PepsiCo launches hemp energy drink in the US, carving out new direction for the category

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Pepsico Energy drink

PepsiCo’s energy drink Rockstar is launching Rockstar Unplugged: ‘a new kind of energy drink which focuses less on providing a big hit of energy and more focus on enhancing good vibes’.

The drink is made with ingredients such as hemp seed oil, B vitamins, spearmint and lemon balm with 80mg of caffeine per can: much less than other Rockstar Energy drinks which range from 160mg-240mg in a serving. (Rockstar Unplugged's 80mg is comparable to the amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee; or slightly more than a caffeinated soda).

The trendy ingredient list has been shaped to appeal to women and younger consumers, who are typically outside the core energy drink consumer base.

“These elements combined with a fruit-forward energy boost help maintain an easy-going, free-flowing and soul-fueling attitude for any mood or occasion,”​ says PepsiCo, announcing the launch this morning. Rockstar Unplugged comes in three sugar-free flavors: blueberry, passionfruit and raspberry cucumber.

The launch marks PepsiCo’s first US foray into the hemp category after years of speculation that it and fellow giant Coca-Cola could start to dabble in the cannabis beverage categories, which they haven't attempted given the variation of rules between states. Hemp, however, comes from the cannabis family but does not contain THC.

Bringing new drinkers into the category

PepsiCo has been trialing the idea of a hemp beverage in Germany, with the launch of Rockstar Energy + Hemp​ last year. The US hemp energy drink, however, is a different product: instead offering sugar-free version with herbal ingredients over the German version which is based on ginseng, guarana, sugar and taurine.

Fabiola Torres, SVP, GM and GMO of PepsiCo’s Energy Portfolio, told us that the US version has been created by drawing on learnings from the German version and consumer research in the US. 

"Germany and Europe have led the way with a sophisticated market place for new ingredients, so there's a lot of great learnings. But ours is a little bit different than the German version - for example, it's zero sugar, while the proposition in Germany is full sugar.

"We spent a lot of time with our North American consumers about mood management and energy management throughout the day."

As well as designing the launch around North American consumers, the drink has also been shaped with the pandemic in mind: a time where people are staying at home more but working longer hours, and finding themselves not physically tired but mentally tired.

Torres adds that hemp has now gained the necessary status and recognition among consumers needed for a big-company high-powered national launch, although some element of consumer education has still been needed.

New consumers and new occasions

PepsiCo acquired Rockstar for $3.8bn in 2020, calling it a ‘highly strategic’ acquisition as it strengthened its hold in the energy space.

Since then, it has championed a multi-year effort to strengthen the brand and carve out a complementary energy drink to its Mtn Dew and Bang propositions – and a differentiated product from Red Bull and Monster. Last year it overhauled the brand: repositioning and reformulating the product with an international launch and relaunch in the US.

Category blurring

With hemp seed oil, B vitamins, spearmint and lemon balm, Rockstar Unplugged does not necessarily sound like it belongs in the energy drink category. 

Of course, the idea is to offer something that is not a traditional energy drink, pushing this idea of a new energy drink category.

But the energy drink label still stands, says Torres.

"We want to keep it as an energy drink because of the caffeine; which comes in very close to caffeinated soda. And Rockstar is an energy drink, we want to make sure it's part of the family, but we want to break with some conventions." 

Rockstar Unplugged is an effort to bring new drinkers to the energy drink category and open up new occasions, said Torres: seeking to occupy a 'white space' in these aspects.

Women and younger consumers are among those the brand hopes to attract with the new launch: particularly with the more sophisticated herbal ingredients that such consumers may already be familiar with.

"Rockstar Unplugged is very flavor orientated, with herbal blends, which is more inclusive and attractive. We want to bring new consumers in and show them what the brand can do.​"

A new 12oz can size - instead of Rockstar's usual 16oz - also hopes to appeal to these consumers.

And aside from attracting new consumers, there's also the chance to give existing energy drink consumers something new, she added.

In terms of consumption occasions the brand is targeting at daytime occasions: such as the beginning of the day; as a pick-me-up after lunch; or as an after work drink when consumers need to keep powering through the evening.

Rockstar Unplugged will be available to purchase nationwide at $1.99 per 12oz slim can.

The launch is accompanied by a new campaign – Turn Up Your Mood​ – and new can design with colorful ‘groove shape’ illustrations symbolizing aura, music, and energy.

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