Nuun and Company

Performance hydration, now in tablet form
Written by: 
Matt Dodge
Produced by: 
Forrest Lancaster

Historically there have only been two options when it comes to performance hydration: sugary sports drinks or plain old water. Today a new market sector is emerging to serve the needs of increasingly health-conscious athletes who are as concerned about what they put into their bodies as what they get out of them and Nuun and Company is leading the way.

Founded in Seattle in 2004, Nuun and Company started out as one man’s solution to an age-old problem for endurance athletes like cyclists, runners and triathletes — how to hydrate and fuel mid-workout without losing valuable time. For founder Tim Moxey, the solution was to harness familiar effervescent tablet technology as a means of quickly delivering nutrients, vitamins and minerals into the bloodstream.

In the last decade Nuun has become the country’s No. 1 performance hydration product in the sports specialty market, experiencing 40 percent growth for both of the last two years as the domestic isotonic drinks market continues to expand, with established brands like Gatorade steadily losing ground to less sugary options such as Nuun. “The sports nutrition drink industry is rapidly growing for health-conscious consumers and ‘clean’ products like Nuun are doing very well,” says Kevin Burnette, spokesman for Nuun and Company.

The company’s flagship product, Nuun Active, is a vegan, gluten-free, clean-sport certified and GMO-free (verification in progress) tablet that contains no carbs, low sugar and is designed as a replacement for typical sports drinks. In May 2015, the product landed coveted space on the shelves of Whole Foods Markets across the country. Other products in the Nuun line include caffeinated Nuun Energy, carbohydrate-loaded Plus for Nuun and a line of effervescent vitamins called Nuun All Day.

Industry experience drives rapid growth

Much of Nuun’s rapid growth over the last two years can be attributed to the arrival of president and CEO Kevin Rutherford in 2013, whose experience in marketing consumer packaged goods includes stints at Kashi and Mrs. Meyers Clean Day. At the latter, Rutherford grew the business by over 85 percent in his role as president and CEO. “He is an athlete, innovator and a leader in making cleaner products,” says Burnette.

At Nuun, Rutherford aims to make the same impact on the performance drink market as he did in cleaning products. “He definitely disrupted the cleaning space in a good way; it became something people became proud to put above the sink, not just below the sink,” says Burnette.

Rutherford’s track record in helping once-obscure brands break into the mainstream makes him an ideal fit for Nuun. As director of marketing at Kashi Co., he helped the Bear Naked brand expand from granola into energy bars, cereal and cookies. After 10 years of steady growth, Nuun is ready for Rutherford to take its products to the next level. “This brand has led the sports specialty market in their first decade and is now going much broader across the natural foods market with the goal of creating more options for health consumers,” says Rutherford.

Nuun’s promotes three “clean” tenants that reflect the ethos of its customers: clean sport, clean product, clean planet. The company focuses on getting illegal drug use out of professional sports and sponsors “clean” athletes such as Olympian distance runner Kara Goucher. “From a planet side the product is better sourced and each tube of Nuun has 10 tablets, so that’s essentially 10 water bottles saved,” says Burnette. At a recent expo in Utah, the Nuun booth was built out of used cardboard boxes and featured a stationary bike that could be used to power lights and music.

Bubbling up to the top of the market

Being shoved into the spotlight can be a make-or-break moment for a company. After experiencing 40 percent growth in just a two-year period, Nuun proceeded very carefully to assure that such rapid growth wouldn’t leave the company unable to meet demand. “They had clean operations and financials and the framework wasn’t bloated — they were in a position to grow and it’s just been a natural explosion,” says Burnette of Nuun’s progression.

To ensure that the product is ready for the big time, the company has been testing out a new, increasingly organic version with all plant-based ingredients at Whole Foods stores across the country. “We tested the new flavors to make sure we could manage production well; keeping up with growth on the product side has been challenging,” says Burnette. Sticking close to their organic roots, the four new flavors are all sweetened with monk fruit juice and produced by machinery that uses avocado oil for lubrication.

Burnette says Nuun was already a leader in the sports specialty market when overall consumer attitudes started to turn increasingly toward all things natural and organic, giving Nuun increased exposure and landing it at No. 1,036 on the Inc. 5000 list in 2011. “With broader consumer trends, they’re becoming a natural leader in grocery,” he says. “Even Whole Foods — where we have displays at checkouts at some of their major markets — is like ‘how can we help you?’”

After a six-month stint on the shelves at Whole Foods and cameo appearances at endurance sports events across the country, the new blend of Nuun products is currently on the convention circuit, with many of Nuun’s 43 employees trying to increase distribution and win converts at expos such as the Canadian Health Food Convention, Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, California, The Running Event in Austin, Texas, and Outdoor Retailer in Salt Lake City.

For Nuun, success means growing the sports hydration/nutrition market as a whole, not just eating away at the competition. “Being a leader and outpacing the category growth is the focus,” says Burnette.

By continuing to innovate, practicing what they preach and educating an increasingly savvy consumer base on the health benefits of nontraditional sports drinks, Nuun and Company will continue to build on its role as a leader in the performance hydration market.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Foundation Bank