March 25, 2021  

The story of Driftwell, a beverage launch like no other

Find out how Emily Silver and her team took a Next Big Idea Winner to Store Shelves in record time — and tapped into growing consumer demand.

When the unassuming brown box landed on Emily Silver’s doorstep last May, she knew it was a moment of truth. One of six unmarked silver cans inside had to mesh with her vision for a product unlike any PepsiCo had ever created. Her stomach in knots, she poured the lab samples and prepared to taste the prototypes for Driftwell. “I had so many nerves hoping we got it right,” she says.

As Vice President of Innovation and Capabilities for PepsiCo Beverages North America, Emily leads the team that brought Driftwell to market. In a time when people are seeking a little calm and that extra ounce of stress relief, a drink offering safe, science-backed ingredients to help unwind couldn’t be a better fit. But first, the team had to go from concept to what’s in the can.

“When you’re trying to build something in a new category, it can be hard to articulate what’s in your head,” Emily explains. “But I had such a strong sense of what it could be and the value it would add to consumers’ lives.”

After months of deliberating over what a relaxation beverage should taste like, what it could look like, and when a consumer might drink it, everything came down to that box of prototypes. With her first sips of the blackberry lavender-flavored drink, Emily had her eureka moment. “I couldn’t wait to put it out in the world,” she remembers.

I couldn't wait to put it out in the world.

Originally, Driftwell was conceived as part of the Next Big Idea contest, a “Shark Tank”-like competition at PepsiCo where associates around the world pitch their wildest and most innovative concepts. One of more than 600 entries, Driftwell was the winning concept from a marketing group in Canada. Members of the team worked directly with Emily and her innovation team to develop their idea into the drink that just landed on store shelves this January — in less than one year, a record for a beverage launch at PepsiCo.

Driftwell is also considered a functional beverage, a category of drinks that have benefits beyond just refreshment. Getting there, she says, “required many hours of passionate talk about what will make people feel the most relaxed.” The team created elaborate mood boards for the design before settling on the perfect soothing blue palette. Finding a name required no shortage of creative alchemy. And of course, there was the time spent collaborating with R&D to decide what should go in the can.

Driftwell product shot

One crucial part of making Driftwell a groundbreaking launch was verifying the relaxation claims associated with the product.  “Substantiating the science and the claims was the most novel part of the process,” Emily says. That meant reviewing scientific studies and working with nutrition experts to determine the precise types and amounts of ingredients to include in the product.

Driftwell launched online in December, and the early feedback was promising. “We launched on e-commerce first so we could hear what consumers were saying,” Emily explains. “One woman shared how she couldn’t wait to tell her sister about Driftwell. That kind of organic spread is critical, so that’s a wonderful sign.” Other positive signs: more than 500 press mentions (Jimmy Fallon even gave it a shoutout) and an industry award for best functional drink.

Channeling the mindset of the consumer is equal parts art and science, Emily explains. “The core of my role is being consumer-centric,” she says. “I am always trying to understand what problems we can solve.” In the case of Driftwell, her team studied consumer feedback on all the ways relaxation was missing from their lives. “When you hit on a need that’s so universal to so many consumers, you can see the power of that reaction,” she says.

The core of my role is being consumer-centric. I am always trying to understand what problems we can solve.

Breaking new ground with products like Driftwell is what excites Emily most about driving innovation at PepsiCo. Bringing something new to life “is actually magical,” she says. As a marketing intern at the company 15 years ago, Emily helped run basketball tournaments around New York City for Mountain Dew. After spending time in a variety of marketing roles, she landed in innovation, where one of her early projects was the launch of Mountain Dew Kickstart. “These products might follow my life stages,” she says, laughing. “Right now, I’m definitely more interested in feeling less stress and more calm.”

In her downtime, Emily makes a point of staying inspired by allowing for the unexpected. “I hate routine,” she says. “I need space to improvise or I feel frustrated.” So she goes on nature hikes near her home in Westchester County, New York to clear her head, and experiments with recipes as she cooks with her two daughters. “I definitely am known to make things up as I go along,” she says.

In roles like hers, that mindset is an asset. “It's in my nature to need to change things,” she says. “I am always trying to figure out how to do something better. Innovation is about making the world a better and more interesting place.”