This CBD Seltzer Brand Wants to Build a Media Empire
When Benjamin Witte founded Recess, a company that sells sparkling water infused with hemp, he didn’t want to do the obvious thing.
The traditional move would have been to invest in aggressive field marketing (“put cans in hands”) or play up the novelty that his drink contains ingredients from cannabis — or even just embrace being a beverage company in the first place.
But Witte doesn’t view Recess as a CBD product or a beverage brand or a consumer-packaged-goods company. In fact, talking to him, you get the sense that selling canned seltzer is almost incidental to Recess’ larger mission — building a media company to inspire the creative community.
Since starting two years ago, Recess has tried to underscore this by launching an apparel line, creating a pop-up retail space with themed programming, collaborating with a luxury pet company to make dog treats, co-creating a zen-like computer game, sharing surreal posts on Instagram and, most recently, preparing for a big push into editorial, which Witte promised will be an extension of the brand’s idiosyncratic voice.
You won’t see many Recess ads in traditional channels, though, partly due to platform standards limiting the advertisement of cannabis products — and because Witte is determined to keep things off kilter.
The plan, Witte told me, is to get consumers saying: “Who are these weird people that come up with all this shit? I’ll have what they’re having.”
Creating a Vibe
Each pastel-colored, matte-textured can of Recess contains 10 milligrams of broad-spectrum hemp extract (derived from the non-psychoactive part of cannabis and legal at the federal level), along with ginseng, L-theanine and lemon balm. But the ingredients aren’t what Recess is selling.
“[CBD] is just a compound, no more interesting than caffeine, protein or vitamin C,” Witte said.
Soon, the novelty of CBD will wear off, and Witte is keen on positioning Recess so that its relevance doesn’t fade along with it.
That’s why the copy on Recess’ website tries to create a vibe — “we canned a feeling,” “calm cool collected,” “an antidote to modern times” — rather than draw attention to the drink’s features.
When we spoke, Witte rattled off a list of some of the most successful beverage brands in the world — Red Bull, Gatorade, Coca-Cola, Grey Goose, Corona. They don’t market their ingredients, he said. They market how they make people feel.
“These brands are effectively all media companies that monetize through selling cans,” he added. “The best brands transfer an emotion, and media is a very good way to do that.”
Generating Organic Buzz
Beverage brands are some of the biggest spenders in television and out-of-home advertising. Their goal is to stay top of mind so that shoppers instinctively know what to reach for next time they’re in the soda aisle. But awareness is being created somewhere else now: “That’s in your phone, on social, through word of mouth,” Witte said.
When Recess was getting off the ground — it had a DTC-only launch, knowing most of its sales would eventually come through traditional retail — Witte shied away from investing dollars in field marketing (think Red Bull brand ambassadors handing out product on college campuses) and instead leaned into establishing a weird Instagram presence.
Witte wants Recess to define the category, and he doesn’t think you can do that by following the well-worn social media path.
“You’re not going to do that by just running Instagram ads,” he said. “Everything we do is like, how can we think differently to break through?”
“I look at our Instagram strategy as a social commentary on the Millennial existence.”
Recess started creating Instagram content with no staged product photos, but lots of weird Millennial humor — like an image of a crowd of worshipers bowing before a robed can of pomegranate hibiscus, or of a pencil with an eraser on both ends, the caption reading, “Sometimes paring down is more important than adding more.”
It’s not the sort of stuff you’d expect from a beverage company: “They don’t have anything to say,” Witte said.
“I look at our Instagram strategy as a social commentary on the Millennial existence,” he added. “We’re speaking to the issues that we’re all going through that lead to stress and anxiety in a very unique, Recess way.”
Witte said that, in the early days, his business partners pulled him aside and expressed concern.
“‘Why do you have people in your office making Instagrams? They should be out in the street,’” he recounted. “I’m like, ‘Trust me, that’s how it’s gonna work.’”
Today, Recess has about 75,000 followers on Instagram.
Investing in Collabs
After establishing its Instagram presence, Witte set the company’s sights on experiential marketing. It would become Recess’ first foray into collaborations, now a cornerstone of its marketing strategy.
In February of 2019, Recess launched Recess IRL, a pop-up retail space in Manhattan meant to serve as a community gathering place for artists and creative professionals. Recess partnered with other brands to host events and programming several nights a week. Those collaborations in turn helped drive more visitors and increase media attention, which was by design.
“I didn’t come from [the beverage industry], but I can look at what is happening in the other parts of the consumer world — whether it’s media or fashion and streetwear — and see how brands are being built and scaled, and I think it’s in large part through collaborations,” Witte said.
“Everything we do is like, how can we think differently to break through?”
Recess launched an apparel line, called Realitywear, in the spring of 2020. The line came with 20 clothing items, 17 of which were produced in house and three that came from a collaboration with Extra Vitamins, a streetwear brand.
Recess also partnered with Max Bone, a high-end pet supply retailer, to create CBD dog treats, which were sold through both Recess’ and Max Bone’s online stores. And it teamed up with online radio station Poolside FM to create a cloud-popping game with retro tunes streaming in the background.
Recess created specific merchandise for these collaborations, giving it an extra revenue stream. But more importantly, perhaps, it found a way to connect with the like-minded audiences of other brands. And it didn’t introduce itself to them as the sparkling water company, either.
As for paid media, Recess started budgeting for that in the spring of 2020, but, even so, very few dollars go in that direction, Witte said.
“We want to begin to scale paid media more,” he added. “But I’d rather allocate our time and our resources toward doing collaborations.”
Building an Editorial Voice
Key to Recess’ strategy is “building an audience through our content and then monetizing our content through e-commerce,” Witte told Retail Brew earlier this year.
Last fall, Recess began regularly sending a newsletter to online customers and people who signed up for it on the company’s website. The newsletter offers a mix of original thoughts and curated links and is written in the same tongue-in-cheek voice people have grown familiar with through Recess’ Instagram. It has around 60,000 subscribers, the company told Built In.
Recess also had plans to roll out a full editorial website earlier this year, but the coronavirus put that on hold. The site is already built, Witte said, adding that it “looks like Recess’ version of Vice.”
“Once you have that inkling of a brand voice and that perspective on the world, that is very scalable.”
If Witte gets his way, Recess’ investment in content will help it reinforce its personality, around which it will build and scale a loyal audience.
He thinks Recess can take a page out of the playbook of Barstool Sports, the media company led by Dave Portnoy that started as a small, gambling-focused print publication but is now worth $450 million and generates revenue through websites, podcasts, videos and merchandise.
Witte thinks Barstool Sports could be the next big media empire — and it’s because everything it does is built on top of Dave Portnoy’s brand voice.
“The tone of El Presidente [Portnoy’s irreverent persona] is the tone of an entire brand now, and his writers are under orders to follow that lead,” reads a Boston Globe article from Barstool’s early days.
“[Portnoy] has a way of speaking about the world, a set of issues he speaks about,” Witte added. “He’s not trying to speak to everyone. He’s trying to speak to a specific audience. ... But once you have that inkling of a brand voice and that perspective on the world, that is very, very, very scalable.”
Witte hopes that Recess’ Instagram, newsletter, editorial website, collabs and merch all add up to solidify a unique and differentiated brand voice, one that fans — creative types, especially — want more of and can form a community around.
Ultimately, Recess wants to sell a point of view, not a seltzer. The latter is something consumers can easily move on from over time, but the former is something that’s more enduring, something a loyal audience will always want to drink to the dregs.