How Van Stolk’s Company Goes Global
Sitting on a shelf just outside van Stolk’s office were two two-litre jugs of Sam’s Choice soda from WAL-MART. “They’re there so that every day, as I walk past, I’m reminded of what I don’t want to be,” he said.
It was with this strategy in mind, of being different from the rest, that van Stolk began his latest company, Jones Soda Co., in 1994. First, he started by introducing his own brand of bottled water, WAZU. It was the company’s first internally developed brand. Van Stolk followed this up with the introduction of Jones Soda in 1996 in six flavours: Orange, Cherry, Lemon Lime, Strawberry Lime, Raspberry, and Grape.
“I couldn’t get the name Smith,” recalls van Stolk with reference to his company’s name. “It was taken because there was a Dr. Smith Soda in the Midwest. I wanted to be the Smith Soda Co….I wanted a traditional name for a product that had relevancy to a community.”
Van Stolk eventually settled on the name Jones, and he was clear on his ambition. “How could we create a connection with customers, let them play with the brand, let them take ownership of it?” To that end, the new 12oz glass bottles were labeled with photos submitted directly by customers in a marketing ploy designed to create an “emotional attachment” to the brand. They were also sold in alternative venues such as music stores and tattoo and piercing parlors in order add to their alternative image.
The company’s motto became, “Run with the little guy…create some change.” Van Stolk’s strategy worked and the brand slowly began to take off. In 2000, the Urban Juice and Soda Company changed its name to Jones Soda Co., benefiting from the fact that 85% of the company’s revenues came solely from the sales of Jones Soda.
By 1997, van Stolk had completely discontinued his distribution of other products, choosing to instead focus exclusively on developing his own brands. Thanks to van Stolk’s unique marketing tactics, word of mouth about the young company quickly began to spread. It was featured in media outlets from the New York Times to NBC News Today.
Van Stolk took advantage of the increased publicity to negotiate deals with large retail chains, including 7-Eleven, Bames and nobel and Wall mart. He also began creating spin-off brands, such as Natural Jones Soda, Slim Jones, and Whoop Ass, an energy drink. Van Stolk also introduced MyJones, allowing customers to create personalized 12-packs of Jones Soda.
With the introduction of Jones in Starbucks chains throughout western Canada and the U.S., Jones Soda continued to get bigger. In 2000, van Stolk made the important decision to move headquarters from Vancouver to Seattle. “Ninety percent of our business was in the U.S.,” said van Stolk. “If you want to play in the big leagues, the U.S. is where the business is done. It’s the market you have to be in to say you are successful.”
From there, Jones Soda only continued to expand. The next few years would see the introduction of 12 oz cans for the first time, distribution deals with Target and Kmart, and 22 additional flavours of Jones Soda, including Turkey and Gravy, Fruitcake, Green Bean Casserole, and Mashed Potatoes and Butter Soda.
“My view is that Jones is more of an experience than just a soda,” says van Stolk. “Nike isn’t just a shoe company – it’s an apparel company, it’s a lifestyle company, it’s a company that creates an emotional connection with customers. Nike would never be the company it is if Phil Knight thought of it as a shoe company.”
Van Stolk served as President and CEO of Jones Soda from 1993 to 2007, and as Chairman of the Board from 2003 to 2007. Today, despite stepping down from the company he founded, it continues to expand and profit under new leadership.
5 LEADERSHIP LESSONS:
1/ Pump up your marketing with promotions
2/ Use your customers as secret ingredients
3/ Give your company a shock treatment
4/ Giving back and give you more
5/ Change the rule of the game