Ease, comfort, and pleasure are what millennials, those members of the high-anxiety “Doom Generation,” really want — and capitalism is into it. A new beverage called Recess is a case study in where those desires meet. Bubbles? Yes. CBD? Check. Sans-serif block font? Yeah! A knowing, nudging, creepily on-point Instagram presence? Obviously.
Recess is a sparkling water infused with CBD (government name: cannabidiol), a nonintoxicating hemp extract that is said to act as a pain reliever, anti-anxiety, anti-inflammatory and chillifier. The drink also contains adaptogens, ephemera from the neverland of is-it-food-or-not that are supposed to reduce stress and improve memory, focus and immunity. Their efficacy is without definitive evidence, but both CBD and adaptogens are decidedly a thing in functional health and wellness — and their marketing.
Recess is headquartered in New York City and made in the Hudson Valley (it was formulated in Beacon and is produced in Fishkill). The company was founded and is still owned by a millennial named Benjamin Witte, who previously worked in tech marketing in San Francisco.
In the era before the commodified wellness movement, this kind of drink would have been tucked into the dimmest refrigerated corner of the spookiest health-food store, not in high demand at $29.99 for a six pack. (The company has since caught up, but Recess says that a few weeks after its October start it had 4,000 back-orders.) Now, the mania for CBD (and the vague curiosity about adaptogens) means that Recess — the matte, sunset palette of the cans as appealing as a luxury lip gloss or free candy or a toy car — has lit up the shifting aspirations of the middle and upper classes of millennials.
First You Must Speak Millennial
“We canned a feeling,” breathes the copy on the Recess website. The site uses phrases like “the unlikely friendship we’re here for” and, regarding a sample pack, “for those who fear commitment,” channeling the half-embarrassed self-aware sincerity that defines the millennial mood.
The site, social media and product all read, “Calm Cool Collected,” an apparent mantra and tagline that is all feeling, all affect, all in the soothing lexicon of self-improvement that proliferates on platforms like Instagram. Recess offers a product that’s addressing the midafternoon dip otherwise fulfilled by a cigarette, a coffee or a cookie (or, actually getting high). And this is all after it riffs on the childhood memory of a daily routine break.
Now That You Have Their Attention, Add Some Carbonation
Alcohol-free, caffeine-free, sugar-free (or almost sugar-free) convenience drinks are, inexplicably, a rare commodity.
A partial solve is in carbonated mineral water, sparkling water and seltzer. (They’re all different, but let’s keep it moving.) Perrier has added orange and strawberry and other flavors to the usual lemon and lime. Spindrift has real fruit. But it’s LaCroix that seems to be desired by millennials more cohesively and completely than anything else, including the toast spread with the fatty fruit of which we dare not speaketh.
Recess builds on LaCroix’s desirability, if not its accessibility. Its sales are largely driven by e-commerce, with limited IRL availability in New York, while LaCroix can be found in most major supermarkets and corner shops. Both brands sell flavor, tribal identity and a pause. Their liquid-speedy opposites, the endless lineup of “energy” drinks, feel very Empire-era outdated in the context of ascendant millennial wellness.
Promise Less Anxiety (Sigh)
Sparkling water may be an easier, more appealing way into wellness for the uninitiated than herbs, oils, pills and powders. (The effects of these substances are still being studied, so it’s worth reviewing with a medical professional before you try them.)
The growth of the wellness industry is often attributed to Gen-X celebrities on the back nine of their careers. The natural participants, however, are people in their 20s and 30s, who have never known the promise of life improving economic stability, or job security; whose lives are ordered by debt so unwieldy as to be abstract; who, instead of aspiring toward power in its familiar forms, want relief — a general softening of life — and prefer sober dance parties, life-hacking podcasts and bullet journals. A can of seltzer is just another opportunity to sell them a release from cares.
Do It for the Likes
Recess’s website features the charms of vaporwave internet art and Lisa Frank-style nostalgia, while their Instagram account evokes the combined look of “Endless Summer” with “Floridian retiree” and the summer-camp psychedelia that has replaced “Lifestyle Lumberjack” as the default millennial style choice. One post features a productless shot, a 1970s-Hockney-gone-surrealist composition involving a half-dog, half-cat collaged onto shadowy pinks and babied blues, as discomfiting and mesmerizing as anything else on Weird Instagram right now.
Is the brand in on the joke, spinning millennial nu-irony for likes and sales, or completely earnest? Definitely both. The pastel-dream lifestyle is pitched sincerely (and received accordingly, by millennials who find comfort in fluffy-cloud aesthetics) but the product and marketing still exist within the general boundaries of detached and ironized millennial sentiment, where the warmth is simultaneously demanded and mocked.
The brand’s social-media marketing also features a series of nanoinfluencers — appropriately attractive and appealing unpaid friends or friends-of-friends of the founder, some of them reclining and unwinding, some doing their creative work and talking about it for the ’gram.
Design but Make it *Cute*
The three available flavors — “peach ginger,” “pom hibiscus” and “blackberry chai” — roll on a continuum alongside the rose gold of an iPhone 6s Plus; now-washed “millennial pink,” the signature color of capitalized feminism (think #GIRLBOSS; think Thinx); this-very-moment’s power lavender; the diluted, creamy rose of Glossier-ed cheek and lip products (and, the brand’s cult-y pink pouches, made of glorified Bubble Wrap for a bonus A.S.M.R. experience); and Pantone’s 2019 Color of the Year, “Living Coral,” a warm, gold-ish pink. The colorway references the pastels that defined hip-hop fashion five years ago (as always, rap got there first) and the material culture of 1980s and 1990s, so, “youth” for millennials.
The brand’s minimalist typography is similarly familiar from and to the visual culture of start-ups and other (largely direct-to-consumer) brands like Outdoor Voices and Casper. Recess also uses a chummy script-style logo and an intentionally awkward sans-serif block type, similar to the shoe brand Allbirds, affirming the current sensibility of young (or youngish: the oldest millennials are 38!) creative people and those who dress like them.
But Does It Work?
In the end, whatever creates this affective experience is invaluable. It’s actually really, really hard to find some branded unit of identity to buy that feels good, looks good, is worth what it costs and doesn’t seem to compromise anyone else’s human dignity. When a product like Recess seems to fulfill a millennial consumer’s desires, we’re in.