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Lil Jon Crunks Up the Volume

For Lil Jon, a platinum-selling rapper known for rowdiness and an ever-present jeweled chalice, starting a soft drink to explain his boundless energy (and, of course, to fill the chalice) seemed only natural. Two years ago, the Atlanta native teamed up with Sidney Frank, a liquor-business veteran and the creator of Grey Goose vodka, to make Crunk!!!, an energy drink named for the slang term for acting crazy or excited (see BW Online, 1/5/05, "Energy Drinks Build Their Buzz").

After hitting store shelves in March, 2004, the $2-a-can potion has generated roughly $1 million in revenue, according to company officials. BusinessWeek Online reporter Burt Helm recently spoke with Lil Jon about how he plans to set Crunk!!! apart in the crowded energy-drink market, why hip-hop lends itself to entrepreneurship, and what his next business move will be. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: Why did you become interested in starting an energy drink?

A: Crunk means energy, and we wanted to make it so people could be as wild and as rowdy as me.

Q: You're coming up against a lot of challenges from big players like Red Bull and the literally hundreds of other brands out there. How do you plan to compete?

A: Well, our biggest thing is that it tastes better. But we're marketing with a straight-up street campaign, marketing the drink guerrilla-style, do whatever we can get the drink in whatever places we can. Because every time we get it in people's hands, they love that taste.

Q: What role do you play in the branding effort and the company as a whole?

A: That's the most important part. Most of the time, people just put their name on a product. But this is a brand that, you know, I was involved in every aspect, from the way the can looks all the way to the taste.

Out in public, you know, I'd pull it out of my pocket every time at award shows, while on stage, and so on. And I'd bring a case with me when I go to the club, give it out to people, or whatever, whatever, whatever. Everybody wants to be wild and crazy like me. They want to be screaming [my catchphrases] "Yeah!" "What!" "Ooh-kay!" That alone is bigger marketing than all of what's going on with these other brands.

Q: We've seen products marketed through hip-hop lyrics before. In this case, you've named an entire album Crunk Juice. Why?

A: Well, we really made the album Crunk Juice because people were always wondering what I was drinking out of my cup. Curiosity alone will make them want to drink the drink, and Crunk Juice the album personifies a party. And it also promotes the drink. Being in the hip-hop world, we have to promote ourselves and our product anyway we can, because we don't get that much opportunity, we don't have the big marketing dollars of certain corporations. So you have to be guerrilla-style with it.

Q: Who do you look up to in the business world?

A: Well, of course, Russell [Simmons], Puff [Sean "P. Diddy" Combs]. I've known Puff for a long time and to still do music and then go into the fashion world and take over the fashion industry like he's done is incredible. Same when Russell started Phat Farm. I think to really blossom in the fashion world is incredible. Those are definitely role models for me.

Q: What's next? Any plans to extend the Lil Jon brand?

A: Well, I'm already in so many different things. We've got the record label, we've got the energy drink, I've got the Oakley sunglasses, probably going to start working on the clothing thing this year. I just wanted to make sure we had good quality stuff and got with the right people. So, I mean, who knows? Using my voice for ring tones, video games, there's so much stuff that I'm going to get into.

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