The soda startup shaking up the market

May 13, 2021, 6:00 PM UTC
Marisa Zupan, cofounder and CEO of United Sodas of America.
Courtesy of United Sodas of America

This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.

As LaCroix, Bubly, Spindrift, and brands of this ilk gained cult followings over the past decade and revolutionized the sparkling water industry, sodas all but fell by the wayside. Often synonymous with an excess of sugar, caffeine, and unhealthy synthetic ingredients, soda wasn’t the go-to beverage option it once was.

But over the last few years, a growing number of startups went back to the drawing board, and results are showing as soda sales have been climbing again over the last year.

After a two-year process that included countless taste tests and developing proprietary flavors while utilizing only ingredients found in nature, United Sodas of America launched in 2020 and celebrates its one-year anniversary today.

Fortune recently chatted with Marisa Zupan, CEO and cofounder of United Sodas of America, to learn more about what the past year has been like for the brand and where it plans to go from here.

Marisa Zupan, cofounder and CEO of United Sodas of America.
Courtesy of United Sodas of America

The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Fortune: Can you share more about your professional background prior to launching United Sodas? What inspired you to launch United Sodas?

Zupan: Before United Sodas of America, I had over 12 years of advertising and marketing experience under my belt working alongside a mix of big brands, agencies, and startups. It was incredible helping to modernize some of the world’s most iconic brands from Absolut, Pepsi, Nestlé, Clinique, MAC, and Target to name a few. I spent my time working on new product development, branding, internal mission setting, and organizational strategy for these brands. I spent my earlier career working in fashion from various menswear lines to Ralph Lauren and socially conscious brand Maiyet.

While working in the beverage industry, I realized the relationship between Americans and soda was incredibly unhealthy. Most of the brands we have known and drank for years are packed with sugar, caffeine, and other unhealthy ingredients. Reimagining soda became this exciting challenge to create a new era for beverages that elevated design, ingredients, and flavor, while focusing on the concept of variety.

What separates United Sodas from other carbonated drinks on the market, and what constitutes a “premium soda”?

Most new brands in the market are either sparkling waters that have a hint of flavor or drinks that include functional ingredients designed to solve health problems, which impact taste. No one was reimagining soda in its most simple form—flavor, fun, variety—but with premium ingredients and a modern take on design and brand. 

Instead of high-fructose corn syrup or aspartame, we source organic, plant-based ingredients with a touch of organic cane sugar for our signature “just sweet enough” taste. Our signature flavor blends are all natural and derived from specific variants of fruits, spices, and herbs in nature. Our 12 flavors range from classic (Cherry Pop, Gingery Ale) to unconventional (Sour Blueberry, Blackberry Jam) to floral (Strawberry Basil, Pear Elderflower)—all are only 30 calories. Our sodas are pasteurized to retain their natural freshness without the chemicals, making them stand out with better [nutritional supplements], ingredients, and variety.

From unboxing the package to exploring its interactive website to drinking the sodas and ranking them or utilizing custom-made cocktail and mocktail recipes, we are more than just a typical beverage brand.

The founder of United Sodas describes her brand as bolder than seltzer flavors but not syrupy or overly sweet like some mainstream sodas.
Courtesy of United Sodas of America

The packaging for United Sodas is especially eye-catching, with a rainbow spectrum of cans. And the flavors—from Young Mango to Blackberry Jam—are incredibly tasty and refreshing. What went into the research and development process for developing these flavors beyond the standard cola and lemon-lime?

When we started conceptualizing United Sodas, design was always at the forefront. We were inspired by design-centric companies like Apple and Nike, and we collaborated with Alex Center, from Center Design studio [known for his personal branding work with Vitamin Water and Powerade]. Our overall aesthetic goals were to be the exact opposite of the shiny, uninspired, bold graphics seen on the majority of beverage brands.

Allowing color to be the new flavor cue, we wanted the can’s design to capture consumers’ attention and then let them get even more excited about the flavor. In an age when aesthetics are everything, and people are always looking for their next Instagrammable moment, we knew United Sodas had to stand out on the shelf. We put design first by using a matte finish, bright colors, and bold fonts that come in sleek packaging for a beverage that will taste as good as it looks.

With our cans spanning the colors of the rainbow, we also wanted our flavors to span taste buds. Standard soda flavors are great, but at launch we wanted our new concept to feel new and not vintage-y or fall into the trap of immediately being compared to things that already exist. We believe people wanted more variety, but with some familiar profiles. That’s why we don’t have a hero flavor, but instead worked with our flavor house over two years to create 12 SKUs of signature, inventive flavors ranging from classic (Cherry Pop, Gingery Ale) to unconventional (Sour Blueberry, Blackberry Jam) to floral (Strawberry Basil, Pear Elderflower) that appeal to a wide range of ages and palates. Our Variety Pack subscription ensures that people can try new flavors, without sacrificing their routine or convenience.

The Pear Elderflower soda was inspired by “visions of manicured topiary gardens and just-so French country cottages.”
Courtesy of United Sodas of America

The company’s one-year anniversary is coming up this month. What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned in the past year? And can we expect any new products or flavors in the near future?

It’s been a very interesting year, to say the least. We’re not done learning, never will be. At this exciting one-year mark, here are a few things we think are working for us. This year, we have kept the team as small and smart as possible. [The fewer] cooks the better, especially when you’re just learning about your business. Instead of hiring a lot of full-time employees all at once, we rely on a phenomenal network of outsourced and factional partners to help us make the magic happen. The shape of the business completely changes every three months, so this approach has allowed us to flex, morph, and grow easily throughout the year.

We’re a creatively led team and that has been a huge differentiator for us. Many of us are musicians, designers, DIYers, writers, etc.—unique in the beverage industry, which is dominated by operational thinking. This means we tend to begin new initiatives from a creative, consumer-centric place and make them operationally sound versus the other way around. We did from the start, and it led to our most differentiated choices from the number and kinds of flavors we offer, to the variety pack experience, to our in-house audiovisual project, Sodascapes.

Lastly, even though we launched as a digital-native brand, we have really embraced the importance and enchantment of a real-world presence for the brand. We moved into physical distribution more quickly than anticipated because the market demanded it of us. Then we shifted media dollars to support huge, colorful OOH [out-of-home] placements, which were extremely successful for us with both consumer and industry audiences. In a world where brands are primarily communicating through screens, a physical presence has a special magic to it right now. We are here for it.

‘Everyone is a soda drinker at heart,’ Zupan told Fortune in 2020. ‘People just didn’t have the right soda to drink anymore.’
Courtesy of United Sodas of America

Fundraising is arduous in normal times, and during an economic crisis is an even more excruciating challenge. How is United Sodas funded, and how has fundraising gone for your company in the last year?

Our company is privately self-funded, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future, so there’s no new information to share at this time.

Looking ahead, where do you see United Sodas in five years?

We can’t share all of our plans for world domination, but I will say that we absolutely intend to completely change how people think about and what they expect from American soda brands. It’s one step at a time, but we’re here to pave the way to a more creative and responsible future for soda.

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