When Jones Soda Co. went looking for a new marketing gambit to help revive its faded brand, it found a golden opportunity right next door.
With its headquarters across the street from the Seattle Seahawks' stadium, the boutique soft-drinks company is taking full advantage of the football team's shot at a second consecutive Super Bowl victory this Sunday.
Jones Soda has produced a special run of blue-and-green 12th Man bottles, referring to the name of the Seahawks raucous supporters, known as the loudest in the NFL.
Jones Soda has hosted tailgate parties on game days in Seattle, and this week has dispatched the company RV, flying a 12th Man flag, to the Super Bowl in Arizona for some guerrilla marketing.
The creative efforts are part of a plan to re-energize the once-booming company as it works through years of difficult rebuilding after its business crashed. It's a daunting challenge for a tiny company in an industry dominated by giants Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo. at a time when the carbonated soft-drink market as a whole is in decline, shrinking annually for the past decade. Other beverages such as energy drinks produced by Red Bull GmbH are all the rage.
But Jennifer Cue is a believer.
Ms. Cue grew up in Vancouver and worked in venture capital when she joined Jones in the mid-1990s at its Vancouver head office. Jones Soda had a quirky approach, with distinctive Jones glass bottles featuring photographs submitted by customers. Alongside typical flavours such as orange or cherry it also launched more adventurous offerings such as fufu berry.
"I fell in love with the brand," Ms. Cue said in a recent interview at the Jones office in Seattle.
She became chief financial officer, as the company's growth took off. Jones moved to Seattle in 2000, to focus on its growth in the United States. Sales in 2000 were $3.2-million (U.S.) and soared to $39.8-million in 2007.
Ms. Cue, seeking time off from the breakneck pace, had left the company in late 2005. Ambition had gone too far, and Jones launched too many products. That led to losses as sales peaked, and Coca-Cola took over when Jones eventually lost a deal it had as the soft-drink sponsor of the Seahawks.
By the end of 2007, company founder and CEO Peter van Stolk departed and in 2009 sales began to crash.
Following a series of CEOs, Ms. Cue returned as boss in 2012. Sales were down more than 50 per cent. The stock, formerly Nasdaq-listed, fell into the penny realm and was punted to the over-the-counter market.
"The business side, if you looked at the financials, were kind of scary," said Ms. Cue, sipping a can of berry lemonade sparkling water, a new product the slimmed-down company is testing.
Smaller and smarter became the refrain. Salaries, staff and marketing were cut. The product line was corralled with some drinks dropped such as WhoopAss, an attempt to crack into energy drinks. Geographic reach, too, was contained to mostly the West and Midwest United States and Canada. Operating expenses of $11.5-million in 2011 were more than halved to about $5-million.
Sales have now stabilized at about $15-million annually. There remains a feeling of flux. Throughout the one-floor of the ramshackle Jones office are pallets of product. The company is soon moving to a cheaper location nearby with proper warehouse space.
The company has slipped beyond most investors' attention and Ms. Cue is now the largest investor. "I'm all in," she said last August, when her $523,000 investment bolstered the company's cash reserves.
Jordan Terry, who runs a small research firm called Stone Street, wrote a positive piece on Jones in mid-2013 – but today feels the company needs the backing of a bigger entity.
"Jones is a great brand, a great product, with loyal fans/customers, and there are some great people involved," Mr. Terry said in an e-mail, "but it is also a company that desperately needs to be rolled-up into a larger company with significantly greater resources to succeed."
As Jones retrenched, it has also selectively staked out new ideas. One is Jones Stripped, low on sugar and calories. Another new effort is the flavoured sparkling water in small cans.
Crafty marketing is another tactic, starting with the company's work around the Seahawks. In Canada, where the company has remained successful, Jones last year did a tiny run of Poutine Soda. It sparked media attention. "Jones Soda's Poutine Flavour: Awful or Amazing?" read one online headline. It was a throwback to when Jones would playfully put out small runs of products such as Bacon Soda.
"Things have stabilized," says Ms. Cue. The company is still losing money – $1.2-million on sales of $11.1-million in the first nine months of 2014 – but Ms. Cue believes losses have been contained. "The company," she declares of a potential Seattle comeback story, "has been re-engineered."