Talking Turkey about Pop Culture

A giblet-flavored soda? That's a joke, right? Not when the goal is a deluge of free publicity, which is just what Jones Soda achieved

By Edward Popper

There's nothing like the Holidays, when it's time to relax with the family, put your feet up -- and savor an ice-cold Turkey-&-Gravy soda. No, that's not a misprint. The bizarre brew is the toast of all and sundry at Seattle-based Jones Soda, where the few thousand bottles the outfit produced as part of an inspired promotional campaign weren't anywhere near enough to satisfy what turned out to be an unquenchable demand. Initially available only in Detroit and Seattle, Jones Soda was deluged with so many requests that the entire consignment sold out in an hour when remaining stocks were offered online.

Take that news any way you want for what it says about the American palate, but the attention the oddball beverage garnered for its upstart manufacturer is an easy-to-swallow lesson in the art of astute marketing. "Turkey & Gravy soda is fun, it's unique -- and people want to talk about it," says Jones Soda's president, Peter Van Stolks, who believes his outfit could have sold 1,000 times the amount it produced. Still, Van Stolks isn't complaining. While he enjoyed seeing his brainchild fly out of the warehouse, the attention it generated was far more gratifying.


  In the three weeks that followed Turkey & Gravy's debut, Van Stolks was contacted more than 500 times by the media, leading to almost 100 radio interviews. It was the sort of publicity he couldn't have bought. And as the delighted Van Stolks points out, it all happened in November -- a time of the year when sodas are apt to get as much attention from consumers as beach towels and sun screen. Not very much at all, in other words.

Yet across the country, thanks to Jones Soda's off-the-wall inspiration, people were talking about the outfit, which is precisely what Van Stolks wanted when he launched what turned out to be a surprisingly painstaking process to develop a drink that some who have sampled it swear is actually not all that bad. All told, it required 30 attempts to perfect the flavor, which Eric Chastain, Jones's operating manager, describes as tasting like microwaved Thanksgiving leftovers. "It's a sipping soda, it's not something you gulp down after mowing the grass," he notes. Adds Van Stolks: "When you try it, I don't really think you're going to want to drink a couple of them."

Of the free publicity Jones Soda achieved, radio was the most valuable. That's because the outfit's target market is teenagers, who are devoted radio listeners. According to Van Stolks, paid ads would never have produced the same result. "In today's environment, the average consumer sees and hears about 3,000 marketing messages a day," he notes. "So a nontraditional approach seems to be more effective."


  Calling the company's marketing strategy "effective" may be a bit of an understatement, given Jones Soda's impressive growth over the last two years. While the recession was taking its toll on the overall economy, Jones has seen revenue double from $11 million in 1999 to $22 million in 2003. Not bad for a six-year-old upstart competing with the likes of Coke (KO ) and Pepsi (PEP ).

Turkey & Gravy soda has been Jones's most successful promotion to date, far outstripping its promotional predecessors, which came in ham and, if you can believe it, fish-taco flavor. "I think we did a lot of things right on this," says Van Stolks. "The beautiful thing on this one was that we didn't think it would get this big, so it was kind of fun -- and that's what's so cool about it." Once Van Stolks realized that he had come up with a winning combination of holiday and humor, he decided to maximize the public-relations impact by mentioning in every interview that the line's profits were being donated to the Toys for Tots charity.

So, is there anything Turkey &Gravy can teach entrepreneurs who want to raise their outfits' profiles? Well, there is the obvious one: To get attention, do something cute and unusual. And the other lesson? Just this: To generate a buzz, start with a fizz.

Popper covers small business issues in New York

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