Nuun is launching a new mainstream ad campaign to communicate to consumers why daily, proactive hydration is critical.
In 2021, Nestlé Health Science acquired the Nuun hydration-products brand. Founded in 2014, Nuun is known for its just-add-to-water electrolyte effervescent tablets that help keep consumers hydrated. At March’s Natural Products Expo West trade show in Anaheim, CA, the brand rolled out its newest offering, for the first time branching out into a mix-in powder for its flagship Nuun Sport Hydration product.
Anthony Iannello, Nuun’s director of brand marketing, explained why the company decided to introduce its first mix-in powder. The mix-in powder, he said, is even more portable than the effervescent tablets. Whereas the tablets come in a tube of 10 tablets—already very portable—the mix-in powder is even more convenient in stick packs that let customers carry around single servings at a time. Product-wise, another difference is that the tablets are effervescent, providing a carbonated experience, while the mix-in powder is not.
There’s another way the mix-in powder stands out. “The powders are actually being categorized as a food versus a supplement, which allows the brand to make some stronger claims around hydration as a food supplement,” Iannello said. The company calls the powder an “electrolyte drink mix” instead of, say, an “electrolyte supplement.” It's positioned as a food much in the way that other sports powders are positioned as food.
Vishal Patel, Nuun’s director of product development, explained why the company is heading in this direction. “By classifying it as a food, we can make more compliant claims around it being a drink mix—that it’s for hydration, that it’s for water,” he said. This communicates to the consumer that a hydration product like Nuun is more than just a supplement.
“With supplements—technically, you don’t need to take supplements, right?” Patel said. “They’re meant to supplement your diet. When you add the word supplement, in my opinion, people think they don’t need it. It’s like, ‘Okay, I can supplement this, but maybe I’m already getting enough electrolytes in XYZ.’…But with food, you need food to live. You need hydration to live. So when you have products that fit in that category, it’s not an added supplement; it should be more regularly in your food intake…The proper positioning for the product should be a food because hydration is a necessity.”
By portraying hydration as a daily requirement and not just a supplemental concern, Nuun is expanding its audience to all people, not just sports enthusiasts. “Our positioning is around proactive hydration and trying to make hydration a daily need state,” Iannello said. “Being a food plays more into that—that this is a need, not a supplement to your lifestyle. Hydration is an everyday need.”
This message is the basis of Nuun’s new “But First, Nuun” consumer marketing campaign, which the company is now rolling out. “What Nuun is trying to do is educate consumers on the benefits of proactive hydration, on not waiting until you’re at a point where you need to replenish, recover, or rehydrate,” Iannello explained.
This is a departure from how hydration products have been marketed. Typically, he said, “the hydration category has been positioned as either being 1) seasonal, as in it’s only needed when it’s really hot out; 2) occasional, as in I only need it after I exercise to replenish; or 3) reactive, as electrolytes for post-exercise. It’s been about replenishing, recovering.”
“What we really want to preach,” he continued, “is that daily, proactive hydration is really how consumers should view that need state.”
With more consumers paying attention to health and wellness nowadays, now is an opportune time to spread that message. “It’s interesting,” Iannello said, “Hydration has really come to the forefront recently with consumers as being the number-one health and wellness strategy for 2023…I think there [are reports] that 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated, and I think if you surveyed 10 folks, you’d probably hear 7 or 8 of them say, ‘Yeah, I have headaches,’ or ‘I’m groggy because I’m not hydrating enough.’”
How Is the Hydration Category Evolving?
The hydration category itself has changed over the years. Whereas hydration used to just mean “sports drinks,” today, Iannello said, Nuun sees the category more as “functional hydration.”
“Now you’ve got this functional-hydration segment, which includes Nuun, and it’s grown exponentially. It straddles more than one aisle of the store. Retailers are still trying to find the right place to sell it,” he said. “And it’s exciting.”
Promoting the benefits of functional hydration will benefit the entire market, Iannello said. “I look at it as a rising tide lifts all ships. As awareness of functional hydration grows, it’s only going to benefit a brand like Nuun…That’s partly why we are so excited about this ‘But First, Nuun’ campaign and this core insight of proactive hydration, because we feel that a lot of the competitors really talk about hydration as reactive. And this is an opportunity for Nuun to occupy a white space and really help consumers reshape how they perceive hydration as a daily need state, as a daily habit.”
Another way Nuun changed the market, he said, was by separating the concept of electrolyte replacement and carbohydrates, opening the door to hydration beverages without a lot of extra sugar.
“Historically,” Iannello explained, “the sports drinks category was very much built on an optimal formula that includes carbohydrates in addition to the electrolytes.”
Patel added, “When you look at sports drinks—the traditional ones like Gatorade, etc., in the 1960s—when they wanted to create a sports drink, they wanted to do two things. One, they know that electrolytes help with hydration, almost solely replenishing what you lose in your sweat and help with the absorption of fluid. Second, sugar and carbs help with energy. Gatorade was developed for football players who need a higher amount of carbohydrates because it’s a really high-intensity sport. So they essentially just combined those two. They said, ‘Let’s just put energy and electrolytes in there.’”
But an effective electrolyte product doesn’t need enormous amounts of sugar; it just needs a small amount of carbohydrate to activate the electrolytes’ absorption and render them useful in the body.
Glucose does aid absorption, Patel said. “Yes, the glucose will help,” he explained. “Water and electrolytes will absorb passively. There are two types of absorption—active, when you need something to speed it up, and passive, like when we drink water it’s going to absorb. It’s going to take time, because depending on your hydration status, it may have to pull electrolytes or even glucose from your small intestine to absorb it. We know that, in the absence of sugar, it’s going to absorb, but when you add a little bit of sugar—we feel like it’s the 1 g we’ve done a lot of research on—it activates a mechanism where it turns from passive absorption to active absorption…So when you combine that glucose with that sodium molecule, it just speeds things up.” Absent the presence of glucose, he said, the body will still absorb electrolytes, just more slowly, and your body may feel somewhat bloated, which is “just your body telling you that it needs something to pull the water into circulation,” he said.
But, again, that doesn’t mean consumers need a super high amount of carbohydrates in their electrolyte products. Over the past 10 years, Nuun has done clinical research to identify what it believes is the most effective ratio of electrolytes and sugar. Its products are formulated with just 1 g of sugar, which it believes is all that’s needed to aid electrolyte absorption.
It’s also allowed Nuun to set itself apart from other higher-sugar hydration products on the market. The brand touts its products as containing 90% less sugar than “the leading electrolyte drink mix.” Less sugar also benefits consumers who may experience gastrointestinal issues when drinking overly-sugared products, Patel added.
Essentially, he said, by giving consumers the option of a product that focuses mainly on electrolytes and not carbohydrates, it gives them flexibility to take Nuun for electrolytes and then to consume carbohydrates in other ways. For instance, Patel said, consumers could eat a nutrition bar or a banana to boost carbohydrates. “And then leave Nuun to just the hydration,” he said.