Bevnet Live Showcases Entrepreneurs

Capitalism, Consciousness, and Coca-Cola were all part of the mix out West.

December’s BevNET Live conference in Santa Monica presented industry rock stars from The Coca-Cola Co., Inc. and 5-Hour energy amid a tableau of brands that make their impact, in part, through their consciences.

With presentations and panels entitled “Getting Converts and Creating Categories,” and “Build a Conscious Brand – and Attract Investment Anyway,” the conference showcased entrepreneurs and investors who bring a greener, crunchier dynamic than their forerunners. That Southern California vibe briefly dispersed, however, to make way for two of the industry’s most powerful forces: 5-Hour Energy and The Coca-Cola Co., Inc.’s Venturing and Emerging Brands unit.

Deryck van Rensburg, president of VEB, outlined how Coke approaches the entrepreneurial beverage space. His unit generates products internally, van Rensburg, said – both through innovation and importation of overseas Coke products – but also grows through acquisitions. VEB acquires brands, he said, only if they add a unique offering to Coke’s portfolio, and only once the brand has the sales to prove that its concept works (usually between $10 and $50 million).

Van Rensburg’s company suffered oblique potshots from Manoj Bhargava, founder and CEO of 5-Hour Energy-maker Living Essentials, who presented a view of brand building that cuts against convention. He used what he called a “common sense” approach, he said, one free of consultants (something he joked was evident in the brand’s name), and instead employing pragmatic solutions to overcome obstacles. Instead of competing with Coke and Pepsi in the cooler, he said, he competed with key chains and lighters by the cash register. He also used small, independent distributors who sell products out of their trunks, and once had the company affix adhesive plastic hooks to his product’s caps to satisfy a convenience chain that would only accept 5-Hour if it could hang from a display rack.

Moving from competition to consciousness, the conference provided presentations from companies with unconventional growth strategies: Sambazon co-founders Ryan and Jeremy Black presented their take on how building a company that values the rainforest as highly as profits helped them find capital. Noted deal-maker Brent Knudsen echoed that sentiment during the panel discussion that followed: having a defined brand world-view, Knudsen said, acts as a filter that may discourage some investors, but intrigues and attracts others, which can lead to a better match between founders and investors.

Steaz co-founders Eric Schnell and Steve Kessler aired their experience with how cooperating with retail partner Whole Foods furthered their brand. Schnell and Kessler said some product developments, like Steaz Energy, came at Whole Foods’ request. Others, they said, still came with deep involvement from the grocer on formulations, price-points and packaging.

The program also featured many rising stars: David Karr, co-founder of Guayaki Yerba Mate; Greg Stroh and James Rouse, co-founders of MIX1; and Mark Rampolla, Michael Kirban and Rodrigo Veloso, the founders of ZICO, Vita Coco and O.N.E. coconut waters, respectively.

T.J. Louderback, president of Bay Area Beverages, told attendees he sees a promising environment for entrepreneurial beverages, quipping “if this is as bad as it gets, we’re in pretty good shape.” With an eye toward getting more small brands over the hump and into distribution houses like Louderback’s, BevNET is planning another event, to be held in the summer of 2010 on the East Coast.