It was the summer of 2021 and Austin actress Barbara Chisholm was frantic. Her beloved Topo Chico had vanished from the city’s store shelves, as well as from retailers across the country. New shipments were snatched up as soon as they arrived forcing stores to place strict limits on how much each customer could buy.
So Chisholm donned a mask and gloves and ventured out in search of her elusive and much-loved beverage, going to multiple grocers and ice houses around Austin. She finally decided to try liquor stores, going to three before finding two cases stashed in the back corner of the storeroom, thanks to the help of a sympathetic clerk.
“For me, Topo Chico was passionate love at first sip,” she says. ““Whenever I have less than eight bottles on hand, I get very, very nervous and comb the city and online forums for supplies.”
Chisholm is not alone in her cult-like devotion to Topo Chico.
There seems to be an insatiable thirst for it, from Austin – which as adopted it as its own – to the rest of the nation. With its effervescent bubbles, iconic glass bottles and simple, bold logo, Topo Chico has carved out a unique identity in the crowded sparkling water category.
Topo Chico is the perfect partner for Austin-based SKU. In addition to the city’s love for the beverage, Topo Chico serves as a shining example of how to grow a brand without losing the special sauce – a model for CPG startups.
One of the key people responsible for Topo Chico’s success is General Manager Gerardo Galván, who has spent more than two decades working for the brand, and overseeing its growth into the U.S. market. As Topo Chico has expanded from Northern Mexico into the United States, he has worked hard to protect the essence of the brand’s authenticity – the “It factor.”
Galván understands the power and magic of Topo Chico. He experienced it himself when he took his first sip as a 5-year-old child growing up in Monterrey, Mexico. He remembers holding the bottle in his hand for the first time and trying to read the logo. He swears he felt a special connection to the bubbly drink.
And Galván sees that same sense of wonder in Topo Chico’s growing legions of customers.
“Topo Chico’s consumers love Topo Chico,” says Galván. “There’s a big difference between hearing ‘I love Topo Chico’ and ‘I like Topo Chico.’ I strive for the first sentence.”
Once they’ve tasted it, consumers immediately want to know everything about it – where it comes from, how long it has been around, what makes it so bubbly. “They know they have found an extraordinary product with a real history, says Galván.,
Topo Chico’s rich and colorful history began 128 years ago in the hot springs of San Bernabé, a tourist destination on the outskirts of Monterrey at the foot of Cerro del Topo Chico mountain. The water from the Cerro del Topo Chico mineral spring had supposed healing powers and the owners decided to bottle it.
That spring is still the source for Topo Chico. It’s one of the things that makes Topo Chico unique in its category. It’s not just sparkling water. It’s also sparkling mineral water.
“Not all waters are created the same way,” says Galván. “Topo Chico comes from the source.”
Memories of the 1st Time
Topo Chico’s popularity has grown organically, fueled by word of mouth.
“Many people we interviewed for market research remember their first encounter with Topo Chico,” says Galván. “They remember where they were, who gave it to them and why they drank it. There is a very strong connection between the person and Topo Chico.”
Austinite William Hurley, aka Whurley vividly remembers his first bottle of Topo Chico at an Austin Mexican restaurant.
“I really enjoyed its crisp, refreshing taste, and as someone who didn’t drink ‘sparkling’ or “mineral” water, this was a big deal,” says Whurley, founder of Strangeworks.
A few years ago, Whurley even got a branded Topo Chico fridge for his office. “It quickly became the most popular item until the shortage, which left it empty and made many of my coworkers sad,” he says.
An editor from Epicurious Magazine says she became obsessed with Topo Chico, calling it “the most delicious sparkling water in the world.” She described it as “powerfully effervescent—but its bubbles are less abrasive than most sparkling waters, more like pleasant little pin pricks than relentless fizz.’
Inspiring a Cocktail
And for fan Shelly Hemingson, the Topo Chico obsession can be summed up in two words: “Ranch Water.” The increasingly popular cocktail and unofficial Lone Star cocktail, got its start at Ranch 616 Restaurant in Austin. Owner Kevin Williamson first discovered Topo Chico on youthful travels to South Texas and it was a highlight of the trip. In 1999, he dedicided to create a drink with an exact combination of liquors, reinforced with his much-loved sparkling mineral water,. He named it after his restaurant.
Galván has been the ideal leader for Topo Chico. After graduating from the University of Monterrey in 1985, he joined Coca-Cola. (He has since earned two MBAs from Cornell University and Queen’s University and was awarded an honorary doctorate in recognition of his instrumental role in Topo Chico’s success in the U.S. market).
In 1997, he joined the Procor Group, taking the reins of Topo Chico in Mexico. The brand team was thoughtful about expanding into the challenging U.S. market, spending 13 years studying the best ways to compete. Then Galván and his family moved to Dallas In 2000 to focus on what he calls the “Development Era.”
“The mission was to capture the nostalgic market for Hispanic beverages,” says Galván.
Playing in the Big Leagues
By 2007, Topo Chico began to see the crossover of the brand into the mainstream market. Consumers were seeking it out in Hispanic supermarkets as well as independent convenience stores.
“This discovery opened our eyes and we began to believe we could participate in the big leagues in the North American market,” says Galván. “In 2013, we decided to focus beyond the Hispanic market and to compete face-to-face with the leading brands to test Topo Chico.”
Even as the brand has expanded, Galván is a believer in rolling up his sleeves and going into stores. It is a practice born out of necessity when Topo Chico had a limited budget and couldn’t afford market research.
“So we had to rely on the information we obtained from the shelves at store level. That’s where the battle of sales is truly fought; where the consumer decides. We always took advantage of this routine, intercepting shoppers in the store and chatting with them. We wanted to understand first-hand how the product was consumed, how often and what improvements could be made.”
These real-life interactions generated all of Topo Chico’s market innovation, Galván says. “That’s because they fulfill a real need for our consumers.”
Protecting the Special Sauce
From the original 12-ounce bottle of Topo Chico Mineral Water, the brand portfolio now includes the original mineral water and Twist of Lime, Twist of Grapefruit and Twist of Tangerine flavors.
Topo Chico’s success did not go unnoticed. In 2017, Coca-Cola North America acquired the fast-growing brand for $220 million. The Coca-Cola system has a long history with the brand. The first bottle of Coke in Mexico was bottled at a Topo Chico facility in the 1920s. Arca Continental, Coke’s second-largest bottling partner in Latin America, started to distribute Topo Chico in the U.S. market in 1987 until the acquisition.
Expansion and acquisitions can be risky for many brands. All too often, they can lose what made them unique in the first place – their “special sauce.”
After Coke’s acquisition, Galván says consumers were initially hesitant. They were concerned Topo Chico would lose the essence of what they loved so much. But Galván and Coke’s leadership team were not going to let that happen.
“We could not risk losing the great love they had for the brand,” he says. “The immediate goal was ensuring that the consumer didn’t notice any change.”
To maintain the authenticity and quality of the brand, Galván’s has been able to retain the original team of people – a passionate team who have been a part of Topo Chico’s success over the last two decades. During the integration with Coke, he worked to keep the team calm and focused, integrating old routines into Coke’s new structure.
Perhaps most important of all, Topo Chico is still imported from the same natural source in Cerro del Topo Chico in northern México, where it has been bottled exclusively since 1895. The historic Marble Hotel, which was the spa’s hotel, now serves as the headquarters of the Topo Chico Bottling Plant.
“When I visit the Topo Chico plant and see the production line operating, it never ceases to amaze me how far my team and I have come to build this wonderful brand,” says Galván.