Positioning Off Page Six

WHEN IT COMES TO THE BIG game, there’s an old saying: “Act like you’ve been there before.” It’s a piece of advice designed to help a newbie’s psyche ward off the massive challenge at hand, and also to provide a guideline for demeanor and comportment.

I’m thinking of this not because of the World Series or the NFL but rather because of the recent mania I’ve seen with product launches. In the past few years brand kickoffs have become a mess of silicon, rocket fuel, and glitz, but they haven’t been backed up the by quantifiable numbers, supply chain rationalizations or sales experience needed to move products from warehouse to truck to shelf. One just can’t help feeling that some people are in this more to appear on Page Six in the New York Post than grab six re-orders from Manhattan Beer.

Even the “soft launch” has become so brazen that we’re warned which celebutantes and DJs will be swilling vodka-mixed-with-whatever and attending the party up to four months before a product is anywhere close to ready; we’re shipped empty cans in museum-worthy boxes and told about Wall Street blowhard co-investors. But often as not, the products never match to the hype. Sure, they’re mimicking the approach of a Monster or a Rockstar – but they don’t realize that those brands didn’t launch that way, and they didn’t just grow through audacious marketing. In fact, they can do audacious because they’ve already invested in the grass roots, not just the fertilizer.

But for every three or four of these products that go with the publicity-first approach, there’s a team working out there that is acting like they’ve been there before, talking to the distributors and retailers and wise men of the business, studying shelf sets and shopper data, learning the right region and pitch for a product. They aren’t afraid to rip up old packaging and formulas, or even to pull stuff from the shelf and give it a quiet period before trying again with the new taste or new look.

Sometimes, they still don’t get the breakout hit, but there are plenty of worthy products that, even from a small footprint, are biding their time, showing up every year to the necessary industry events, and much more importantly, doing the tough ground work of supplying distributors and brokers with the sales support they need to make sure products move.

Still, there’s more than one way to motivate a distributor: at the recent NACS show, two contrasting – but nevertheless effective – methods were on display. At the Adina booth, John Bello was working it like the Barnum of beverages, going hoarse as he exhorted distributors to saddle up with him for one last ride to glory and gold. Selling shares of a company to distributors in exchange for their devotion is at this point a time-honored way of getting product onto the shelves, but this kind of wholesale auction in the aisles was something new. Still, while Bello might have been pushing pedal-to-medal on a relatively untested product, the simple fact that he and his veteran partners and sales organization seemed to know exactly where they wanted to go, and which distributors and retailers they wanted to go there with, served to reassure a lot of otherwise wary vets.

“Nothing is ideal, but this is as close to ideal as it gets,” said Max Lyon, who owns a distributorship in upstate New York.

They go back a long way with Bello, and the notion that they could, as he put it “build a power brand together,” seemed to be a lot more attractive to potential customers than the skin on display at other, nearby booths.

Meanwhile, across the aisle, a growing all-natural tea brand was showing some veteran savvy of its own. He had an un-flashy booth and a sales team that looked torn from Accountants’ Weekly – but there was New Leaf Tea owner Eric Skae, bringing on new accounts while shoring up relationships with existing ones. New Leaf has a strong presence in Manhattan and the rest of the Northeast, but the plain-spoken Skae feels the time has come to start flexing.

“We’re just selling a lot,” he told me. “We were kind of the unknown, but now the unknown is becoming known. Brands don’t get built overnight.”

It’s taken Skae years of scrapping to scale up his distribution and get the company on a firm financial footing; recently, he finished doing just that, easing his debt load and grabbing the kind of operating capital he needs to take his lean operation national. He doesn’t believe in flashy rollouts or big bashes to get buzz built; nevertheless people talked about it – even those working far from New York.

“Good product,” said a distributor from Oklahoma. “We can’t get enough.”

It wouldn’t seem to be a natural fit, but New Leaf and its distributors know what works. They know that putting out a product in a confident way goes a lot further than putting a product on Page Six.

“Distributors need to see you and know they’re your partners,” said Skae. “I always thought this was a step-by-step business. It’s still about price, position, and point of sale.”

Bello knows that, too. He might seem nutty in his rush to get his products on the shelves, but as always, there’s a rationale behind the madness. And if it gets him on Page Six, well, who’s to say he hasn’t been there before?