is that the company took the drink to branding experts and LaCroix’s packaging was reborn — alongside an increasing number of flavors.

LaCroix’s choice of can during their big relaunch was unorthodox to say the least.

Its neon camouflage seems more suited for the set of Saved by the Bell, than next to turmeric-infused kombucha on the shelves of Whole Foods. It seemed to play on a kind of 80s nostalgia, setting it apart from fancy glass bottles, as well as the familiar plastic tubes that usually carry water.

Indeed, in its 2015 homage to LaCroix, Mary H. K. Choi wrote in The New York Timesthat her trepidations about drinking the sparkling water was “partly due to the cans’ hideousness. The first time I drank LaCroix, I half expected it to be filled with self-tanner.”

But that might be the genius of it.

“In a world where every consumer beverage (every whiskey, craft beer or kombucha) is designed to the nines and trying to out-hip the hip, this package somehow conjures up an 80s anti-design, punk rock aesthetic and says ‘We’re not trying too hard,’” Douglas Riccardi, owner and creative director of Memo NY, a design and branding firm, told LinkedIn.

The package was also a good way to distinguish itself from the plastic-y competition, while going head-to-head with diet soda, whose sales had been slipping.

According to Vanessa Walker, a former executive vice president of sales and marketing at LaCroix, and a key figure in steering the brand during its rise to national fame, the can design helped drive its marketing strategy to compete with diet drinks.

“I never saw our competition as either imported sparkling brands,” Walker told LinkedIn. “Instead, I decided to position the brand against diet soda.”

“Consumers already equated the can to soda or diet soda, so LaCroix could be an any-time, multi-use replacement to anything artificial.”

It’s constant roll-out of new flavors also set it apart from rivals and keeps consumers interested.

LaCroix has added new flavors like crazy over the last few years. While most sparkling water usually has variations on lemon, lime and, perhaps, something more exotic like peach, LaCroix has nearly two dozen flavors, including pamplemousse (French for grapefruit) and coconut.

That makes people drink more, according to Megan Hambleton, US Drink Analyst for Mintel.

“Continued innovation in flavor has also helped set LaCroix apart from its competitors, with both basic and exotic sounding flavors sparking conversation and in turn, trial,” according to Hambleton.

In a sense, LaCroix has become the anti-Perrier — less snooty, more approachable: the kind of fizzy water you’d want to have a beer with. At around $5 for a 12-pack at most stores, you don’t feel guilty guzzling a few in an evening.

The benefits of no marketing budget

Also unlike its rivals, it became the sparkling water of the social media age. Not only do its neon colors pop on Instagram (more luck thank strategy it seems), but it built a community of consumers from the ground up as social networks began to spread over the last decade.

As Vox pointed out, there was no “patient zero” for LaCroix’s social media efforts. There was no photo with Kim Kardashian or Beyoncé sipping a can on a yacht off Santa Catalina Island.

Rather, LaCroix worked steadily to build the brand through the clever use of platforms like Instagram (it currently has nearly 120,000 followers) and Facebook (430,000 followers), positioning itself as a sign of cool for millennials rather than for middle aged Midwesterners —the drink’s original consumers.

As Digiday reported, the brand didn’t just hire big name influencers, rather it engaged with users who did not have big followings but still loved tagging the brand in their posts — a grassroots approach that kept the brand authentic even as it grew more powerful.

The approach may not have been necessarily on purpose. LaCroix’s marketing team was given a slim budget that could not come close to competing with its bigger rivals. Instead, according to Walker, she built a small team of young marketers poached from all over the company, who worked using social media channels to rally the brand.

“I don’t think inside any major company, you’d have a team of millennials driving all content but we almost did — I was oldest by far of this rockstar team,” she says.

Staying away from television ads also helped to maintain the drink’s exclusivity and allure— and who wants their drinks being hawked next to commercials for prescription drugs for rheumatoid arthritis and toilet cleaners anyway?

And that’s probably the big takeaway: consumers of LaCroix can still feel like they discovered it — like a hip restaurant with no markings — rather than being cajoled into buying it.

Creating that feeling is a stroke of genius for modern day marketers.

What’s not in the can can’t hurt you

In 2015, it even teamed up with the people behind ‘clean-eating’ fad diet Whole30, which advocated the drink as a zero-calorie alternative to people who couldn’t have soda and hated still water.

The move fit perfectly with the other part of LaCroix’s success: relaying to customers what isn’t in the can, namely artificial flavors and sugar.

As a Canadian, I had never heard of LaCroix until I arrived at a tech company whose fridges are stocked with the water.

But while researching the beverage, a colleague from Ohio told me that growing up in the Midwest, LaCroix was a staple of the working class who were trying to ween themselves off Diet Coke. A recent Bloomberg article has reaffirmed the stereotype that LaCroix had become to soda what methadone had become to heroin, an off-ramp to addictive substances.

Indeed, LaCroix’s zero calories, zero additives formula fits perfectly within this generation’s backlash against sugary, strongly-flavored drinks.

The trends, along with the raw numbers are on its side:

report in Bloomberg showed that retailers sold $2 billion worth of carbonated and flavored waters in 2016. Between 2011 and 2016, carbonated water sales were up 70.4 percent and flavored water was up 59.5 percent over the same period, according to the same data.

According to stats by Nielsen, soft drinks and diet soft drinks of all kinds have been on the decline since at least 2013 — and probably even before that.

The trend seems to still be in favor of LaCroix and, if sugary drinks become as taboo as smoking, then it’ll stay that way.

LaCroix isn’t without rivals of course. Coca Cola’s Topo Chico purchase and Pepsi’s new Aquafina sparkling water lines have tried to imitate LaCroix’s success. So far they don’t seemed to have slowed the brand down. That doesn’t mean that more competitors won’t come breathing down its neck, of course.

Fizzle out?

So how long can all this success last?

Probably awhile.

“They seem eager to keep their community engaged with new flavors, new sponsorships, new activations,” says Riccardi.

Any hiccups he says, and LaCroix can just innovate out of them with new designs or flavors.

“If this effort starts losing traction, they have a lot of freedom to evolve it in a million directions,” he says.

That said, Walker warns that as the drink becomes more ubiquitous, there’s more of a need to project a coherent vision to survive amidst new competition.

“The brand will need to stay one step ahead now,” she says. “Other brands are springing up everywhere. The team is very important in the early days of a brand, then the brand becomes more important.”

“However, if the brand team becomes a rotating door, the special magic and momentum will be lost — making it vulnerable.”

And yet when one sees the Great Walls of colorful LaCroix in any Whole Foods around the country, one also has to wonder: can the drink retain its countercultural — and counterintuitive — cool that millennials long for?