25 year-old Italian von Grebmer was nominated for this year’s award by a colleague and won praise from the general manager of Sensient Flavors Scandinavia. He then won a popular vote on BeverageDaily.com by a significant margin.
He told us today that the win was “really a great honor – so thank you for organizing the awards!” But what’s Akuō’s back story and its 'Drink to Think' manifesto, and what sparked von Grebmer’s interest in the beverage industry?
“It’s an industry that’s so close to the customer – it’s so amazing that people can touch, feel a drink. How much closer can you get to someone than producing something that ends up inside their stomach?" he says.
"It’s really a vehicle also for communicating a lifestyle or certain messages to a higher number of people."
Stockholm the startup hub
Although he hails from South Tyrol in Italy, von Grebmer moved to Sweden 2.5 years ago to study at Stockholm School of Economics (SSE), where he met Akuō’s other three co-founders - together they run Six Beverages - and conceived then developed the drink.
“Stockholm is really entrepreneurial, one of the biggest hubs for start-ups. That’s why we decided to stay, actually, rather than go to London or Berlin – we were considering these places,” he tells me.
“The competition here is definitely less here than in, say, London, where functional drinks are so big. Beyond market size there’s also consumer preference. Swedes in general are really into healthy living and certain functional foods,” von Grebmer says.
“We saw that our drink matched with societal trends in a way – with people prepared to pay for quite a premium product with fairly low price sensitivity,” he adds.
Drink designed to deliver Zenlike focus
von Grebmer explains that Six Beverages wanted Akuō to provide the “Zenlike focus” Japanese monks draw from green tea, with its functional benefits the direct solution to the pressures of study at SSE.
“It was really intense, really stressful – we had a lot of side projects, working part-time as well. It felt like it was a constant struggle to stay sharp, perform at the level we expected to,” he says.
“We’re all into healthy living and sports, etc., but wanted to find something that helped us perform better but was still healthy. We fixed our own problem – creating the perfect drink to think, to consume while you work.”
Describing the drink's taste he pinpoints green tea as the predominant flavor, with some fruitiness, freshness and sour notes. “It tastes quite light, fresh and herbal. People say to us they’ve never tried anything like it before.”
With its vitamin complex and nods towards mental alertness, von Grebmer concedes that Akuō could have been positioned as a healthy energy drink, but he says this would have been wrong.
“When you think of energy drinks you think of people jumping down cliffs, the consumption occasion would probably be in a club – there’s usually a lot of caffeine, a lot of sugar. You get a bit jittery, and too active for sitting in front of your computer and doing some mental work,” he says.
“We wanted to make it clear to people that Akuō wasn’t something you’d drink at 3am to stay awake so you can drive your car. This is a drink to consume while you study or want to be creative,” he adds.
Finessing this point slightly, von Grebmer explains that Six Beverages wants to “stand for lifestyle, to help people to get more done in less time – a lifestyle where you work with real focus for less time”.
“What we do in our office is work four hours a day, but use time management skills. We only check emails once a day, to really get things done in these four hours. Then you go home earlier, do some brainstorming, pursue your hobby, whatever,” he says.
“We stand for the end of the burnout society. Offices are stressful places with deadlines, distractions. We want to do something against that. In the past we’ve worked 12 hour days, then looked at the output and thought ‘We haven’t actually done that much!’ It doesn’t make sense to work so much, unless you work manually.”
Drink to Think! Using the bottle to communicate the effect
Principles are well and good, but how does the packaging communicate these values. Sure, the glass bottle is distinctive. But wasn’t Six concerned that consumers might see Akuō as a little medicinal, a little cough medicine-like?
“It could be interpreted as cough medicine," von Grebmer replies, laughing. "But we wanted to communicate, through the packaging, that this is a drink that has an effect. So people look at it and think: ‘This is a functional drink that does something to me!'”
“It could put some people off. But we’d rather put some people off and stand out, in a way, than make something that’s quite nice that doesn’t even get noticed on the shelf.”
The first batch of Akuō is now on sale at two cafes in Stockholm, sold from 25 SEK ($2.95) to 35 SEK. It's outselling everything but coffee at the Stockholm School of Economics café – and von Grebmer says Six Beverages is in contact with several Swedish retailers and searching for investors.
“This industry is really tough, it takes time to develop and we’re a really small player. It’s going to be a really interesting journey to extend distribution and get financing in as well,” he says.
While the drink is sold at 25 SEK at the university café, it’s being sold at 35 SEK in the other outlet (Hälsohörnan) and von Grebmer says the price could rise as high as 40-45 SEK.
'We don't want to be super expensive - but definitely premium!'
“We don’t want to be super expensive, but definitely premium – we have to be premium to reflect the glass bottles, expensive ingredients (extracts and so on). We don’t have much choice – we’ll never be able to compete on price due to the product quality,” he says.
“Froosh is on shelves at 25 SEK, Red Bull at 23 SEK – so we’re at the upper end. But if you grab a cappuccino in Stockholm you can pay 35 SEK, and sometimes even more. We think we can extend distribution in cafes that fit our branding, and sell directly into workplaces in the short-term.
“Long term – we want to focus first on Sweden, but then as soon as possible (perhaps next year), go into international markets such as the UK, because we believe if it works in Sweden it can also work abroad.”
Summing up his passion for Akuō and the brand’s values, von Grebmer says: “People are much more cautious nowadays regarding what they put into their bodies. You can’t just sell sugar water as per the olden days and fool your consumers.
“The whole team and I stand behind this and drink it every day. It provides health, quality, naturalness. It would be great to see the industry moving more in this direction. That’s what excites me, in terms of working on Akuō,” he adds.