BevNET Live’s Second Day Draws The Entrepreneurial Path

Rising From Near Nothing

One brand that has succeeded in marketing to millennials is Rockstar Energy. After a weekend trip in Las Vegas, perhaps somewhat like the kind that has become cliché on television, then Skyy vodka employee Russ Weiner said to his buddies: “we partied like rock stars.” His co-worker May heard this and the light bulb went on. Shortly after, with $50,000 for 3,000 cases and transportation, Rockstar Energy was born.

“We looked at the positioning of brands such as Virgin and Playboy who had successfully built brand identity and equity around terms from the current popular vernacular,” said May, now Rockstar’s executive vice president of marketing. “We knew that we could capture the identity of the term ‘Rockstar.’”

The album jackets for ACDC’s Back in Black and Highway to Hell, Van Halen’s eponymous debut album and Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power inspired May in his design of the Rockstar can. The deliberation, May said, resulted in a simple and strong message.

“A larger package, superior liquid, a black can with a clean iconic design – it was obvious to me from the onset that the Rockstar brand was destined for success,” May said.

In early 2001, Cannata was running a local political campaign in San Francisco. Through a mutual friend, he met Weiner and quickly formed a friendship. Soon after Weiner landed Southern Wine and Spirits as a distributor, he hired Cannata, now the executive vice president of sales and distribution, to form new distributor alliances with retail consumers across the country.

“We were fortunate in the sense that Russ was successful in obtaining some of the key, major retailers in California early on. Accounts such as Chevron, 7-Eleven, BevMO, Costco and Safeway,” Cannata said.

When necessary, Cannata took a hands-on approach to securing distributors. One day early in Rockstar’s existence, he set up a meeting with the general manager of M&M distributing, a part of the Admiral Beverage Group. He loaded a UHaul with Rockstar and drove to Salt Lake City for the meeting, which went, he said, just fine but not great — no product was sold. After the meeting, Cannata drove to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City and gave cases of Rockstar to the local bars and nightclubs. Before he left Utah, he told those bars and nightclubs that when they wanted more Rockstar to call the general manager of M&M in Salt Lake City. Four days later, the general manager called Cannata complaining about his endlessly ringing phone and insisted on making a deal. Admiral Beverage Group, Cannata said, currently represents one of the highest share areas for Rockstar and has consistently been one of the best performing distributors.

“I guess you could say Rockstar crashed the party,” he said. “Pure guerilla marketing.”

In 2005, Rockstar struck a deal with Coca-Cola Enterprises and in 2009, switched to PepsiCo. The energy drink brand, which now sponsors various concerts and all kinds of left field sports like wakeboarding and bull riding, has been soaring ever since, but has apparently never forgotten those early lessons in flexibility. Re-aligning sales and marketing operations across two large distribution networks isn’t easy, Cannata said, particularly when you’ve been selling against the products you’re now selling alongside. It’s a lesson that can be applied to large companies and small ones alike.