Banning sugary beverages at schools is one way to tackle America's childhood obesity epidemic. This might be another: getting kids to drink a new, low-sugar, vitamin-infused, flavored beverage in a quirky Y-shaped bottle created by superstar industrial designer Yves Béhar.
The certified organic drink, called Y Water, is scheduled to be introduced early next year at Whole Foods Market (WFMI.O). It comes in four varieties, each with a mix of flavors composed of ingredients such as coriander or black carrot juice along with a dash of calcium or zinc.
If you manage to get a finicky kid to take a few swigs and finish the bottle, the packaging can then be re-used as a toy: special connectors allow a child to stick Y Water bottles together to form Lego-like constructions. "It is exotic," says Thomas Arndt, founder of the Los Angeles private startup Y Water, about the beverage-cum-toy, which will cost a hefty $1.69 for a 9-ounce bottle. "But it is unique," he adds. "It enriches the fantasy life of a kid. They start guessing what's in it."
So will parents who are worried about their children's consumption of sugar-laced beverages. This has become a big question: Beverage industry giants like Coca-Cola (KO) and Pepsico (PEP) agreed last year to self-imposed guidelines on the sale of such drinks in schools. As substitutes, beverage and bottled-water companies are launching "healthier" alternatives, aimed at attracting kids or pacifying parents who will buy or sanction the drinks.
Some of the new offerings are simply tie-ins with a cartoon, or in the case of Crayola Color Coolerz!, from Advanced H2O, a name-brand crayon. But some beverage companies are going further. Nestlé's Poland Spring devised the rocket-ship-shaped Aquapod, a bulbous, smaller version for kids of its best-selling bottled-water brand. Meanwhile, Honest Kids, from organic bottled-tea company Honest Tea, comes in a portable plastic pouch.
Targeting kids is part of a broader strategy by the beverage industry to tailor drinks to niche consumer segments. "What we are seeing are finely targeted products for a particular need, or a time of the day, or a demographic—and that includes kids, which is an underserved category," says Gary Hemphill, managing director of Beverage Marketing, an industry research and consulting company in New York. As a result, Hemphill adds, "there are fewer one-size-fits-all products" in the beverage market.
Arndt started thinking about a children's beverage two years ago when he couldn't find anything in Los Angeles supermarkets that he wanted his own kids, now ages 9 and 7, to drink. "They didn't want water, and the school had banned soft drinks," recalls Arndt, a former brand manager in Germany for energy drink company Red Bull. His idea was to create a low-calorie, organic beverage that would be a thirst quencher and also have health benefits or functionality—a category known in the industry as value-added beverages—all in a kid-friendly package.
Not exactly the sweet grape concoctions in a juice box kids usually crave. But Arndt, who after working for Red Bull introduced health-drink company Carpe Diem to the U.S., believed that kids would appreciate a more sophisticated taste. When it comes to drinks, Arndt concluded, "kids aren't taken seriously."
What's more, value-added drinks are booming as increasingly health-conscious consumers seek food and drinks that supposedly do more than satisfy hunger or quench a thirst. Wholesale sales of single-serve value-added drinks soared to $1.5 billion in 2006, from $114 million in 2001, according to Beverage Marketing.
Design for Kids
Arndt turned to Béhar of San Francisco design consultancy Fuseproject for bottle design and branding. Out went Arndt's original name for the drink, Smartkids, which was considered too nerdy. Béhar's team devised Y Water's intertwined name and bottle, based on the concept of a stable, symmetrical bottle that would incorporate a sense of play and riff off the questions kids often ask: "why" and "why not?" The design, explains Béhar, who is an investor in the $1 million Y Water startup, "is about the process of turning food or drink into a game, and a disposal product into a reusable one. And asking questions. These are all parts of a kid's personality."
Béhar wanted to accomplish more than simply downsizing a big adult bottle. "We wanted to get away from that and put our energy into the product and the packaging," he says. Béhar hopes that consuming Y Water and playing with the packaging will provide "a fun lesson about why you should never discard a plastic bottle." Of course, it doesn't hurt that to get the most fun from the toy requires buying more than one bottle.
But will kids like the taste? Arndt devised flavors with ingredients that target different parts of the body: bones, muscles, the brain, and the immune system. For example, Y Bone water has a shot of calcium and vitamins mixed with organic black carrot juice, banana, strawberry, and a touch of spearmint oil. Y Brain water features zinc, rosemary, lemon, and caramel. Arndt describes the flavors as "compelling and sophisticated" and says they passed a crucial test market—his kids and their friends.
Bottle labels, designed by ad agency Kastner & Partner in Los Angeles, include whimsical, childlike drawings and irreverent tag lines: for Y Bone water, there is a skeleton and the line, "because you don't want your skeleton walking out on you." Y Muscle water has an octopus in high boots, and encourages kids to drink it "because you never know who's going to challenge you to a wrestling match."
But because Y Water also contains sugar cane juice, food industry critics like Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and public health at New York University, are skeptical about its overall nutritional benefits. "While it's surely better than a sugary soft drink, think of it as calcium-enriched liquid candy," says Nestle, a fierce opponent of food marketing to kids, about Y Bone water. As for the zinc in Y Brain water: "The idea that you will stimulate the brain with one nutrient makes no sense. Throwing in a little zinc won't make a difference unless a kid is zinc deficient." And in that case, she adds, "they can take pediatric vitamins."
Arndt argues that Y Water is meant to be a part of healthy balanced daily nutrition—not a replacement—and that the benefits of the added minerals are well-documented. "We really hope our drinks are not the only source of vitamins and minerals in the daily diet of a child," he says, noting that many children don't get the adequate amount. As for sugar, Arndt says: "I'd rather give them a tolerable level of sweetness as an incentive to drink enough than offer them only water that they don't like."
Beverage Marketing's Hemphill says Y Water has potential because it addresses issues such as health and wellness and "the green aspect" at a time when the bottled-water industry is under attack for being environmentally irresponsible. (Y Water's plastic bottle scores points not just because it's intended to be reused within the home but is also fully recyclable.)
Béhar, who has banned bottled water from his office, says that ideally, fountains and the tap would be the best way to get water. But, he says of the Y Water bottle, "if you want to deliver a natural beverage with a function, then you need some kind of carrier, and this provides a smarter solution."