Alebrijes superpower? Mexican functional drink startup eyes international expansion

By Kacey Culliney

- Last updated on GMT

Image courtesy of Play Saludable
Image courtesy of Play Saludable
DrinkPlus-creator Play Saludable hopes to drive local interest and secure international expansion with its latest functional drink Nikte, branded around alebrijes – mythical creatures from Mexican folklore.

Mexico City-headquartered Play Saludable launched its original DrinkPlus brand in 2015 when the company was founded and released its more affordable, playful line Nikte in May, last year. Both functional beverage brands use herbals, vitamins and minerals to target lifestyle issues like hydration, energy and concentration and are sweetened with a stevia-monk fruit blend to ensure a zero- or low-calories. DrinkPlus is now stocked in 5,000+ points of sale across Mexico, primarily major supermarket retailers, and Nikte is gaining traction in similar outlets and online.

Saúl Hernández Orendain, co-founder and director general of Play Saludable, said affordability was the primary driver behind developing its functional beverages DrinkPlus and Nikte.

“We saw some very boutique brands sold throughout Mexico; very regional or imported products that had a very big price point,” ​Orendain told NutraIngredients-LATAM.

And there wasn't much innovation coming from the bigger players, in terms of healthy beverages, he said. “There were a lot of fortified beverages with mass production but they tended to have very few benefits, with limited science backing their claims, and many with a high calorie count.”

Fortified beverages for the 'general market'

Image courtesy of Play Saludable

DrinkPlus beverages contain 50 calories per 500ml bottle and Nikte zero – important, Orendain said, given Mexico's obesity crisis. Both beverages feature herbals like chamomile, ginseng and yerba mate and vitamins and minerals such as B12, magnesium and l-choline.

Whilst both DrinkPlus and Nikte were founded on the same principles – to be nutrient-dense, low-calorie functional beverages for the mass consumer market – Orendain said Nikte opened up more market opportunities.

“Nikte has a lower price point which allows us to go into more and different points of sale that we weren't able to go into with DrinkPlus, even though that brand is also affordable.”

Nikte, he said, retailed at about 25% less than its DrinkPlus counterpart, depending on retail channel, and therefore had the ability to capture interest among half of the Mexican population living below the poverty line.

“...The idea was to make these kinds of beverages more accessible to the general market.”

Play Saludable had been able to lower costs per unit, he said, by leveraging the same production lines, logistics and distribution network as DrinkPlus.

A 'modern Mexican' feel

In addition, Orendain said Nikte had been designed around flavor and visual appeal as opposed to functional appeal like DrinkPlus with its English-language branding and function call-outs front-of-pack.

“[Nikte] is something that looks Mexican, but modern Mexican, as it's inspired by something so traditional and the main call out is flavor as opposed to functionality. The ingredients do provide functionality but we knew there were other types of consumers who were not looking for that functionality.”

This Mexican look and feel would also be key to Play Saludable's goal of international expansion in the second half of this year, the director general said, where it hoped to partner with major US and European supermarkets.

“The feel and look of the brand is inspired by alebrijes, and those are Mexican imaginary creatures traditional to Mexican folklore art. They've become really well-known throughout the world because of the Disney movie Coco and the Day of Dead which is big here in Mexico.”

This playful Mexican branding and clear flavor-focus, he said, would hold strong appeal in developed international markets where consumers were “looking for the new thing”.

“We feel our competitive advantage would be having different flavor profiles with the functionalities they already have in their markets and other products. That could be a driver for this brand.”

Indigenous herbs and fruits

Orendain said future research and development efforts would also focus on incorporating more indigenous herbs and ingredients into the line, like 'tuna' (prickly pear). This would not only appeal to local consumers, he said, but act as a “differentiator” ​in international markets and resonate with Mexicans living abroad.

“Mexico is really rich in terms of the different herbs and fruits it has, because of the climate varying from desert to rainforest. There are lots of different types that I don't even know about and that's why going through the R&D process is something we'd have to look into,” ​he said.

Play Saludable would also not rule out moving into segments like teas, smoothies and juices, he said, and was seriously interested in using marijuana, recently legalized in Mexico.

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