Tough Rapp To Beat

I’ve wanted to write about C.J. Rapp for quite a while. With this tumultuous year wrapping up, it seems an especially good time to visit with the guy some call “The Energy Grandfather.”

It’s been about 20 years since Rapp’s Jolt Cola burst onto the national consciousness. In that period, enough drinks have touted near-noxious energy levels that it makes Rapp’s glorious Jolt slogan, “All the sugar and twice the caffeine!” seem quaint and harmless.

But back in the mid-1980s, that claim was enough to create a media sensation out of Rapp and Jolt. Just ask the gamers: before caffeine was re-sourced as the guarana berry and repackaged as “energy,” Jolt was considered the highest-test fuel around. But the energy drink market nearly turned Jolt’s early notoriety into a footnote. Rapp’s pretty realistic about why that happened.

“I don’t think there’s been a brand since us that generated the amount of P.R. we did in such a short amount of time,” he says. “But that created the illusion that Jolt was so much bigger than it was. The exposure was so fast and so explosive that at the time of point of launch, we couldn’t catch up to the P.R. I mean, we had one distributor, and all of a sudden we’re in USA Today.”

Without enough product to spread around, the brand couldn’t support the phenomenon, and the market eventually overtook Jolt. But it’s high time all of the drink makers on the rise give Rapp his due as an innovator, marketer, and all around crazy fellow.

How crazy is Rapp? He played junior hockey in Canada. Think about it: if you’re a bottler’s kid from Rochester, which would you rather do? Put on some pads and face off every night against a Hansen Brother wannabe, or sneak a half-rack of cola off the back of the delivery truck and do a little ice fishing?

But something in Canada must have made Rapp’s crazy a tough kind of crazy, because even after Jolt moved from its 15 minutes as a national phenomenon to the cultural agate type between Beanie Babies and Hands Across America, he’s still got the soul – and the mind – of a kid who loves to test the merchandise.

In fact, Rapp recently demonstrated a great example of innovating on a shoestring budget, beating every other energy drink maker to the punch in launching re-sealable 16 and 23.5 oz. energy drink cans. The idea cost more than a company with a sales footprint the size of Rapp’s could afford – “In brand equity, we have equal footing with Red Bull and Monster. In case sales, we’re still way behind, obviously,” he concedes – but he still found a way, convincing Rexam to manufacture the cans for Jolt first, and then, after giving his brand a head start, letting the packaging company market the design to other beverage marketers.

A bunch of other companies are in that can now, but Rapp still takes pride in being the first. Call it innovator pride. Or call it too many sticks to the head. Either way, Rapp found a manufacturer to make his design, to implement what he saw as a way to push his product forward, even without the cash.

Now, we know that despite its brand-name recognition, Jolt isn’t setting the retail aisles on fire. But Rapp’s encouraged, and he’s used his latest innovation as a springboard to re-center the entire line around the resealable can. He’s got a pile of new flavors, and the whole enterprise seems to have a bit of manic energy right now. Rapp’s got an energy shot out, Jolt gum, Jolt mints, and yes, they’re all Jolt-ed up with caffeine and sugar, rest assured.

“Jolt has advantages outside of beverages,” he told me. “Eventually it will come to represent all things energy.”

It could happen. But even if it doesn’t, it’s a great lesson on the ability to take a stick to the head and come back crazy enough to keep innovating. It’s a lesson we’d all do well to remember as the year ends, and we struggle, collectively, to get back up off the ice.