One Monday last October, in his home overlooking the Pacific Ocean south of Los Angeles, Mark Rampolla's phone rang repeatedly and emails flooded his inbox. Word had leaked over the weekend that Coca-Cola was discontinuing Zico, the coconut water brand Rampolla had sold to the beverage giant in 2013. Old friends and former colleagues wanted to know how he was taking the news.
The father of two daughters, Rampolla had often joked that Zico was his son. So he felt a twinge of sadness about the brand's foundering under Coke's leadership. But that emotion quickly changed to excitement and hope. The 51-year-old entrepreneur reached out to Coke's mergers and acquisitions group right away, initiating what would become weeks of secret negotiations to reacquire Zico. On New Year's Eve, Rampolla's phone rang once again. That night, he celebrated not just the arrival of 2021 but also another chance to compete in the coconut water business.
Rampolla now serves as chairman of the board of the newly renamed Zico Rising, representing PowerPlant Ventures, which he co-founded in 2015, and which led the acquisition from Coke. Focused on sustainability and plant-based food and beverage products, PowerPlant has invested in billion-dollar companies including Beyond Meat and Thrive Market. In addition, former Naked Juice president Thomas Hicks has signed on as CEO of Zico Rising. He's a good fit for the job, having served as SVP of sales and operations at both Coca-Cola and Monster Energy; Hicks steered Monster's non-energy drinks into Coke's portfolio.
In a matter of months, Rampolla appears to have positioned Zico Rising for success. He's still determined to build it into the leading coconut water company in the world, but more than anything, he's just grateful for the opportunity. "It's sort of poetic justice," he says. "I get another shot to get a lot of this stuff right."
Rampolla didn't really get anything wrong the first time. Selling to Coke was his dream from the beginning, and he made it possible by building Zico into the number-two brand in the coconut water category--now a $1.2 billion market in the U.S., according to Spins, a natural-products market research firm. Sales in the category have suffered single-digit declines every year since peaking in 2016, according to market research firm Euromonitor, but the product remains a pantry staple for millions of consumers.
In 2020, however, Zico's market share stood at just 4 percent, dwarfed by the 60 percent share of longtime competitor Vita Coco, the top coconut water brand for more than a decade.
The rivalry between Rampolla and Vita Coco co-founder and CEO Michael Kirban, 45, is worthy of the Hollywood treatment. Both founded their companies in New York City in 2004 and quickly began knocking off each other's strategies. After Rampolla started selling Zico to yoga studios around the city, Kirban infiltrated the market guerrilla-style, taking yoga classes and passing out free samples. After Kirban succeeded in placing Vita Coco in the city's bodegas, evangelizing the brand while zipping around town on inline skates, Rampolla went after the same stores.
"It was a battle," Rampolla says. "I used to joke that either my kids are going to college or Kirban's kids are going to college."
The race to expand saw both brands reach Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, followed by China, Korea, and the U.K. Wherever one would go, the other would follow. "I remember getting off an elevator in Thailand, and there he was," Rampolla says. "I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me!' "
A one-time Peace Corps volunteer in Central America--where every nation is among the 85 worldwide that grow coconuts--Rampolla routinely drank coconut water while working as an executive in the El Salvador outpost of the U.S. company International Paper. He was the head of Latin American and Caribbean operations for IP's beverage packaging division, a position he held from 2000 to 2004, after which he decided he wanted to start his own business. Rampolla had lots of ideas, but coconut water stood out. Consumers were already looking for healthier beverage options, and coconut water was a natural product with less sugar than traditional sports drinks and the benefit of abundant potassium and electrolytes. An avid cyclist, hiker, and swimmer, Rampolla was already passionate about the product and felt it could have a positive impact around the world.
Though Kirban had also encountered the drink in the tropics, he ended up on the path to becoming a coconut water entrepreneur more by chance. In fact, starting Vita Coco wasn't even his idea. His best friend, Ira Liran, pitched him on the opportunity after following his future wife to her native Brazil, where coconut water was wildly popular. (The couple met in a bar on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where Liran was carousing with Kirban.) Kirban, at the time, was running a software company he'd co-founded, but was looking for his next venture.
Instead of naming the company Vita Coco, Kirban and Liran chose the name All Market Inc. so they could pivot to something else if coconut water failed. Meanwhile, Rampolla was planning to name his company either Vida or Zico. When he saw a website for Vita Coco that said "coming soon," he knew the decision had been made for him. He bought the rights to Zico.com for $1,000 on eBay.
One of the reasons Kirban and Rampolla focused so intently on each other was that they had nearly identical products: pure coconut water in a Tetra Pak, the aseptic carton often used for milk or soup. Founded in Sweden in 1943, Tetra Pak led Europe to adopt its eponymous packaging decades before it became the container of choice for coconut water in Asia as well as South and Central America. The industry newsletter Beveragedaily.com notes that the drink became trendy in Brazil in the 1980s, and its market share has since risen significantly in large part because of Tetra Pak's convenience, light weight, and recyclability. In any case, when Kirban and Rampolla began marketing their brands in the U.S. in the early aughts, the model product was Brazilian.
Though coconut water had been available in the U.S. for years, usually with added sugar and preservatives, its consumer base consisted almost entirely of people from the tropics. Kirban and Rampolla tweaked the formula and began marketing it for broader appeal.
"The genius of what they both did was they positioned it as an active, sports lifestyle product," says John Craven, founder and CEO of BevNet, a beverage trade publication. "There was a backlash from Vitaminwater and Gatorade at the time, and it was like, here's nature's sports drink."
But to push their products into the mainstream, Vita Coco and Zico needed investment capital. In 2007, Vita Coco raised $2 million from the Belgian firm Verlinvest in exchange for a 20 percent stake. Zico struck back in 2009 with a splashy $15 million fundraise led by Coca-Cola, for a similar cut. With access to Coke's resources and distribution platform, Zico appeared poised to win the coconut water wars.
"A lot of people thought it was going to be game over, and that Coke was going to help us absolutely crush them," Rampolla says.
Upon hearing the news, Kirban initially envisioned the evaporation of Vita Coco's future. "That lasted about 10 minutes," he says. "I just got fired up, I got the team together, and we decided we were just going to get more creative and more aggressive."
Within two weeks of Coke's investment in Zico, Kirban met Madonna's manager, Guy Oseary, who put together a group of celebrity investors for Vita Coco that included the singer, actors Matthew McConaughey and Demi Moore, and Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis. The investment totaled about $10 million in exchange for a 10 percent stake in the company, but the publicity boost was priceless. The A-listers mentioned the brand in interview after interview, noting in particular that they drank Vita Coco after working out.
"They weren't on billboards, but they were actively promoting the brand," Kirban says. "Zico was getting distribution we couldn't get, but we were connecting with consumers through music and culture."
Then, in 2010, Vita Coco landed a distribution deal with Dr Pepper Snapple Group. The soft drink company was smaller than Coca-Cola but more nimble, which enabled it to help Vita Coco expand nationwide. Rampolla viewed the deal as a defensive but savvy move by Vita Coco to counter Coke's investment in Zico.
"While Coke was figuring out how to distribute something as small and weird as Zico, Kirban built a nationwide network and had first-mover advantage in a lot of markets," Rampolla says. "He just managed the cards he was dealt brilliantly."
One of the first changes Coca-Cola made to Zico was introducing a from-concentrate version in a plastic bottle. Rampolla didn't love the idea, but shipping concentrate would reduce Zico's carbon footprint, and because natural food stores would continue to carry the original Zico product, Rampolla told himself the change wouldn't bother his customers.
"That was a mistake," Rampolla says. "Kirban played it up to a T and nailed us with it everywhere."
In keeping with the brands' punch-counterpunch pattern, Kirban soon added "Never From Concentrate" to Vita Coco's packaging. By the time Zico's bottle launched, Vita Coco had a point of differentiation literally spelled out on the carton.
"Vita Coco was framed as natural, fresh, and fun, and the other was kind of looking more like a Coke product," Kirban says. "That was another moment that really helped propel us to start to take share."
In 2011, Vita Coco returned to the celebrity-endorsement trough, landing deals with the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez and the pop star Rihanna. The brand moved quickly to sign the singer after a magazine photo surfaced of her holding a stack of Vita Coco cartons in a grocery store. Born and raised in Barbados, where she grew up drinking coconut water, Rihanna would fit naturally as a brand ambassador.
Soon after she and Vita Coco came to terms, Kirban jetted to Jamaica, where Rihanna shot an ad campaign for the brand while also making a music video for her latest song, "Man Down." The video featured Rihanna drinking Vita Coco and walking past street advertisements for the brand that read, "So good for you it's nuts." The campaign spread to billboards in New York, Los Angeles, and London.
"To have the biggest up-and-coming artist at the time as the face of the brand on advertising and in media was really effective," Kirban says, adding that Vita Coco was still a small company in 2011. "It helped start the mainstreaming of coconut water."
In 2013, Coca-Cola purchased the remaining shares of Zico, which at the time had around 20 percent market share in the category. Shortly after the sale went public, something strange happened: Kirban and Rampolla became friends. Their eyes met while they were crossing a street at the Expo West trade show in Anaheim, California, and their nearly decade-long battle de-escalated fast.
"We just gave each other a big hug," Rampolla says.
The following year, Vita Coco sold a 25 percent stake to Red Bull China. The deal valued Vita Coco at about $665 million. That's a lot of coconuts.
Today, Kirban and Liran together own less than 50 percent of Vita Coco, but they've kept the company independent by preventing any investor from owning a majority stake. The brand has posted double-digit revenue growth every year since its founding, except for 2019, according to Kirban, who also says sales in 2020 rose 12 percent.
Meanwhile, Zico has maintained its position as the number-two coconut water, but sales have dropped by double digits for the past several years. Zico ultimately fell victim to Covid-19, which accelerated a strategic change by Coke to focus on "fewer, but bigger and stronger, brands," as Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey explained during an earnings call in July 2020.
Zico's slide under Coke's ownership contributed to the U.S. coconut water market decline (Vita Coco has bucked that trend) from $774 million in 2016 to $658 million in 2020, according to Euromonitor (which uses less comprehensive data than Spins).
"It's definitely taken a pause," says Ken Sadowsky, an investor and adviser to Vita Coco and other brands, including Vitaminwater. But Sadowsky, known in the industry as "the beverage whisperer," expects the category to rebound. "I still think there's innovation using coconut water that will get back into the consumer's mind's eye," he says.
Vita Coco has already opened the faucet on innovation. In 2018, the brand launched the low-calorie, carbonated Vita Coco Sparkling and Vita Coco Pressed, which includes fresh-pressed coconut that adds a piña colada-like flavor. In January, the brand debuted Vita Coco Boosted, with 40 milligrams of caffeine per 16.9-ounce serving.
Asked about the return of Vita Coco's top competitor, Zico Rising, Kirban says he's not overly concerned. He cites one of his company's significant competitive advantages: Building a robust supply chain early on made scaling up easier for Vita Coco than for other brands. He allows that Rampolla could be successful if he attracts new customers to the category, either by selling at a lower price point or in a different format.
For Rampolla, however, talk of his plans for Zico Rising turns quickly to Vita Coco--and Kirban.
"Our society and world thrive on competition, and he needs some," Rampolla says, noting that most categories are led not by one brand but rather by two.
One thing that will be different during the next round of Vita Coco versus Zico is the fact that Kirban and Rampolla are no longer just coconut water entrepreneurs. Rampolla has invested in around 30 companies through PowerPlant Ventures, including the aforementioned Beyond Meat and Thrive Market. And Kirban is building a portfolio of better-for-you beverages at AMI.
When Kirban heard that Rampolla might be buying back Zico, he sent Rampolla a text message asking if the rumor was true. Rampolla said he couldn't comment--the deal wasn't public yet--but Kirban read between the lines.
"Looking forward to competing again," Kirban texted.
Asked about how it felt to get Zico back compared with the feeling of selling to Coke, Rampolla pauses to reflect. Though he celebrated more following the Zico sale, it's always hard for a founder to say goodbye to a brand.
"That really felt like an end," he says. "This feels like a new beginning."