Small companies, big impressions

How Jones Soda, Wawa Dairy and Hirzel Canning outmaneuver the giants in their categories

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Peter van Stolk

Another reason customers feel connected to this company is they provide the labels. For instance, a bottle of that new watermelon soda has a black and white photo of bowling pins. Tiny type along the side of the picture says: Photo #2748: Rachel Bowman, Indianapolis, IN. That means two things: 1. Customer Rachel sent in this photo in a long-running photo contest, and 2. This is the 2,748th label used on a Jones bottle. Van Stolk says the count is above 4,000 now.

Van Stolk started the company in 1987 as Urban Juice and Soda Co., a western Canada distributor of Coke, Pepsi and an increasing number of innovative , some would call them "new age" -- beverage lines such as Just Pik't Juices, Arizona Iced Tea and Thomas Kemper sodas. In the early 1990s, van Stolk followed the meteoric rise of Snapple Beverage, and he saw the potential of emerging "alternative" products in the beverage industry. By 1994, Urban Juice and Soda was well established as a full line beverage distributor in western Canada with a reputation for picking winners among these up-and-comers.

In 1995, van Stolk decided to create his own brands. Wazu Natural Spring water debuted in April 1995, followed by the January 1996 launch of Jones Soda in six flavors (raspberry, grape, strawberry-lime, lemon-lime, cherry and orange). In 2000, the company name was changed to Jones Soda Co. and he moved the company to Seattle.

Don't forget the nose

While van Stolk will put his products' taste and overall quality up against anybody's, what he chooses to focus on are components other companies might not. One is the smell emitted when a bottle of Jones is opened. "It's a high-impact smell, one that tells you right off the bat we're different," he says. It requires working with ingredient suppliers as much on this component as on flavor.

Unusual flavors are another critical component. The closest thing to a cola is vanilla cola, the taste of which van Stolk claims beats the Coke product. But he's more jazzed by green apple (his favorite), cream soda (tied with green apple as top seller), blue bubblegum, orange & cream, crushed melon and fufu berry (a fictitious name for what van Stolk describes as a cross between watermelon and raspberry).

Currently there are 22 flavors and they include a few mundane ones, such as root beer, cherry and grape.

Jones uses sucralose as the sweetener for its sugar-free flavors.

In all cases, neon colors , another critical draw -- are visible through the clear glass bottles. The simplicity of the bottle and the black-and-white label evoke a retro feel although the cap is reclosable. The labels change often. "Send us your photo. If we like it, we will put it on our label," each bottle reads. While not everybody can be a winner, there apparently have been 4,000 so far. Even most of the losers make it into the photo gallery of the Jones web site (, which has 12,034 pages with multiple images per page.

Jones is unabashedly a marketing-driven company. It has no manufacturing of its own, relying on (at the moment) six plants in the U.S. and Canada. Van Stolk closely controls product development, relying on input from customers, the web site, associates and his own instincts. But he also puts a great deal of stock in his two flavor suppliers, which he would not name. "We work exclusively with them, and they're great. I think they're trying to find out what we're looking for as much as we are.

"I'm not afraid of making mistakes, that's part of taking risks," van Stolk says. "Out motto is, we have to be fun, fast and cheap."

In 2000, Jones Soda launched its own energy drink, named WhoopAss, followed in a few years by two other entries under the "Energy" sub-brand; all of those are in cans. The following year came six flavors of Jones Juice, now settled under the sub-brand Jones Naturals.

The original distribution strategy had Jones Soda placing its own coolers, bearing the company's signature flames, in such off-the-path venues as skate, surf and snowboarding shops, tattoo and piercing parlors, as well as in individual fashion stores and national retail clothing and music stores. The result was hip and/or noticeable people seen drinking these hip and noticeable beverages.

"Then came an up and down the street attack of the marketplace, this time placing product in convenience and food stores," says van Stolk. Only in the past year has the company achieved chain store placements in outlets such as Starbucks (Canada last year and the U.S. this year), Panera Bread, Barnes & Noble, Safeway, Albertson's and 7-Eleven stores.

Pro athletes are a tried and true, traditional marketing method. Here's something off a Jones ad: "Jason Ellis snagged a Guinness Book of World Record for highest bomb drop into a vert ramp." Then there's Bam Margera, "a previous member of the Jackass Crew."

What are they talking about? Ellis is a "pro" skateboarder from Australia. Bam's a skateboarder, too.

As we said up front, if you don't get it, that's OK with Jones. But if you want to feel like you belong, there's the ultimate emotional attachment; and you don't have to be 14-24 for this. Just send Jones $34.95 and a photo, and the company will produce your own custom 12-pack -- 12 bottles of any flavor you choose.

Maybe later they'll teach you to blog.

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