In just over a year as its new CEO, Chris Hall has helped Sparkling Ice regain its mojo after the pioneering sparkling-water brand spent a few years grappling with deep-pocketed competition, a brand-extension stumble and, finally, the ouster of Hall’s predecessor. Along the way, Hall and the $650-million-at-retail CPG pioneer have demonstrated the value of sticking with a strategy through thick and thin.
Sales of Sparkling Ice — a zero-sugar, zero-calorie sparkling-water brand that comes in robust flavors and bright colors in clear glass bottles – increased by 22 percent in volume during the first quarter compared with a year earlier, to $124 million, and Hall told Chief Executive that he expected similarly stellar results for the second quarter.
“The marketplace and consumers are shifting faster than they ever have, demanding new and more variety,” Hall said. “Ten years ago, the categories were distinct: There was soda, water and Gatorade. But now the biggest challenge is how there is an over-blending of categories, and trying to understand where the consumer will be versus where they are today.”
The former U.S. Navy submarine officer joined Sparkling Ice’s parent company, Preston, Washington-based Talking Rain Beverage, in 2007, and worked his way up through the company in sales roles, then was promoted to chief operating officer. Hall took over as CEO in April 2018 after his predecessor, Kevin Klock, left the company abruptly in late 2017 in the wake of a sexual-assault allegation by someone within Talking Rain.
Klock had led Sparkling Ice spectacularly as the brand created a new beverage category; on a parallel track, LaCroix, a brand owned by National Beverage, was essentially creating and dominating a category of lightly flavored, unsweetened sparkling water. Klock was even able to vanquish the two titans of the beverage world a few years ago after they finally introduced competitors to Sparkling Ice, in PepsiCo’s Aquafina Flavor Splash and Coca-Cola’s Fruitwater.
“When a national brand like us hits and is first to market and we’ve established ourselves,” he said, “it becomes difficult to come in and be second or third, even for them. In most supermarkets, you will see Sparkling Ice and a private-label competitor. It’s tough for them to offer two or three more options in a category like this.”
On the other hand, Klock also presided over one of the brand’s biggest mis-steps a few years ago: introduced a competitor to LaCroix, which Sparkling Ice since has withdrawn.
In the wake of the leadership change, Hall said, “We are moving forward, and moving forward quickly.” Indeed, Hall quickly has put his own mark on Sparkling Ice as he has goosed growth, rolling out a major extension into a caffeinated line and switching the brand to all-natural colors at a time when American consumers want simpler ingredient lists.
Yet at the same time, Hall believes that one key to Sparkling Ice’s renewed success in a brutal aisle of the CPG world has been sticking with its original sweetener, sucralose, which is considered an artificial sweetener even while sharing some of the chemistry of sugar. While the brand still plans “to track on the road to completely natural” sweeteners at some point, Hall said, “what’s important to consumers is continuous improvement in the product. And we’re showing them we’re doing that.”
In fact, he said, Sparkling Ice’s research showed that the most important quality for its customers is that it contains zero sugar, with the nature of its sweetener falling lower on the list. “What we deliver with Sparkling Ice is a specific taste profile that consumers enjoy,” Hall said, “and it’s hard to match that” with other sweeteners.