Restoring An Icon

The beverage business has given birth to some legendary odd couples.
Tom First and Tom Scott. John Bello and Greg Steltenpohl.  John Ferolito and Don Vultaggio. Typically, they’ve seemed to break down along the lines of the dreamer and the implementer, the marketer and the salesman, the English Major and the MBA.

For entrepreneurs, it’s often a beneficial arrangement: even at Microsoft, Bill Gates had to have a Steve Ballmer around to scream at people. Building a successful operation is tricky, and it helps to have balance between the leaders who see opportunities and the ones who supply the muscle to get it done.
Such a partnership has recently evolved at a pretty unlikely place, however, and under a radically different circumstance: Jones Soda, where Bill Meissner has recently begun work as CEO, trying to channel the legacy of brilliant marketing begun by company founder Peter van Stolk.

Waitaminute.

There’s no partnership at Jones Soda. Peter van Stolk hasn’t worked there in years. Isn’t that guy selling organic vegetables in Portland? Even van Stolk, reached for the story, made it clear that he had left Jones more than three years ago, which he termed an eternity in the beverage business. He wished Meissner and Jones well.

And it’s true that Meissner and van Stolk have never worked for the company together; in fact, the only thing they have in common are some JSDA shares.

But if van Stolk isn’t working there, he’s still present. It’s been the impenetrable problem for his successors to wrestle with: van Stolk’s spirit runs deep through the brand. You can’t live it down, so you might as well embrace it, because even now the core idea, that the brand could resonate with consumers because its labels constantly showed them in the process of being who they are, is so strong that the Jones Soda DNA will always be van Stolk’s, much as the DNA of Microsoft will always be Gates’s.

But rather than wrestle with that spirit, Meissner embraces it. In fact, if van Stolk has ever had a fan of what he was trying to do with Jones, it’s Meissner, who, for all his MBA training and operational acuity, has always aligned himself with the brands that tend to usurp the norm.

“Honestly, since Jones first showed up on my radar screen when I was back at SoBe, I loved that brand, and I kept wondering when someone was going to do something with it,” he says. “I think it’s the best brand in beverage, and to be able to lead the team, and have people say that its brand promise has been filled, would be the ultimate.”

Look at Meissner’s record, and you see he might be the one who can pull it off. At both SoBe and Fuze, Meissner was the guy who stayed behind even after the sale went through (to Pepsi and Coke, respectively) and the founders (SoBe’s Bello, Fuze’s Lance Collins) departed. He was the one who picked up the threads that the founders had left behind, the entrepreneurial spirit that made the brand into a success, and tried to weave those threads into the new organization. The result at Fuze was an undisputed success: the launch of the powerhouse NOS energy drink into the Coke system.

And now Meissner is trying to pick up the threads at Jones, to somehow weave the brand back into the planning process at stores who cut the cord. Just a few months after it was nearly bought in a bargain-basement stock swap by fellow alternative soda brand Reed’s, Meissner says there’s still plenty to love about Jones.

Since jumping to Jones from its Seattle neighbor, Talking Rain, about eight months ago, Meissner has killed off many of the pet projects that the brand engaged in over the last five years, notably “brain-enhancing” Jones GABA and vitaminwater knockoff 24C. He’s downsized the marketing and operations staff in Seattle and focused hiring on a sales team that he hopes can rebuild the ties to distributors and key accounts who have always wanted just one thing – to sell Jones Soda Pure Cane Soda and WhoopAss energy drinks to a target group of 18-to-34 year-olds with a bit of sense and style.

“All that monkey business up in Seattle notwithstanding, retailers put it on the shelf and it sells,” Meissner says.

Atlanta Beverage’s Scott Wilkie, who began carrying Jones four months ago, agrees.
“The chain part of the business is really important, and that’s where he’s revamped the brand. Awareness of the soda is really good,” he said.

Meanwhile, to support execution, Meissner has accessed a $10 million line of credit and sold off one of Jones’ biggest assets, a trademark on customized labels, to a firm that plans to try to recoup – and share – funds from lawsuits based around infringements of that trademark.

Recapitalized, slimmed down, and with a sense of purpose, Meissner seems to have Jones ready to go.
“Everybody I’ve dealt with has seen a lot of enthusiasm about them coming back,” says Justin Bibeau, the head of the non-alcoholic beverage operation with Thorpe Distributing, an Anheuser Busch/InBev distributor in Minnesota. “The major plus has been them coming in and being honest, saying there have been some dark times, and that we’re re-launching.”

The uptick has been noticeable, both in the brand’s share price, which has recovered from pennies to over a dollar, and in authorizations. Fanatical about re-activating accounts, for example, Meissner called from Florida for this story after taking a red-eye to try to get the brand back into Publix.

“We have been thrown out of wholesalers, out of retailers, and we’re trying to repair those relationships now,” Meissner says.  “But in no case have we heard, ‘it hasn’t sold.’ It’s more ‘we were promised this, we were promised that, and that didn’t happen.’”

The problem for Jones was never about the brand. If it had been, van Stolk wouldn’t still be in demand as a speaker about branding ideas. Instead, and this is where Meissner believes he comes in, it’s about timing and execution.

“They tried to overharvest the brand early,” he says. “There was this idea that we can put it on anything and it’ll sell. They had an enhanced water, they had brain enhancement with GABA, they had a tea and an organic play. They weren’t able to apply appropriate marketing pressure they were dividing it against eight distinct marketing platforms.”

Now that Meissner is in place to stop the bleeding, he is looking at where the opportunity might be for a revitalized Jones Soda. He believes it’s a brand that could own a 1 percent share of the energy drink category with the recently-relaunched WhoopAss, and enough chain authorizations to boost its presence in grocery from 22 percent to more than 60 percent. The idea is to run deep in the channels and with the consumers who have always loved Jones, and to get the once-brilliant company back on its feet (and, it should be noted, long-disappointed shareholders off its back).

If 1 percent doesn’t sound like a lot, consider the scale: in a $4 billion category like energy drinks, that’s $40 million; with strong growth for CSDs in chain stores, he sees revenues growing from $26 million to more than $60 million.

“We can top out at a half-billion,” Meissner says. “But right now I have $100 million in my sights.”
As an example of the kind of execution needed to get the brand to those lofty marks, Meissner points out a merchandising coup he recently pulled off with Old Navy, a company whose young, style-on-the-cheap shoppers in many ways correlate with the target consumer for Jones. In November, the company launched a program that would put Jones Soda coolers in Old Navy stores nationwide. It’s not an overwhelmingly large sales proposition, but it’s an idea in the spirit of the nimble marketing approach Jones might have employed in the past.

“All the difficulty and challenge or nuance of this brand, that’s the hardest part, you can miss it – Jones has had a brand that connects with consumers since day one,” he says. “You mention Jones to a kid, and I challenge anyone to not hear them say I love it. There’s nothing like this brand – and all we didn’t have were the easy parts – the sales execution, commitment to the trade, return on investment – we had all the gold in the brand.”

Maybe that’s easy for Meissner to say. After all, he’s the execution guy, not the crazy dreamer. But if he manages to grant Jones a new lease on life after all the time the company has had in the wilderness, there might be room to consider him and van Stolk as one of the greatest, oddest beverage couples of them all. Even if they never shared the lease.  •