Marketers dream of successfully creating a billion-dollar brand. Mike Repole, co-founder and former president of Vitaminwater, can check that off his bucket list. In 2007 he sold the brand to Coca-Cola and vowed never to return to the beverage game.
Well, he’s back. This time, he’s formed something of a supergroup with the co-founder of Fuze, Lance Collins (who also built a solid brand and subsequently sold out to Coca-Cola). Together they launched BodyArmor SuperDrink in January.
Repole is also chairman and largest individual shareholder of Pirate’s Booty, all-natural snacks, and Energy Kitchen, a healthy fast-food eatery. Since his acquisitions of both companies in 2008, Pirate’s Booty has grown 300 percent, and Energy Kitchen is poised to open 40 new restaurants throughout the East Coast of the United States in the next two years.
Repole took a few minutes from his schedule of incessant brand building to talk about how he chooses brands to back, how the beverage industry has radically changed, and how handicapping horse races as a teenager influences everything he does. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: What’s the biggest branding lesson you learned from Vitaminwater?
A: You can’t be everything to everybody or you wind up being nothing to nobody. Brands try to be so many things to so many people that they lose their identity. It causes consumer confusion.
It’s been almost four years since we acquired Pirate’s Booty. Eighty percent of the consumers are ages 2 to 12, and the moms feel good about giving it to their kids. We’re not trying to force the 40-plus couch potato to eat it. We’re staying in our sweet spot.
Q: What brought you back to the beverage category?
A: Lack of innovation. If coconut water is the only thing [the category can] come up with over the last 10 years, it’s an embarrassment.
[There’s a reason, though.] The nice beverage story of three Snapple guys and Tom and Tom of Nantucket Nectars doesn’t happen anymore. It’s kind of sad. You didn’t need $10 million to $15 million to get started. You could start with a small company doing a little up-and-down-the-street business in Boston and New York. Now there are less mom-and-pops. It’s more chain driven. [Among the barriers] retailers want you to pay slotting immediately now… It would be hard for me to talk to a beverage entrepreneur and say this is great business to get into right now. You’ll lose money the first five or six years. You have to be ready for that. We did that at Vitaminwater, although the amount of money we lost was a lot less than the demands now.
That’s why consumers have seen the same things at the same places for the past five years. They’re excited to see a new product like BodyArmor. They’re like ‘wow, something different.’ Retailers and distributors are excited. After three months in the Northeast, it’s selling; it’s moving.
Q: What is the story behind Energy Kitchen?
A: The one thing I focus on is brands that are ahead of the consumer. Where will the consumer be three to five years from now? Obesity rates are getting higher and higher every single year. One industry that can make the biggest change in helping fight obesity in the United States is fast food. But, they [fast-food franchises] are still trying to supersize you.
At Energy Kitchen, everything is steamed, grilled or baked and under 500 calories. It delivers on taste in a time that fits with people’s hectic lifestyles. Where else can you get baked fries or a wheat bun? Five Guys puts 700 calories of fries in a bag. They are soaked in oil and it drips to the bottom of the bag. You end up having 1,800 calories for lunch and are asleep at your desk by 4 p.m. How is this good for America?
Q: How does your love of horse racing fit into your decisions as a marketer?
A: I used to go to the track during my high school years around [ages] 13 to 17. I fell in love with handicapping. In horse racing, there are so many variables: the jockey, trainer, wet track, dry track, has the horse raced in a while? It’s a great thinking exercise. You’re looking at every single edge about why this horse can or can’t win.
I don’t recommend it [going to the horse track] for a high school curriculum, but it helped me in business to ask the extra question to make sure every base is covered. Whether I’m meeting my VP of operations or sales, by the time they are finished, I have six extra questions. It’s about thinking about every variable, what’s working, what’s not working or what needs to be done better. It’s a thinking exercise that helped me succeed as an entrepreneur.
Horse racing is also a cure for overconfidence. No matter how much you plan, you can still lose. It teaches you how to take a loss.
Kenneth Hein is director of North American marketing for gyro, the global ideas shop
Follow him @KennethHein