Stirring a revolution in energy drinks

Thirst for success: Marcus Waley-Cohen, the founder of Firefly Tonics, hopes to cash in on the demand for healthier products

Thirst for success: Marcus Waley-Cohen, the founder of Firefly Tonics, hopes to cash in on the demand for healthier products

Marcus Waley-Cohen, the founder of natural energy drinks company Firefly Tonics, is targeting a healthy return.

In 2003, Mr Waley-Cohen, now 31, gave up his City job at a leading management consultancy firm to establish Firefly Tonics, which he runs with Harry Briggs.

The company creates and supplies healthy drinks made solely from natural ingredients. Today, they sell around 400,000 bottles a month, export to 40 countries and, last year, reported an annual turnover of £2 million.

His challenge now is to continue growing the company, while maintaining the integrity and reputation of the product.

Firefly Tonics was created in response to the highly caffeinated and sugary energy drinks popular at the time. Mr Waley-Cohen says: "It was at the time when there was a big explosion in the interest in health and in energy drinks. We felt there was a contradiction between the energy drinks - loaded up with sugar and chemicals - and the health craze. There was an opportunity to make a drink that was functional - gives you energy or makes you feel relaxed - but used only natural ingredients."

The pair consulted leading Western and Chinese herbalists to develop a range of remedies packed with fruits and herbs instead of sugar and caffeine. They secured £50,000 funding from friends and family to get the company going.

Their big break was the first break - they landed an exclusive deal with Harvey Nichols. "Harvey Nichols wanted exclusive sales rights for a month. That was a brilliant springboard for getting into other distributions." Orders for the bottles, which range from £1.49 to £1.99, started coming in thick and fast.
Firefly is now stocked in Selfridges, Harrods and upmarket food chain Fresh & Wild, in addition to all Waitrose stores. Comedian David Walliams and model Lisa Snowdon are fans of the drink.

Mr Waley-Cohen acknowledges there are now a number of similar products on the market, such as Juice Doctor and Glaceau's Vitaminwater - launched recently and now owned by Coca-Cola - but he is confident they can compete.

"There are offering the same idea of a healthy drink with uplifting properties, but there isn't really anyone in our herbal, natural space," he says.

One of the company's biggest markets is corporate workplace catering. He admits the firm has been hit by recent economic events. "Lehman Brothers is one of our biggest customers in workplace catering. We are also affected by that indirectly because there are less people out shopping and going to nice delis and coffee shops. Although our drinks are in there and selling well against the other drinks, there are just less people buying."

The company prides itself on keeping the product at a premium level. The next challenge, says Mr Waley-Cohen, is to extend beyond that and target a more mainstream market.

"It's quite a niche concept, so trying to persuade people there is a market for it and to give you a try is quite challenging."

Surely the business would benefit if recent calls by doctors for energy drinks to carry health warnings were honoured by the government? "Firefly is all about ‘feeling your best naturally' and avoiding the post sugar/caffeine crash you get with standard energy drinks. I think more and more people are moving towards ‘natural' products and will switch away from artificial energy drinks to drinks like Firefly.
"I think most people understand that standard energy drinks aren't good for them and I'm doubtful that ‘health warnings' are likely to discourage those people who drink them to stop."

Mr Waley-Cohen comes from a family of entrepreneurs - his father set up and ran a medical business in the US and then the UK, while his mother ran a contemporary art gallery. He admits he would consider another business venture but is concentrating on developing Firefly. They recently launched a range of antioxidant waters, Firefly Waters, and are in the process of creating new packaging ideas.

As for other opportunities, he says: "There are opportunities around premiumisation - give them something that they want that isn't already available." He notes there are opportunities within the health food and drinks market. "More and more people are health conscious and concerned where their food comes from, I would think there are opportunities there."

Mr Waley-Cohen lives in Notting Hill, West London.

    Last updated: 12:14pm, November 20 2008