CPGmatters: Sampling Gives Vita Coco Vital Competitive Edge

Apr 05, 2010

By Dale Buss

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary
of a current article from the monthly e-zine, CPGmatters.

Michael Kirban
runs one of the highest-cost product sampling operations in beverage retailing.
But the CEO and founder of Vita Coco isn’t about
to apologize for it. His Cadillac-level sampling strategy has helped build
a dominant share of the fast-growing U.S. market for coconut water.

The coconut water brand conducts mainly high energy guerrilla marketing including
dispatching a number of Vita Coco vans carrying crews of energetic “brand
educators” who blitz supermarkets with intense sampling and dispense samples
of the drinks at races, festivals and other events. About 200 health club trainers,
out-of-work actors, college students and others part-time are employed to hand
out samples, receiving $15 to $30 an hour. These twenty-somethings are a far
cry from the low key older women who staff most grocery store demos — and
they get far better results.

“The national average is that 20 to 30 percent of those sampled in a store
actually buy a product during the sampling period, but ours is closer to 60 percent,” said
Jeff Rubenstein, Vita Coco’s vice president of consumer marketing.

Vita Coco’s sampling strategy starts with recruiting and “auditioning” would
be “brand
educators” at extravagant Brazilian-themed barbecues held in yoga studios,
sorority houses and other locations where the company is likely to find people
who have what Mr. Rubenstein calls a “life-loving attitude” and who
would enthusiastically “serve as the literal and figurative face of the

This is a “super-expensive way of recruiting,” he said. “What
we’re doing costs us more than $1,000 per [recruiting session], but it’s
worth it to find the right people. We build this immersive environment and
hope the right people will come.”

Eighty percent of the brand’s eventual recruits are bilingual, speaking
Spanish or maybe Portuguese as well as English, he said, and they’re supposed
to have a pre-existing Vita Coco consumption habit of “three to five” of
the drinks per week, Mr. Rubenstein said. They’re trained in the classroom,
then in the field, then in role-playing exercises where they deal with simulated

Once on the scene at special events or in the aisles, these representatives
press hard to amp up actual sales where and when they’re deployed and to secure
new long-term accounts from the retailers. They’re supposed to focus on “spending
a lot more time with a lot fewer people” at sampling locations, he said.

“What is fundamental to our program is the manner and their style and
our personalities,” Mr. Rubenstein said. “That’s the proprietary
part — how to build an authentic relationship with someone and educate
them” on Vita Coco.

“Sure, there are only so many ways you can skin a cat — it’s
still sampling,” he said. “But it’s about giving someone
a true, authentic brand experience.”

Discussion Questions: What do you think of Vita Coco’s “Cadillac level” sampling
strategy? Is this level of investment in sampling only appropriate for certain

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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10 Comments on "CPGmatters: Sampling Gives Vita Coco Vital Competitive Edge"

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Carol Spieckerman
Carol Spieckerman
12 years 1 month ago

Targeting affinity groups, hiring for passion and training with a vengeance pays off. Just ask Lululemon (whose fourth quarter sales shot up 54.5%). Prior to store openings, Lululemon seeks out relationships with local yoga studios, they offer 15% discounts to fitness professionals in exchange for their opinions and recommendations and stores maintain a “hub” for health and wellness information within each community (yoga teachers, fitness trainers, nutritionists, massage therapists, etc.). This may not be an example of physical sampling, however, they certainly are the “Cadillac” of give-and-take loyalty-building!

P.S. I actually tried Vita Coco a few days ago and, well, um . . . definitely interesting.

John Boccuzzi, Jr.
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
12 years 1 month ago
The approach here is very similar to Red Bull and their approach to trial. For items that expand beyond the everyday staples, a consumer needs the “Cadillac” approach. That said, this is not going to work for all brands. The cost would outweigh the benefits. Another strategy that can help a brand build trial is using the power of a complementary non-competitive brand that already has strong consumer penetration. This could be a private label brand or national brand. Think of introducing a new potato chip and linking that together with a power brand like Coca-Cola — buy the Coke, get the chip for free. The approach Vita Coco is using to kick off the brand is the right approach. Having a strong passionate group in the field building trial not only at grocery stores, but sporting events is going to work to help them build initial trial. Long term, it may not be sustainable, so the Vita Coco brand will need to find more cost effective approaches to build repeat use.
Mel Kleiman
12 years 1 month ago

WOW: A new great innovative idea. Hire people who like your brand; hire people with a great attitude; hire people with a lot of energy; train the people you hire; motivate them; make it fun to work for you; and even pay them well for doing a great job.

I wonder why it works?

The real question is why don’t others do it, not only in sampling but in every other part of retailing?

This is not Cadillac Sampling, this is a Cadillac people program.

Kevin Price
Kevin Price
12 years 1 month ago

Apple has been using this approach for years, which is now paying off inside its stores. No question using enthusiastic supporters (or ‘evangelists’) of a product is likely to be more effective than not.

Still, the REAL issue underneath sampling is to have a demonstrably, competitively superior product in the first place…sampling a crappy product will only accelerate its demise.

Vita Coco clearly is on to something here. This kind of ‘common sense’ is often lacking in the marketing world.

Doron Levy
Doron Levy
12 years 1 month ago

This type of marketing works for this particular brand. Vendors need to remember who their target market is when using sampling as a marketing vehicle. High energy marketing requires high energy people. My first taste of Red Bull came from a beautiful blond gal dressed up in a Red Bull racing suit and I will never forget that experience.

Brian Hart
Brian Hart
12 years 1 month ago

Yes, sampling can be effective when the samples are shared at venues where you have access to the end user.

Another sampling method to consider is to leverage loyalty card information to reach heavy category users (or potential users) and give them an offer for a free, full-sized sample. You’ve focused your investment on only the highest ROI customers. Give “mom” the shopper the ability to bring it home for the targeted user to use it in the normal environment. Additionally, you’ve required the customer to become educated to where it is in the store for repeat purchases.

Kai Clarke
12 years 1 month ago

Any sampling program works. They work even better when there are people supporting the program, and the more enthusiastic (and involved) the sampling, the better the results. This is the golden rule and reflects sampling as well as in-store support. (Foreign merchandisers outside of the US are frequently brought in to support a brand in foreign markets.) Sampling works, and better sampling works better!

Liz Crawford
12 years 1 month ago

If the barriers to trial are high, and repeat is practically guaranteed, then it works. However, embarking on this kind of program without a quantitatively valid repeat rate is a way to lose a lot of money.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
M. Jericho Banks PhD
12 years 1 month ago

Until encountering the law of diminishing returns, more spending on the right strategery equals more success. You just need the right plan and the bankroll to execute it. But, no price can truly be put on passion, which is an emotional investment. Vita Coco recruiting – $1,000; hourly pay – $15 to $30; passion discovered during recruiting – priceless. Like Neil Young, Vita Coco is “a miner for a heart of gold.”

James Tenser
12 years 1 month ago

For me, the Vita Coco sampling program resembles the way some in the music industry promote up-and-coming performers. They hire passionate fans to evangelize, share MP3s and hand out swag at events and festivals. The target consumer sees a cool person like them (or like they wish to be) and is inclined to give the music a listen. The converted talk about their “discovery” with other friends and so awareness spreads.

According to my offspring, this technique works pretty well at launching audiences for death metal, emo, and techno among other types of music I fail to appreciate. So why not apply a milder version of brand evangelism to build a grassroots audience for a brand like Vita Coco? The samplers personify the brand. Early adopters who crave recognition for being cool will talk about it even if it tastes unusual.


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