Vita Coco Won the Coconut Water Wars, but Old Rival Zico Is Planning a New

One Monday last October, in his home overlooking the Pacific Ocean south of Los Angeles, Mark Rampolla’s phone rang repeatedly and emails flooded his inbox. Word had leaked over the weekend that Coca-Cola was discontinuing Zico, the coconut water brand Rampolla had sold to the beverage giant in 2013. Old friends and former colleagues wanted to know how he was taking the news.

The father of two daughters, Rampolla had often joked that Zico was his son. So he felt a twinge of sadness about the brand’s foundering under Coke’s leadership. But that emotion quickly changed to excitement and hope. The 51-year-old entrepreneur reached out to Coke’s mergers and acquisitions group right away, initiating what would become weeks of secret negotiations to reacquire Zico. On New Year’s Eve, Rampolla’s phone rang once again. That night, he celebrated not just the arrival of 2021 but also another chance to compete in the coconut water business.

Rampolla now serves as chairman of the board of the newly renamed Zico Rising, representing PowerPlant Ventures, which he co-founded in 2015, and which led the acquisition from Coke. Focused on sustainability and plant-based food and beverage products, PowerPlant has invested in billion-dollar companies including Beyond Meat and Thrive Market. In addition, former Naked Juice president Thomas Hicks has signed on as CEO of Zico Rising. He’s a good fit for the job, having served as SVP of sales and operations at both Coca-Cola and Monster Energy; Hicks steered Monster’s non-energy drinks into Coke’s portfolio.

In a matter of months, Rampolla appears to have positioned Zico Rising for success. He’s still determined to build it into the leading coconut water company in the world, but more than anything, he’s just grateful for the opportunity. “It’s sort of poetic justice,” he says. “I get another shot to get a lot of this stuff right.”

Rampolla didn’t really get anything wrong the first time. Selling to Coke was his dream from the beginning, and he made it possible by building Zico into the number-two brand in the coconut water category–now a $1.2 billion market in the U.S., according to Spins, a natural-products market research firm. Sales in the category have suffered single-digit declines every year since peaking in 2016, according to market research firm Euromonitor, but the product remains a pantry staple for millions of consumers.

In 2020, however, Zico’s market share stood at just 4 percent, dwarfed by the 60 percent share of longtime competitor Vita Coco, the top coconut water brand for more than a decade.

The rivalry between Rampolla and Vita Coco co-founder and CEO Michael Kirban, 45, is worthy of the Hollywood treatment. Both founded their com­panies in New York City in 2004 and quickly began knocking off each other’s strategies. After Rampolla started selling Zico to yoga studios around the city, Kirban infiltrated…

Read MoreVita Coco Won the Coconut Water Wars, but Old Rival Zico Is Planning a New