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the challenge

Paul Underhill created the nutritious drink Rumble.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

Originally concocted in a kitchen blender, Rumble was designed by Paul Underhill, who was born with cystic fibrosis and underwent a double lung transplant in 2011, to bring himself back to health.

The nutrient-rich shake is packed with 20 grams of protein in each 12-ounce bottle, along with kale, walnut oil, pomegranate and beet juice – just to name a few of its all-natural ingredients. An avid cyclist, Mr. Underhill, 44, wanted to create a nourishing beverage that was free of the artificial additives in the meal replacement drinks that his doctor suggested.

By November of 2012, the former B.C. government employee launched Rumble Drinks Ltd. along with co-founders Kim McQueen, a naturopathic doctor who helped tweak the formula, Steve Hughes and James McQueen.

Sales of the product, which comes in Dutch cocoa or vanilla maple at $3.99 a bottle, brought in about $500,000 in 2013. Rumble has a 12-month shelf-life – a great advantage for shipping and storage – but is usually sold in the refrigerated case. It is available at Whole Foods and natural foods stores across Canada as well as in fitness clubs and cycling shops. Sobeys, Thrifty Foods and Longo's have also begun to carry the product.

Last year, the Victoria-based company successfully made its case on the CBC's Dragons' Den. Although that deal didn't happen, by mutual agreement, Rumble went on to receive private funding from another Toronto investment group. The company plans to expand to the United States, where its strategy will be the same as in Canada – start in natural foods stores and then follow with conventional grocery stores.

Labeled as a "nourishing drink" by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the first in that category, and as "Rumble Supershake" for the U.S. market, Mr. Underhill says the biggest challenge for the company is explaining what his product is.

"You have to relate it to things that people already know," Mr. Underhill says. "So we'll say it's not a meal replacement or a natural energy drink or a smoothie, but it has elements of all three."

With a consumer marketing budget of $75,000, which includes its U.S. launch this spring, the company isn't sure what to do.

THE CHALLENGE: How can Rumble market a difficult-to-categorize product with only a shoestring budget?


Mark Ferrier, founder and owner of the marketing and advertising agency TraffikGroup Inc., Toronto

Rumble has a great product but they haven't actually figured out how to make it into a brand that fills a need consumers have. They're trying to be everything to everyone. That's not a good strategy.

Go into a category that has the same affinities and consumer base that you want, then give them more.

For every hero, there needs to be an enemy. When you find someone who is spending a lot of money to build a marketplace, "jetstream" that marketplace. I call it a host. Rumble needs to find a host and be the better solution for those consumers who have already bought into that segment, because they don't have enough money to create a segment for themselves.

I'd go into recovery beverages, which are athletic-focused. They could look at what chocolate milk has done and find their niche in that segment. Milk 2 Go Sport has done a great job in building that category with relevance.

Rico DiGiovanni, president and partner, Spider Marketing Solutions Inc., Toronto

You can't do much with $75,000, so Rumble will have to go more guerrilla and social media. They should listen in to the action on social media in regards to energy, nutritional drinks and fitness (i.e. cycling) to try to find some key influencers – people who have large followers in those categories – to really create a buzz.

If the product is good and they can get it into enough influencers' hands, it will work. Then it becomes part of their success story for the larger retailers. People trust those influencers much more that they trust any kind of advertising methods. Rumble might get that natural mass groundswell at the grassroots level.

Also, it helps if you can get people asking store managers for it. Nothing drives distribution quicker than a shopper saying, "I'm looking for X. Help me find it." The large chains react to demand.

Peter Neal, co-founder, Neal Brothers Foods Inc., a natural foods distribution, marketing and production company, Concord, Ont.

Rumble is premature in going to the United States. There's no rush to get it to market. The product isn't distinctly different enough that someone will copy it and they'll lose their competitive edge. With a half-million in sales in Canada, their business is just starting to grow. They should have sales of at least $3-million here first.

They should spend their $75,000 all in Canada. I'd allocate $10,000 toward point-of-purchase materials, from shelf danglers to custom display racks. The danglers should help tell their "feed your hunger" message, and the display racks should have the same look, feel and footprint as a Power Bar rack. A portable display rack can go anywhere – next to where the product is positioned in the cooler section or in the dry goods right in front of the nourishing protein bars. Put racks in the Running Room, MEC, New Balance and other specialty stores ... but don't just drop them off. Engage the people who'll be selling your brand. Get in with your team, hand out product, tell the story, hug them – so they'll be able to speak the gospel to their clients within their stores.

Paul has a story that needs to be told, so I'd also hire a PR firm. Ask what they can do in nine months for $30,000. Cystic fibrosis, double lung transplant, an avid cyclist – I'd have PR pushing toward Paul's cycling community. It's huge. I'd spend $10,000 on good technical Rumble gear – such as great cycling shirts and give them out to cycling teams. People love that.


Display counts

Spend money on point-of-purchase display racks and materials that tell your story.

Whom are you up against?

Figure out who your real competition is, then focus on doing it better. Sometimes what you are can be defined by what your competition is not.

Find influencers

Seed the product with people who have influence on social media. Then let them talk it up.

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Interviews have been edited and condensed.