Behind The Label: The Juice Bubble

Over the past few years, the juice industry has exploded and unless you’ve been hiding under a rock you’ve been splashed by the pulpy green drink. You have probably noticed the crazy number of juice companies popping up and seen the hordes of healthy hipsters sipping brightly colored liquids from clear bottles. A juicy gold rush is happening right now.

In 2011 juice was $2.25 billion market - today it is  $5 billion business, and still growing by 4-8 percent a year. But I must admit, I’m a skeptic. Maybe because I don’t crave liquid kale (especially at a dollar an ounce)- but I just don’t get it. 

Who is drinking $5 billion worth of juice?

In this Dieline investigative report I dive into the brimming, bubbling world of juice, asking questions, making juicy puns (I apologize in advance), and trying to figure out what’s in the koolaid everyone is drinking. How much juice can this niche, young-but-affluent, urban-but-vaguely-health-conscious hipster demographic really drink? I interviewed juice-drinkers, juice-pressers, and juice investors to get the bottom of these murky, broccoli-infested waters.

Much like frozen yogurt and cupcakes before it, the juice trend is sprouting up everywhere. There are new companies and copy-cats. Starbucks is launching a juice line, Jamba Juice is repositioning itself as a juice bar. Celebrities endorse it. Russell Simmons says he drinks green vegetable juices "morning, noon and night," and keeps the refrigerator in his Maybach stocked with juice. But how long until juice meets the fate of Froyo and cupcakes?

It is expensive. It is only vaguely healthy, tending to be high in sugar, low in fiber and protein. And strangest of all - every juice brand looks exactly the same. You’d think that if you are facing stiff competition, offering a similar product at a similar price to the same small niche -you’d at least try to make your product stand out through branding and design. But take a look. Notice any similarities?

So if you want to start a juice company you need a clear bottle, a sans serif typeface, and an overhead photographer. 

Don’t get me wrong. The design is great. I love it. The designers did a good job conveying the values of the product through the design. The design imputes freshness, crispness, lightness.  And design is integral to all of these brands. But what is the role the design plays here? 

The interesting thing about design is that it can play two roles that are almost complete opposites.  Design has the ability to enhance a product or to distract from it’s shortcomings.  It can be the product itself, ingrained from its inception - or it can just be a shiny covering meant to seduce and divert.

So what are you really buying? Is juice really about juice or is just about something else? 

A private equity investor I interviewed for this story decided against investing in a juice startup because it lacked the substance that separates trends from sustainable businesses.

I agree with the PE investor. People aren’t buying juice; they are buying the design- specifically what the design represents.  Juice is a status symbol. And the stranger the juice, the better. One of the most popular drinks at Juice Served Here is a charcoal lemonade, which is black and literally has charcoal in it. The people I interviewed fiercely believe in juicing with a Scientologists devotion. They attribute all kinds of improvements in their life to drinking juice: better sleep, clearer skin, better teeth, more energy, better moods. 

Juice isn’t a drink - it’s a lifestyle. The bottle is product. Design is what people are buying; the juice is just a by-product, a vehicle for the symbol.

After tasting through a dozen juices, my skin wasn’t better, my teeth were the same, (though slightly greener). I was not converted. It wasn’t horrible. Some were palatable - but none was good enough to put in the fridge of my Maybach- if I had one.

Juice is a bubble. Even though it is growing at break-neck speed, even though Coca Cola’s market-share is contracting, many of the juiceries popping up will soon be gone. But since juice is about a lifestyle, it is competing more with spas than with sodas. In this view, the high price tag is understandable. A bottle of juice is much cheaper than a day at the spa. And the importance of design is undeniable. The design is everything. A bottle of juice is a ticket into a lifestyle - a fresh, healthy, light, lean lifestyle. In our crowded cluttered world, it is more important than ever to be able to cut, press, and strain out the meaning from the madness.  A bottle of juice is a small piece of a refined sense of life- a life where your skin is clear, where you sleep better and you always feel fresh and full of energy.  That life is so appealing. I’d do anything to get a taste of that life- I guess even drink a bottle of kale juice.

By Grant Van Sant
Editor at Large, The Dieline

Grant is from Los Angeles but divides his time between New York, Nashville, Sydney and Florence. He studied film at NYU and writing at Vanderbilt.

He has worked as a brand strategist on both the client and agency side. He has done design and video work for Nike, IBM, and has advised numerous startups. Grant has written for Huffington Post, Business of Fashion, and Cultural Capital. 
Stay up to date with Grant's latest projects at The Acme AgencyInstagram, and Twitter.