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Could maple sap be the next coconut water?

Keith Harris, co-founder of Ontario-based KiKi Maple Sweet Water.

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

A rite of spring in much of Quebec and Ontario, the maple sap season is as Canadian as hockey and curling.

For Keith Harris, it's also a way of life since he founded KiKi Maple Sweet Water with his wife, Lorraine, eight years ago. The company, based in Arthur, Ont., produces five flavours of its all-natural maple water, which Mr. Harris says offers high levels of minerals and electrolytes and is low in calories.

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Maple water is essentially maple sap that, each year, flows from the roots of the trees up through the trunk. The sap is usually boiled down and concentrated to make syrup, but it can also be consumed as a fresh beverage.

Mr. Harris has a year-by-year handshake deal with McLachlan Family Maple Syrup and Pancake House in Komoka, Ont., which provides him with sap from its 13,000 taps.

While the employees there do much of the yeoman's work, as Mr. Harris puts it, he takes and stores the sap. He then packages it in glass bottles, which give it a shelf life of about two years.

"It's refreshing, clean and slightly sweet with some earth tones, very slight," he says.

KiKi Maple Sweet Water is sold around the globe, from China to France to California, where Mr. Harris says it has created a buzz among health-conscious consumers as "the new coconut water."

"Coconut water is predicted by 2021 to be a $5-billion-a-year [(U.S.) industry]," he says. "Maple water has been touted as the next success story in the plant waters."

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KiKi employs four people, including Mr. Harris and his wife, and the annual revenue is about $100,000. He says his company was first on the scene; he estimates that today about 20 firms sell maple water, mostly in Quebec, Ontario, Vermont and New York.

Mr. Harris says he has an edge because he is selling KiKi as a "premium product," compared with competitors who use Tetra Paks, "just like wine in a box," he says.

He admits his profit margins aren't as good as those of his competitors, but he feels the use of glass bottles gives him an edge despite higher costs to ship abroad.

He is aiming to raise capital, but first he has to boost sales. His marketing efforts consist mostly of social media because of its low cost; he also publishes a newsletter and issues press releases.

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"We have a superior product we've shipped around the world," he says. "How do we get that marketing so we have that awareness?"

The Challenge: How can KiKi Maple Sweet Water introduce itself to new customers?

THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

Ted Salter, retail and consumer products leader, Ernst & Young, Toronto

Consumers are starting to look at beverages as more than just refreshment and hydration. They're starting to look at them as a meal supplement. So the category is starting to blur a little bit. You can take advantage of that blurring and define your own unique space, though if you're not careful no one will really be sure what you are.

My priority would be to refocus my message around how this provides a solution to the consumer's lifestyle, more so than the attributes of the product itself. I would be recallibrating my website and social media footprint. I Googled KiKi and looked all over the place at this product and a lot of it was more about Keith's business and what they're doing to grow that business than it was about the attributes of the product and how this brand might be associated with other things that I care about.

Corey Dubeau, vice-president of marketing, Northern Commerce Inc., London, Ont.

I think the biggest part for them is going to be educating consumers on the benefits of the product itself. Maple water is still fairly infant in terms of the product age, so the starting point is educating what makes maple water better, more nutritious or whatever it may be than coconut water or some other alternative.

John Celenza, co-founder and chief executive officer, BioSteel Sports Nutrition Inc., Toronto

I'd go on social media and identify the influencers on there – likely the health and fitness people. I'd keep it predominantly local and Canada, so I'd go after Toronto and I'd send them my product and say, "Hey, if you really like this product can you please tweet about it?"

At the end of the day it's only going to cost you a case, and if the people authentically like it – because people like that are really concerned with what they put in their bodies – then you can come to some sort of agreement with them. We'll provide you and your family with free products for x amount of tweets a year, and you start to get a groundswell behind it.

THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW

Refocus the brand

KiKi Maple Sweet Water needs to do a better job of conveying its message and should update its website to tell visitors why it exists and why consumers need to buy the product.

Find influencers

Find people who have social media pull and persuade them to promote your product.

Reach out

Educate your potential customers, who likely have not heard about maple water and what benefits it might provide.

Follow Report on Small Business on Twitter at @globesmallbiz.

Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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