Today there are hundreds of new-age, non-carbonated teas, vitamin-enhanced waters and herbal supplement-filled beverages on convenience store shelves, but it wasn’t always thus.
Back in the 1990s, John Bello was looking to make a difference in the growing non-carbonated beverage market. He had already spent a successful career as a marketing and strategy planner for General Foods, Pepsi-Cola, and the NFL. He was one of those people for whom product differentiation had become habit, and he was pretty good at making product improvements people love.
As John watched the soft drink industry slowly evolve away from being sold only at grocery stores and enter a new era of distribution in convenience stores (and as the success of a few companies like Snapple and AriZona Iced Tea caught his eye), he saw a whole new opportunity to make a difference, and he seized it.
When we talked with Bello, he explained how he had learned from his years at Pepsi that beverages are fashion: “And fashion is all about keeping things new: fresh packaging, bold flavors, fun names.”
So when John set out to create a new startup in the soft drink world, he named his company South Beach Beverage Company hoping to tap into the then-popular Florida lifestyle image. They made up new combinations of flavors, brainstormed a few clever names and, in 1996, South Beach drinks hit stores in Connecticut and Florida.
The product/brand mix was new. The products were good. The teas and juices sported a bright lizard and flashy names like Boca-Berry Grape and Palm-Peach Mango. But as John and his team took their new products to market, they quickly realized their drinks weren’t exactly all that different from everything else on the market: “Soon sales, shelf space and money began to run low,” John explained.
South Beach beverages were liked, but not loved. John thought his products were different, but the market did not.
The only bright spot was the company’s healthy-sounding orange/carrot juice blend, Orange Elixir, that was getting some fairly positive consumer feedback. It was a useful hint that John and his partners followed to discover how to truly differentiate their products in a crowded category.
Curious at the success of Orange Elixir, and keenly aware of the rising interest in herbal supplements, John wondered if adding more health-promoting ingredients to the mix would reverse South Beach’s fortunes.
If beta-carotene was somehow magically selling juicewhat other magic potions might be out there, they wondered.
Acting on a bright idea for a new ingredient from a company executive’s son (and evolving the product name to SoBe), John’s team had discovered a great new mix: non-carbonated drinks with herbal supplements.
The team remodeled and fine-tuned their products and launched SoBe 3G Black Tea in December 1996. The “3G” stood for ginseng, ginkgo, and guarana — herbs that were purported to improve energy, concentration and endurance. The bottle also adopted a new Asian slant (a yin-yang Lizard logo designed by John’s daughter).
Adding herbal supplements to juices and teas was an instant hit. SoBe 3G Black Tea flew off shelves. Customers everywhere gave the new mix a huge thumbs up — proof that the best and simplest way to achieve product differentiation is not to reposition it, but to actually improve the mix, do something different, make a change that people love.
If you find your product, service or work product looking, sounding, tasting or performing exactly like everyone else, go after improving your mix. Add something unexpected to it or remove something from your mix that people don’t love about it.
After the success of 3G Black Tea, SoBe began rolling out teas and juices with exotic ingredients like Echinacea, selenium and bee pollen, along with other herbs, vitamins and minerals. In 1998, drinks like Zen Blend, Wisdom and Dragon Tea hit the shelves. SoBe had made such a difference that in 2001 Pepsi bought the company for a few hundred million dollars.
Adding herbal supplements and vitamins to beverages was a brilliant idea. People flocked to it. Competitors copied it. The world loved it. And that’s something that usually happens when we embrace the idea that products actually need to be different to make a difference people love.
Note: This article originally appeared on Forbes.com
David Sturt is an executive vice president at O.C. Tanner and author of the New York Times best seller "Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love" (McGraw-Hill). You can follow him on twitter @david_sturt or visit www.greatwork.com.