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Sun 18 Sep 2016 05:13 PM

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Vita Coco CEO Giles Brook, on the business of coconuts

Coconut water is big business. The industry is valued at US$2 billion, and by far the largest player in it is Vita Coco – which cracks over 2 million coconuts a day. With over 50 percent market share and a US$420 million turnover, we asked European CEO Giles Brook what makes it unique

Vita Coco CEO Giles Brook, on the business of coconuts

Coconut water is big business. The industry is valued at US$2 billion, and by far the largest player in it is Vita Coco – which cracks over 2 million coconuts a day. With over 50 percent market share and a US$420 million turnover, we asked European CEO Giles Brook what makes it unique

How did the brand begin? What's the Vita Coco story?

In 2004, during a casual outing to a New York City bar, childhood friends Mike Kirban and Ira Liran met two young women from Brazil. Shortly after that night, Ira hopped on a plane to Brazil to see one of the girls and learned that the coconut water hype was real. When Mike came to visit a few months later, they got down to business with a plan to bring coconut water to the US. Vita Coco was born that day.

Vita Coco really created its own category. Now, there are hundreds of competitors in the space. How do you defend against copycats?

We welcome competition; every category needs more than one player in it to give it real scale, so it’s encouraging to see more and more brands coming into the coconut water game and contributing to the overall awareness of the category.

As a brand, it’s not about defending against copycats, but more about us continuing to focus on driving our leadership of the category and driving the significant growth that has resulted to date in us becoming the world’s best-selling coconut water.  From my perspective it’s easy for brands to get side tracked by what competitors are doing, it’s important to keep your eye on what they are doing, but it is equally important to keep your focus on the road in front of you.

Would you credit the incredible growth of coconut water down to an increase in the general public wanting to be healthy?

So I think it’s important to remember that coconut water isn’t really new - two-thirds of the world’s population have grown up drinking coconut water straight from the coconut in countries where it is grown locally, so the awareness surrounding the benefits of coconut water for many parts of the world been around for a long time. However, what Vita Coco has done is to become the brand bringing coconut water to markets where it isn't readily available.

There’s no doubt that consumer perceptions have changed over the past decade, people are focusing more and more on their health, and when it comes down to what they consume people are now not only thinking about what they eat but also what they drink. This has naturally helped us grow the brand.

Our vision at Vita Coco is about helping consumers drink, eat and live a little better, and has become a brand synonymous with the coconut.  When you look at the coconut water category today, there is still so much more to play for – for example in key markets like the UK, household penetration is still only around 8 percent. There’s a huge job still to be done on driving that penetration, so we haven’t really started, and this is the same across most of the new markets that we operate in - so we’ve got lots to keep us busy.

We have a new product in coconut oil, which we launched 18 months ago in the UK and more recently have brought it to the UAE. Similar to coconut water, the maturity of this category of product is still in its infancy. While the launch has exceeded our expectations, there is a whole world out there to go after when it comes to our coconut oil.

 

Do you ever worry that some of the larger mega-companies (Coca-Cola, and the like) will try and push Vita Coco out of the market?

So both Coke and Pepsi have been in the coconut water category working alongside us for the past ten years, and while we may be seen as the independent underdog, we are a brand that is leading the serious growth of the coconut water category globally.

What would you say is the biggest difference between Vita Coco and some of the mega-beverage companies?

I guess our biggest point of difference is that we are all about the coconut and nothing more, unlike the larger companies. We are 100 percent focused. I also think that while we are continuing to grow, we will still keep our entrepreneurial focus at the core of the brand.  We live on being flexible and opportunistic and having the structure that allows us to come at things from a slightly different direction – that’s what makes us different.

What's the company culture like at Vita Coco? Does the company tone and voice – healthy, tropical living, fun – extend throughout the company? Or is that just good marketing?

We pride ourselves on our internal culture – we’re a young and energetic team, and our brand values are at the core of the business’ culture. Vita Coco is an easy brand to be passionate about as we don’t take ourselves too seriously, we thrive on fun and doing things a little differently and keeping it simple – it’s only coconut water after all. The team are a healthy, fun loving bunch who all have one thing in common – they are passionate about coconut water.

I've heard you have hammocks at your headquarters…

If you ever visit our offices, they are exactly as you can imagine being born out of our Brazilian heritage: palm trees, hammocks, wooden crates filled with coconuts. Any visit to our offices will be met with a fun, laid-back vibe and, of course, a lot of laughter.

 

How important are some of your big name investors to the popularity of the brand? The likes of Rihanna, Madonna, and Matthew McConaughey are all investors.

I think we’ve been incredibly lucky with our investors and our celebrity support overall. What has driven their involvement from the outset is their belief in our products. They are consumers first, and so they understand the brand. Their participation has been pivotal in creating that additional buzz around Vita Coco and has definitely helped us drive awareness. We have been very privileged to attract a wide range of celebrity consumers who are not all investors, just Vita Coco drinkers. And it's all totally organic.

Is it hard to push a product like Vita Coco – and its particular story – in developing markets? A healthy, beach-side lifestyle might not work in a place such as the Middle East.

While cultures are different from region to region, the same consumer needs exist wherever you go. People are considering their health more and more, and the growth of premium, healthy beverages is also on the rise. So commercially, we are driving towards the same goal in all markets, to build awareness of the coconut water and oil categories. We aim to educate consumers on drinking, eating and living a little better.

Regarding specific market differences, the main difference you see between the US and the UK is the coconut water category is significantly more established in the US. However, what is very encouraging is that we currently sell more Coconut Water in London than New York, so it's catching up.

As a brand, we take this core consumer need and then convert it into a culturally relevant and sympathetic message in each market, to ensure we resonate with local consumers. It's not a one size fits all approach – we enter each market with its own particular nuances, and adapt our global positioning and messaging to work with that given market. But we strive to keep our core values and tone as consistent and relevant in each new market we enter. We were born on the beaches of Brazil, and this underpins the heritage of the brand and feeds into our positioning and tone. We take consumers on the Vita Coco journey, and so far we've found that while we are culturally sensitive, our unique, fun-loving and irreverent brand approach is being adopted globally.

 

What is the decision-making process at Vita Coco?

I think our biggest challenge, like most businesses, is finding the right people to continue to build our brand. The team is critical, and that’s why we try and ensure that people are motivated within our business. One way we do this is by allowing each staff member to invest in our business. It’s all about sharing our success, and everyone is a part of the journey.

When it comes to the Vita Coco staff profile, they've got to be passionate about coconuts to start with – we're all nuts for coconuts here. But the real skills we look for are dynamism, an entrepreneurial spirit (many of our staff will go on post-Vita Coco to run their own businesses, and we encourage and support this) and passion. But most importantly they need to be able to have fun, not take themselves too seriously and love the journey we are on.

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