On this podcast, we talk about what Swoon uses to replace sugar in their iced teas and lemonades, pivoting from a sugar-free simple syrup to drinks, having a setup of selling on their online store but checking out on Amazon, and so much more!
After working in finance at Goldman Sachs and sharpening her operational skills at consumer technology start-up FanVision, Jennifer Ross co-founded Swoon, where she oversees product development, operations, and finance.
A longtime advocate for the advancement of diabetes research and a supporter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), in high school, she founded and organized Rock the Cure, a concert to benefit JDRF, which raised over $200,000.
Swoon, a zero sugar take on nostalgic beverages like lemonade and iced tea, is her latest way to make an impact. Swoon is now sold nationally and is on track to take one billion grams of sugar out of the supply chain.
In This Conversation We Discuss:
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We did a lot of marketing without really having a lot of distribution and so again that didn't necessarily work.
Yes, it creates buzz but ultimately, you wanna be able to drive somewhere for people to buy it.
Welcome to Honest Ecommerce, a podcast dedicated to cutting through the BS and finding actionable advice for online store owners. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. And I believe running a direct-to-consumer brand does not have to be complicated or a guessing game.
On this podcast, we interview founders and experts who are putting in the work and creating real results.
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Hey everybody, welcome back to another episode of Honest Ecommerce. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. And today we're welcoming to the show, Jennifer Ross. She is the co-founder of Swoon.
Welcome to the show.
Thanks so much for having me, Chase.
Absolutely. So let's dive in. What types of products are you bringing to market over there at Swoon?
Yeah, so Swoon is a line of zero sugar lemonades and iced teas. We've really thought about reinventing the classic drinks, but just without sugar.
Absolutely. Now, I am a nerd and I know a little bit about this industry. What are you using to get the sweetness?
So we use monk fruit, which is a fruit native to Southeast Asia. It looks like a hairy gourd, if you will.
Not the most attractive, but it's 200 times sweeter than sugar.
And so you get a little bit just... A little bit of sweetness without that glycemic index.
Absolutely. Yeah, I've heard of that. And now is that also the same...
Is one of those byproducts that got the same result like stevia or that type of sweetener?
No. So, that's from like the stevia plant. So again, they're all like kind of sweetener alternatives, if you will, but all have a little bit of a different taste. They come from a different plant or fruit.
And then a lot of times you'll see the sweeteners mixed with an erythritol or a sugar alcohol that those have sometimes can have digestive issues.
So we don't use any of that.
Absolutely, yeah. I was on the keto diet for a long time. So this is a very interesting path for me, but enough about that.
Actually, Swoon is keto-friendly. (laughs)
Yeah. Let's... Take me back in time to where the idea to start a sugar-free lemonade came from.
So I'm type one diabetic and I was diagnosed when I was 6. So I feel like I've spent my entire life having every zero sugar drink under the sun like everything from Crystal Light to Diet Snapple, Vitamin Water Zero...
And then really, as I got older, I really realized it's not just me that sugar is bad for, that I can't have sugar. 2/3 of adult Americans are pre-diabetic.
And so much of that is a direct result of diet and exercise. And when I talk about diet, it's consuming excess sugar. And sugary drinks are actually the number one source of that excess sugar.
So our thought is "If we could offer people a great tasting drink that didn't feel like a diet drink or something that they were compromising on, they would be doing so much service to their own health now and in the future."
So again, that really was the reason for it. I remember vivid memories of being in elementary school and sneaking that pink lemonade that had 40 grams of sugar, which is just crazy because there really weren't any other options.
So again, we really wanted to create something that was fun and celebratory, but better for you.
So take me back in time. How long did it go from this idea of "Alright, I'm going to do this. I'm going to make a sugar free product." to actually get a sample in your hands.
Yeah, so our path, like everyone's, was a little bit windy. We started with a different product. We started with a cocktail mixer, sort of like the height of the Skinnygirl and craft cocktails.
And then actually from there, really working with bartenders, and chefs, and mixologists and actually making a zero sugar simple syrup.
Simple syrup, for those that don't know, is literally sugar and water but it is the basis of almost all cocktails.
And so we spent about 2 years working on the R&D of a monk fruit-based simple syrup so that it had the mouthfeel, the viscosity, and taste of a simple syrup made with sugar. And so actually in May 2020, now I can't get the dates (laughs)...
Right before the pandemic, we were actually going to be launching a product that was specifically for a food service that was with this Swoon syrup.
And obviously the world changed and that was not going to be something that made sense for us to do, given what was happening with food service.
So we really went back to the drawing board and felt like "Okay, what can we do?" And as we thought about it, we really realized that we had been sampling all these customers on a simple syrup with a lemonade.
We were doing water, freshly squeezed lemons, and Swoon syrup. And we always got the feedback of "Can you bottle this? Can you make this? I want to buy it."
And at the time we were so focused on the syrup, but that really then gave us this idea. So it was really in May that we said, "Okay, let's do this", started really the formulation on it, and then we ended up launching in August 2020.
And we started directly online. And we did have some accounts. We're based in New York. So in the New York area.
Is the sugar simple syrup the basis... Not only just lemonade, but most sodas are based with a simple syrup.
Most sodas, you have sugar. So yes, basically all... Anything [that is] not a diet soda uses sugar. And sodas and juices can have 40 grams of sugar, which is more than a Snickers bar. And so our thought is...
And that's more sugar than anyone should be consuming in one day. So it's like, [if] we can just help people replace one of those sugary drinks, that would be doing such a big help.
Awesome. So a real quick turnaround there to get the product in hand, because you would add... I guess you had accidentally made it already.
We'd accidentally made it and so we had been thinking about it. And again, we have an awesome designer in house. And so she was really able to quickly...
We went through so many iterations of it. But it was like we were in our own home doing stuff over Zoom.
But it was a very quick turnaround time.
Absolutely. So once you got the product out to market, obviously, it was in the middle of the pandemic.
How were you getting the word out about this project? How are you getting customers to the site and trying to walk them through the funnel?
I mean, we tried a lot of different things. And we've done a lot, like I said, In the beginning. It was online as well as in store and it continues to be, but really everything from Facebook, to Instagram, to organic PR, sending it to some influencers, which we've definitely ramped up over time. But really just...
And again, also tapping back into our existing customer base because we did have our mixer customers so it was going back out to them, retargeting them on that had previously been to our site of "Hey, you guys are interested in zero sugar mixers. Why don't you try this line of lemonades?"
I feel like your space is so competitive. How are you guys trying to differentiate and get noticed in that space?
Yeah, I think that beverage, --food and beverage-- and specifically beverage space is very competitive. I think we see ourselves as something that is different in terms of just the product.
We're not flavored water. There's a ton of flavored waters out there. You sort of have a ton of functional drinks. We're really somewhere in the middle.
Just saying like we are zero sugar lemonade and iced teas that you used to grow up loving, but better.
And so again, we're really not necessarily trying to be so much more than that but rather just saying like, "Here's a drink that you used to love, but take out all the sugar."
For everybody that's listening or on YouTube or whatnot, go check out the website. She wasn't kidding when she said that's fantastic design, very interactive.
There's a lot of cool stuff going on there and the products themselves. I'm gonna get some of these myself. I'll order them after the show.
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with launching direct-to-consumer during the pandemic, and then kind of shifting... I hear you've got some aspirations to become a national brand.
How are you guys gonna plan on getting there? What's in the playbook? What's the strategy?
Yeah, so we've been lucky and have been able to get a lot of distribution across the country. I think the thing with beverages, ultimately, they are bought in grocery [stores] at retail.
I think what retail looks like has changed a lot over time with shop and pick up...
Shop online and pick up in stores or the services like Gopuff. So I think there's a lot of different things. But still, so many grocery products are still bought at traditional retail.
And so that always is very much a focus of ours. And so we've been able to gain distribution at Whole Foods. We just launched in Target about 2 months ago, at stores across the country.
We're in Meijer in Michigan, at Mother's in California.
So really, do you have a bunch and again, really always think about how do we pair that retail distribution with marketing, and so much of that is online marketing.
Absolutely. I didn't hear anything in Ohio. So let me know when you guys...
Oh, we do.
We actually do. We're in Heinen..
Okay. Okay. I'll have to track that down. Awesome.
Now, is there anything that I didn't ask you about today that you think is going to register with our audience?
Yeah. So I would say we're actually in an interesting time because we actually just shifted our online store to Amazon.
So we originally sold on our own website, fulfilled ourselves, as well as had Amazon. Recently, we just shifted to basically have our site, we're sending everyone to our site, but have the checkout be on Amazon.
And our thought process on that is really understanding the category. Grocery is different than other D2C different brands, where people are going to individual sites and shopping.
For us again, for groceries, when you're filling your pantry, you're gonna get water, you're gonna get milk, you're gonna get rice.... A bunch of different things.
So where are people going? And again, I think the other thing with beverages, it's super heavy to ship.
So we're always looking at the economics around D2C and what that looks like from end to end.
Absolutely. I think that that is one of the major frustrations that I hear from a lot of founders, and especially in the beverage space. "This thing costs so much to ship." And to make it...
To have customers be able to purchase it at a price point that they are comfortable with without the brand on the other side losing money on the interaction, it's the economies of scale. Taking 12 packs would probably be the smallest amount that I've seen a lot of people get away with.
Exactly. And twelve is hard. Again, it's a beverage. Typically you want to try. You want to buy one can before you purchase 12.
But again, you can't really make that work when you're dealing with it online.
Exactly. Now, over the last couple of years of growing this business, is there anything that stands out to you maybe, potentially, like a mistake?
It's like, "You know what? We tried this, [but] it didn't work. And here's what we had learned from this adventure in growing the brand."
Oh man, we've had so many mistakes (laughs). So I think...
But I do think really also important for this group here is we really do try and think about pairing our marketing with distribution. And I think it is not necessary.
In the beginning, we went...
We did a lot of marketing without really having a lot of distribution. And so again, that didn't necessarily work.
Yes, it creates buzz, but ultimately you want to be able to drive somewhere for people to buy it. And so what we've actually found is that it really...
[It's] not really surprising, but it's great when we do have a saturation in terms of retail distribution.
And that we do also sell online, obviously, in that area too. So that every... It's that people see the brand in multiple places.
They see our Facebook ads, they see our Instagram posts. If we're doing PR, we then work with local influencers to drive them to Target.
So again, it's a lot more 360 and we see the ROI much better than when we're just marketing in places where we don't have any distribution.
Absolutely. Let me parrot that back to you and make sure that I understood it correctly and I'm trying to simplify it for the audience.
So say you're launching in a new chain of grocery stores in Ohio, where I am, right?
You're going to pair that with PR campaigns, with influencers in Ohio and geofence your paid advertising efforts within that same area in Ohio to really, truly try to make the best of that whole situation.
Exactly. And then we also pair that with in-store marketing efforts as well.
Like samplings and stuff like that?
Absolutely. And that's something that seems obvious when you just say it to me like that. But I think you're the first person to be on the show and actually say, "Hey, put it all in one one area that all..."
Everyone talks about omnichannel marketing and it's everywhere. But sometimes, the channels do need to talk to each other.
And back when we were a full-service agency, that was definitely the edge.
It was like, "Okay, if you're running all the things, it makes it way easier to do really cool stuff." And there are pros and cons to that whole thing. That's not what this discussion is about.
But the number one thing is they should still be talking to each other regardless and know what's going on because you can get a lot more creative and like you said, it led to better results.
Awesome. So we're talking about these fantastic teas, and lemonades. I'm thirsty. Where do I go to buy them?
Well, you can buy them on Amazon (laughs). So if you search Swoon on Amazon, or if you go to our website, tasteswoon.com, you can buy them there.
And also on our website, you can put in your address and see where your local grocery store is.
Like you said, you're in Ohio so we have Heinen's and several other grocery stores there.
Absolutely. Jen, thank you so much for coming on the show today.
Thank you so much for having me.
We can't thank our guests enough for coming on the show and sharing their knowledge and journey with us. We've got a lot to think about and potentially add into our own business. You can find all the links in the show notes.
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