How Recess Could Become the Red Bull of CBD, According to CEO Ben Witte

"The beverage industry is...arguably the most brand driven category on the entire planet."
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· 7 min read

In 2020, recess isn't a trip to the playground. It's the name of a DTC brand—one that mostly sells sparkling CBD-infused water. But Recess's founder and CEO, Ben Witte, wants Recess to be so much more than a feel-good beverage.

With new products and content layered on top of Recess’s proprietary drink, Witte believes Recess can become the go-to lifestyle hub for creative professionals. His company took the first step to get there by launching Realitywear, a new apparel collection.

For Realitywear’s debut, I spoke with Witte about Recess’s ambitious growth plans and the state of the beverage industry. Keep reading for his approach to modern branding, and why legacy CPG distributors just can't keep up.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I have to ask: How is Recess faring during COVID-19? I imagine you’re at somewhat of an advantage as a DTC brand, and one that helps people chill out.

Our retail business in New York is down because many of our retail accounts are closed. So we have cafes, lunch spots, yoga studios, bodegas, are just closed.

However, people are at home and they want to take Recess during quarantine. It makes sense: You’re at home, you want to chill, you don’t want to just drink the whole time but you want something to take the edge off. That’s where Recess comes in. As a result, our e-commerce sales have been up 4x since pre-COVID, organically. I anticipate that accelerating rapidly with this launch coming up.

It’s pretty surprising to see a beverage brand launch apparel. Has this always been the plan?

I never viewed Recess as just a beverage company or a CBD company. I’ve always viewed Recess as a new type of consumer wellness and lifestyle brand that creates products, like our drinks and now our apparel, as well as experiences both physical and digital.

We used a CBD sparkling water to establish a new use-case and consumption occasion in people’s lives for taking a recess. We don’t say “CBD reduces anxiety.” We say, "Recess is an antidote to modern times." Similar to how Red Bull built a media company for the action sports community, we are focused on creatives. You’re going to see us integrate into music and fashion and beyond.


Part of the clothing collection is produced by Recess directly, but there's also a collab with another brand. Why did you land on this mix?

We’re releasing a total of 20 pieces. 17 are ours that we designed and produced internally. Another 3 are collaborations with Extra Vitamins, which is this streetwear brand based in Bushwick. I literally DM’d them on Instagram a month ago and was like, "Hey I love your stuff, it’s very aligned with what we’re doing at Recess, would you want to collab?” And then we set up a Zoom and created this collab. So the collab was truly a quarantine collab.

But our collection has been in the works for a long time. I look at this as a next platform for us. The natural extension of that is to create objects, whether that’s something you can wear, or a zine, or a puzzle. You name it, we’re going to do it, because that’s what we are. I think our strongest capability is creating.

What makes a CBD beverage brand more poised for building a larger lifestyle platform than other CPG products?

My observation about the beverage industry is that it’s arguably the most brand driven category on the entire planet, when you think about how big beverage brands get. There’s no other product on the planet that has the potential to be as high frequency of use and purchase.

People that drink Starbucks drink Starbucks every single day. It becomes a part of your life and you have an emotional connection with it, [unlike] Casper or Away. Away spends all its marketing money to sell someone one suitcase every five years, where I can sell people multiple Recess per day.

So that leads to a much different type of marketing strategy. Until the past couple of weeks, we didn’t spend a dollar on paid media. It’s been entirely earned media to get to this point. But our strategy was to create content and experiences that consumers engage with deeply and share with their friends.

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In the beverage industry, you’re entering an existing category and trying to capture market share or creating a category. We are creating the calm and relaxation category, where CBD is going to be the main functional ingredient, just like caffeine is going to be the main functional ingredient in energy. Ultimately all the value goes to category defining brands.


My favorite stat in beverage is that White Claw has 64% market share in hard seltzer, and the reason is not because they have the best liquid. It’s because it’s the category defining brand that everyone talks about. That compounds on itself, and the distributors want it and the retailers want it and that’s what they put at the front of the store. And that’s Recess in this category.

I believe to break through in beverage, the difference between a Red Bull and a LaCroix is that Red Bull truly creates culture. Red Bull’s a media company, effectively, that monetizes through selling cans, but it has another purpose associated with it beyond the liquid itself. Versus La Croix is just a name on a can. So I believe to get to Red Bull level, you need to integrate into the culture and the culture we’re integrating into is the creative class.

I’ve seen brands push back launches because the times are so difficult. Are there any challenges to bringing a new category to life right now? Any opportunities?

The advantage for us is that we’re effectively going to explore building a media brand and an apparel brand on top of a brand, with a drink that’s going to exist on the shelf at most stores in America at some point. The awareness that Recess will get gives us an advantage to break through.

The second thing is we have a design team. We create every day. Now instead of designing an Instagram we’re applying that to a t-shirt. Generally for beverage brands, brand marketing is just a comms center. They’re just burning cash to generate awareness. Our strategy is to generate earned media, right? Which is free impressions. We monetize our marketing efforts—I call it marketing that raises money—because if selling all of sorts of objects to our consumers that want them works, then that’s an instantly scalable marketing engine for us.

When you think about the future of brands, brands are going to have multiple revenue streams. They’re going to look a lot more like these new media companies. Building a brand by just buying Instagram ads is done.

Recently, I’ve reported on DTC brands like yours that have moved into wholesale partnerships. On the flip side, massive CPG companies, like PepsiCo, are suddenly going DTC. Which of those moves do you think will better resonate with customers?

It’s going to be very hard for Pepsi to build the mentality of building an audience on the Internet. I don’t think that’s what their strong suit is. Their strength is buying billboards and TV ads, and I don’t think that’s how you build brands anymore. I feel much better positioned for the game to be shifting to our turf. Our digital positioning is what will help us build a very large retail brand over the long term.

The only reason Recess isn’t in every Whole Foods and Target and Duane Reade is because of regulatory concerns over CBD, and that’s being discussed. So the game hasn’t even started yet.

However, to win online ultimately, and on the brand building side especially, digital is a mentality. It’s a way of connecting with consumers first. Everything we’re doing at Recess is building an audience through our content and then monetizing our content through e-commerce. Both selling our cans, and soon subscriptions, which will be a big part of our model. As well as the Realitywear.

We’re playing a very long game here. I ultimately think [CBD] is a category that’s forming that’s going to be as large as energy drinks. The nature of beverage is, once you become the category defining brand, it’s very hard to slow that down.

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