SoCIAL LITE Vodka ‘s Neetu Godara is Reinventing the Alcoholic Beverage Market
A modern take on a classic, SoCIAL LITE’s line of sugar free ready-to-drink vodka soda drinks has revamped the market with Neetu Godara calling the shots.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle shouldn’t mean missing out on indulging in a social drink with friends and family. Before Neetu Godara teamed up with friends Dan Beach and Kevin Folk to found SoCIAL LITE Vodka, this was a problem they faced constantly when perusing the liquor store. With aisles packed with overly sweetened, artificially coloured and flavoured mixed drinks, the trio recognized a hole in the market that inspired them to take matters into their own hands.
In 2014, SoCIAL LITE Vodka launched out of Whitby, ON., as North America’s first zero sugar, sweetener and carb free ready-to-drink canned vodka soda, made with premium Canadian vodka. With three more flavours launched this summer, Lime Gin Soda, Triple Berry, and Bold Orange (with a higher ABV percentage), SoCIAL LITE Vodka continues to scale at an impressive rate. To this day, the company is still independently owned and operated and made in Canada.
All the convenience of a mixed drink, without the calories that compromise your goals, the brand created a new lane in alcoholic beverages.
Godara is at the helm of the company’s stand out marketing technique, with a professional background working for large scale companies like PepsiCo. From a small kitchen in Whitby, Godara and her co-founders have developed a Canadian brand that is recognized across the country, into North America.
For this week’s Women Who Lead spotlight, Bay Street Bull sat down with Neetu Godara about her marketing magic, how her parents instilled the confidence she uses to navigate her career and business everyday, and what to look for in new talent when growing business.
How did SoCIAL LITE Vodka come to be?
SoCIAL LITE Vodka started with Dan, Kevin and I trying to solve the consumer problem that there wasn’t a convenient pre-made alcoholic drink option that fit our healthy lifestyle. We are all big vodka soda drinkers. It was what we drank, what our friends drank and what we always ordered at a bar. What kept us coming back to it was the minimal carbs and zero sugar, you could enjoy a couple of drinks and still get up and go for your run the next morning. At that time there was nothing available in the market that wasn’t full of sugar, crazy colours and artificial ingredients. That is what motivated us to start SoCIAL LITE, the first premixed vodka soda drink in North America with zero sugar, sweeteners, carbs and no artificial ingredients. We promised then, and continue to be a 100% premium Canadian vodka drink that lets you be social and live “lite.”
Since you launched in 2014, the market has exploded with a lot of competition and almost copy-cat products. How do you all manage the competition while staying true to your brand?
To be honest, it’s a double-edged sword. Of course, increased competition makes you work harder to maintain your leadership position, but it is great that there are more zero sugar options available for Canadians. At the end of the day, what other companies saw is that we tapped into a very real consumer insight, consumers want to enjoy a drink when they’re being social with friends, but they don’t want it to come at the expense of their healthy lifestyle. People still want to avoid excess calories, sugars and carbs when they kick back to enjoy a drink. SoCIAL LITE keeps its edge by sticking to our key values and supporting a fit and active lifestyle. Although there are many other vodka sodas out there, we pride ourselves on our taste, fans always tell us that we are the best tasting vodka soda or seltzer on the market and we are very proud of that.
Other drinks in the market still rely on and are packed full of sugars and artificial flavouring. For us as a brand, it’s our job to see competition as part of the business and keep offering our consumers the best tasting products even with all the increased competition.
You’ve had a great career working for large companies like Pepsi Co. for quite some time. How have experiences in your career helped you to navigate this new venture and the saturation of the alcoholic beverage market?
I’m really grateful for my career at PepsiCo and having worked there for 10 years it really taught me not only the fundamentals in business but the fundamentals in building a brand.
The success of any brand starts with putting the consumer first. You need to understand your consumer intimately, to be able to connect with their heart and mind. We truly started our business with a consumer-first approach. Dan, Kevin and I spent countless evenings and weekends sampling SoCIAL LITE when we first started, listening to what people loved, what was important to them and why SoCIAL LITE was such a welcome addition to their beverage repertoire. Those consumer insights guided us in creating our brand positioning and even our innovation. As we launch new flavours, or even this year as we brought our new BOLD Vodka Soda (6% abv. with a splash of juice for an extra kick of flavour) to market, that all came from listening to our consumers and acting on what they told us they wanted to see from us.
Women in business often speak about a moment or period of time where they built significant confidence. Was there a moment for you, operating in these C-Suites where you finally felt confident in standing up for your ideas?
I think it’s an interesting point you’ve brought up because I have had this conversation with female colleagues as well. For me, SoCIAL LITE was co-founded by Dan, Kevin and I. We are obviously a diverse set of voices and we’ve been set up that way since day one. The diversity in our team wasn’t planned, it was very organic. We met through my brother and started the company. We all agree that having a diverse set of voices and lived experiences can only make us stronger and has definitely been part of our success.
I personally haven’t navigated my career thinking about the fact that I am a woman or that I’m a person of colour. We all have life experiences that teach us that the world is not always equal. Ultimately, we cannot wait for the world to be equal, we have to have the confidence to use our own voice. I’ve reflected on this a lot, I believe that the confidence that I eventually found was really a product of my parents. I remember when I was in grade 4 I won a public speaking competition and my Dad told me I could be the Prime Minister of the country. My parents instilled a lot of confidence in me, they gave me the belief that I could do anything and they always celebrated my strengths. When I entered the workforce, I believed that if I worked hard, what I brought to the table was valuable, I wasn’t taught to believe otherwise. I understand that I am so lucky to have had this upbringing and that it’s important as leaders that we cultivate this confidence in our teams. For women in general it is really important that we help each other, foster and cultivate that confidence in one another so that we can stand up for what we want in our businesses, for our ideas, and in our careers. That’s a really important starting point.
For SoCIAL LITE, as we now create our team, it’s important to me that we have diverse voices at the table and that we listen to different perspectives and have each of our team members build their own confidence to contribute and lead.
What has it been like for you and the team growing SoCIAL LITE to where it is today?
I think every stage of growth is unique and brings different opportunities and challenges. We really grew our brand in a very grassroots way. Part of what has really helped us to evolve is that our brand was never specifically catering to men or women, young or old. It’s always been for anyone who wanted an ice cold drink, wanted to maintain their healthy lifestyle and love the idea that they could have a vodka soda that had no sugar and only 80 calories.
It began with just getting liquid to lips and fostering the buzz through word of mouth. You can’t rest on your laurels as an entrepreneur and I’m proud that we continue to innovate. Our consumer’s voices guide all our decisions. One of the main things we kept hearing was that consumers wanted a higher alcohol percentage and an extra kick of flavour, so we created our BOLD vodka soda. BOLD has been a smashing success from coast to coast and we are proud to continue to bring products to the market that Canadians love.
Today, we are focused on building a world-class team, the energy, excitement and ideas that come from our growing team let us know that we are only at the beginning of our journey and are so excited to keep building SoCIAL LITE across Canada and beyond.
What is it that you look for when you’re sourcing employees? What is something that you would recommend business owners and entrepreneurs think of constantly when they are team building for growth?
We really are continuing to learn as we build our team but the number one thing we look for is a combination of passion and hard work. Having the passion to make your mark and to contribute is the secret sauce to someone who’s going to really thrive in an entrepreneurial environment. You want people that are going to roll up their sleeves and do what it takes to get the job done. I always joke that when we started this business, I was doing everything from lifting a hundred-pound tents to driving trucks of sample products, to buying garbage bags from the dollar store. It didn’t matter. The group success was our success and that’s something we look for in team members.
Now more personally, every career faces times of tribulation and uncertainty at various points. When was a notable moment for you where you faced difficulty and how did you overcome it?
The first thing that comes to my mind is when I was contemplating quitting a corporate career to start a company. At the time it was one of the most terrifying things I’d ever done. I felt that I had reached a point in my career where I knew I needed a new challenge. I loved my job and it was quite difficult to give up that security and that steady pay-cheque for the unknown. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t keep me up at night, it was nerve-wracking.
Then when I met Dan and Kevin, the thought of having this opportunity to build a brand, a team and a business from the ground up with an idea I really believed in, gave me the courage to push forward. By the time I got to the day where I had to walk into the office and quit, we had taken enough steps and done enough work that it no longer felt like a huge risk. It felt like the most natural step forward. I believe that is one of my biggest lessons: entrepreneurship is not one “giant leap of faith”, it’s taking one step forward each day towards your goals. A lesson I continue to return to as we build SoCIAL LITE today.
How essential do you feel marketing is when you’re working in an area that is saturated or has a lot of players and buyers?
I’m a marketer at heart. Marketing plays a huge role in why consumers walk up to the shelf and pick one brand over another. It’s our job to create a brand that has a connection with consumers. Since day one our brand has stood for letting you be social while you live your healthy lifestyle. We want you to enjoy a couple of drinks with friends and still get up and make it to yoga. Work hard, play hard or “Be Social. Live Lite.” as we like to say. We try to live that in a very authentic way and for years SoCIAL LITE has been the reward after spin class or a 10K run in cities and towns across the country. That’s one way our fans learn about us, and then it becomes part of their social lifestyle, whether that’s around the campfire or on the dock.
In terms of our brand, our sleek black cans differentiate us from our competition and pop on the shelf and to us it symbolizes premium quality and real ingredients which reinforce the quality of our beverages.
What would be key advice that you would give a woman who is looking to start out a new career?
You only regret the things you don’t do in life. You will never regret trying. If there is something in your heart you want to do, go for it. Ask yourself, what’s the worst that can happen? If it doesn’t work out, do you have confidence that you will find a way to land on two feet again? If so, what’s holding you back?
It can feel overwhelming to make those changes, but like I said earlier it doesn’t have to be one big leap, take one step at a time towards that new goal each day.
Now that you have achieved so much in your career, what might you say now to your younger self who at any point or another, like so many young professionals, had no idea what you wanted or what your trajectory was going to be?
When I was younger I had this mindset that at 23, once I graduated from university, I needed to land my dream job. I put this pressure on myself thinking that I needed to be out saving the world on day one after my graduation. I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older that you have to enjoy the journey. I’ve gained so much from every stage of my career, from growing professionally at PepsiCo to becoming a first-time entrepreneur building SoCIAL LITE Vodka. I am grateful for everything I’ve learned along the way so far, and I look forward to each new chapter as it unfolds.
Visit @sociallitevodka to learn about more great flavours.