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How this CBD company created a buzz by 'kind of making fun of millennial culture'

Emily McCormick

Ask Benjamin Witte about Recess, and one of the first places he’ll send you is the company’s Instagram page.

The profile is filled with graphic-designed imagery in a panoply of pastel hues. In some images, cans of Recess are personified and dressed in suits or propped up in office chairs or shown wistfully looking out of windows. Recess’s style guide dictates that only a strict set of sunset-inspired pantones can be used, and that beverage cans can only be personified with certain humanoid features – cans are just showed with closed-mouth smiles – no teeth allowed – for instance.

The surrealist imagery of Recess’s Instagram and main website is intended to capture the central narrative of the brand, that “the world’s gone crazy, and we all need a Recess,” Witte, CEO and founder of the beverage company, said during an interview on Yahoo Finance Breakouts.

“In some ways, it’s kind of making fun of millennial culture and millennial branding,” he said. One of the company’s mottos is that its drinks are an “antidote to modern times.”

Call it over the top, but the brand story is central to Recess’s sales strategy. The one-year-old CBD-infused sparking water brand based in New York hasn’t spent any money on traditional advertising and has so far leaned on word-of-mouth referrals and its Instagram following of about 50,000 to gain traction for its fizzy drinks.

Recess has raised about $6 million in seeding funding from as-yet undisclosed investors. It amassed a backlog of 5,000 orders and did 40 times projected sales in its first month beginning in October last year, Witte said, although further financials haven’t been disclosed.

“We launched direct to consumer only off our website, out of my apartment, two blocks away, deliberately,” Witte said during the interview in New York’s Soho neighborhood. “Many distributors wanted to meet with us, many retailers wanted to meet with us. And I, on purpose, said no.”

“I wanted ... consumers’ first interaction with our brand to be our website and our Instagram, because that's kind of what conveys the mission and the purpose and conveys, kind of, the emotion of what ‘taking a Recess’ is,” Witte said.

The digitally native strategy harkens back to Witte’s early career in advertising-related roles. Before Recess, Witte’s first job out of college was at “a three-person startup that was building an influencer marketing platform,” he said.

“It’s one of those things that was like the right idea at the wrong time,” Witte said. “We launched on MySpace, to give you a sense of where the world was.”

‘Built on your phone’

The focus on Recess’s social media presence and messaging reflects the current direction of consumer discoverability of products and echoes the initial strategies of other brands like glasses company Warby Parker and shoe-maker AllBirds, both of which have now reportedly been valued north of $1 billion.

Other beverage brands like Dirty Lemon also first launched online (although CEO Zak Normandin previously told Yahoo Finance that Instagram’s influencer glut and changes to the algorithm to move away from the chronological feed have made it less “effective now as it was before” for customer acquisition).

Each of these companies has picked up on an underlying trend – many consumers’ introductions to a new product are through a screen, not in a store.

Recess beverage (courtesy of Recess)
Recess beverage (courtesy of Recess)

“There’s been a shift today,” Witte said. “Brands used to be built on the shelf. Today they’re built on your phone, and that changes everything.”

But over the past year, Recess has also built out a retail presence. Its 12-ounce cans are now available in thousands of stores on the East Coast and in California (including in restaurants and bars Witte said are his personal favorites, like Surf Lodge in the Hamptons).

The company opened a pop-up shop called “Recess IRL” (or text-speak for “in real life”) earlier this year in New York’s Soho, where Recess hosted live events like comedy shows and art exhibits. Recess IRL stayed open for eight months, after initially planning just a two-month run. That too, Witte said, had been mostly an exercise in brand-building.

“It’s a place for people to sample and buy the product, but that’s by far the least important,” Witte said. He’s planning another Recess IRL pop-up, in a location yet to be determined.

“Everything we do at Recess is designed to, kind of, create earned media and buzz,” Witte said. “Right now, CBD, you can like slap it on the label and sell some products, but over time it's going to be like every other category where, kind of, brands win.”

Emily McCormick is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @emily_mcck

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