At each step of the way, Alger has been reminded of Don Watt’s lesson about brand equity. “Parents who view Coke and Pepsi as the enemy don’t have the same kind of disdain for the Pop Shoppe,” he says. “And when I sit across from a Zellers buyer and he says, ‘I loved the Pop Shoppe as a kid,’ it makes all the difference. If I’m in there pushing ‘Brian’s Soda,’ he wouldn’t even take the meeting.” There’s brisk traffic in Pop Shoppe memorabilia online, and Alger has Eddie Shack back as a spokesman, with a bobble-head doll planned. But Canadians are sentimental about their iconic brands. Pop Shoppe was available stateside in its first incarnation, but never made as big an impression. Will Americans remember—or care?
Alger has been talking about venturing into the States for at least four years, and last fall he tested the waters at a massive convenience-store trade show in Las Vegas. He knows he has no chance at national distribution until he establishes some track record regionally in the splintered American market, and that means teaming up with smaller players. “You have to work really hard with them to get the brand built up and you have to get your own salespeople in,” he says. “You also have to hold accounts receivable for a lot of those distributors.” In short, he’d need to staff up, fast. His U.S. game plan calls for focusing on a few states, mainly in the West and Southwest, where the Pop Shoppe’s name resonates most, then embarking on a grassroots promotional campaign. But many existing regional sodas rule their home markets, notes Kergl. The Faygo brand, for example, has 90% penetration in the Detroit area. “If you take the Pop Shoppe into Detroit, you’ll get killed by Faygo,” he says. “And that’s just over the border.”
Ezra, the American beverage consultant, notes that any U.S. partner would evaluate the margins, the number and strength of rivals, and Pop Shoppe’s management team. He’d recommend starting in a test market—ideally, a medium-sized southern or southwestern city like San Diego or Tucson, where per-capita consumption of so-called new-age beverages is highest. “If you can’t make it there, you don’t have a chance anywhere else,” he says. Still, Ezra says that every region has a core group of consumers—16- to 35-year-old hipsters interested in alternative culture—who like to try new soda products. And the nostalgia peg has definite value, he adds, provided it rings true. “But I don’t think it can carry the day. The actual drinkability, packaging and execution of the brand, which channels you choose, the marketing support—that’s going to be 90%.”
All that, of course, takes money. To get it, Alger is mulling the prospect of taking the Pop Shoppe public in the fall. He believes he could play the nostalgia card once again. “If I’m a guy sitting at home, I’d buy 100 shares of the Pop Shoppe, why not? It’s a brand I love,” he reasons.
Alger has handed over the funding puzzle to Paul Ogilvie, a consultant who helps companies raise capital. Alger met him through his accountant and describes him as “a slick wheeler-dealer kind of guy.” Ogilvie certainly has the patter. “The IPO climate for brands is very hot right now,” he says. What sort of brands? He won’t say, but adds that brands can command high valuations if they’ve established their power in the market. Ogilvie also notes that Jones Soda’s decline offers an opportunity for rivals. But doesn’t Jones’s meltdown (as well as that of its rejected buyer, Reed’s Inc.) make it a discouraging benchmark for investors always looking for comparable companies? “Well, that’s two out of about 100 examples that have been tremendously successful.” Such as? Ogilvie can’t think of one.
A public offering is just one of three parallel tracks Ogilvie is exploring on Alger’s behalf. Another option is venture capital, which would allow the company to stay private and thus more nimble for a few more years while it establishes itself in the U.S. The third is a joint venture along the lines of Coke’s and Pepsi’s partnerships with independent bottlers. A company like the giant store-brand supplier Cott Corp., say, could take a part-ownership in the Pop Shoppe in exchange for committing significant resources to establishing the brand in the U.S. “It’s really about truck filling: If a truck is two-thirds full, you might as well fill the rest with the Pop Shoppe,” says Ogilvie.