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Case Study: How Snapple built a legion of fans by being the ultimate amateur brand of the 90s.

Snapple went from making less than $57 million in 1987 to over $200 million in 1992.

I’m going to tell you the story of how Snapple built an enduring legion of fans by doing what made sense to them and what their fans loved.

It eventually got acquired by the Quaker Oats Company for $1,7 billion in 1994. But just three years later, Quaker ended up selling Snapple to Triarc for $300 million – at a loss of $1,4 billion.

Snapple was a fluke.

Unadultrated Food Products, as they were called at first, was founded by three small-time entrepreneurs who didn’t know much about professional marketing.

Two of them owned a window washing company and the third a health food store, and supplying fruit juice to health stores was just a part-time thing.

One of the first products they sold was apple juice.

As fate would have it, one of the first batches of bottled apple juice fermented, creating natural carbonation and snaping the caps off the juice bottles.

These ‘snapping apple’ juice bottles were what inspired the name Snapple.

In an interview, one of the founders described that they knew “as much about juice as about making an atom bomb” but it was their amateur approach to running a business; doing what they loved more than what made sense, that put Snapple on the map.

Snapple was everything corporate America wasn’t.

Instead of following the sophisticated marketing practices of Pepsi and Coke, the founders of Snapple ran the company according to what made sense to them and what seemed like fun – and their customers loved them for it.

They never missed an opportunity to go against the grain – from sponsoring off-beat events (yo-yo tossing, cherry spitting, the Miss Crustacean contest) to signing radio show hosts known to blast liberal Washington politicians, and denouncing the priorities and tastes of the American elite.

The 1980s left many Americans feeling cynical about big corp.

As the American economy flourished under Reagan’s policies, the tougher business practices and constant reorganisations left many Amercians struggling with low paying jobs.

Snapple rode the wave of 90s populism in America, as cynicism to Reagan’s idea of American values started bubbling into popular and politcal culture.

Perhaps the biggest contributor to their rise to a folk hero from New York, came from hiring Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh as spokespersons. The two radio show hosts had very different political ideals, but together they were voice of disgruntled Americans.

Snapple was the ultimate amateur brand of the 90s, not just because they didn’t know anything about professional marketing, but becuse they didn’t seem to care.

They walked the walk.

Snapple wasn’t just another corporate beverage company and they made sure that it showed across with everything they did.

From the start they sold their products in restaurants, delis and mom-and-pop shops.

And they approached product development the same way.

Instead of using market research and control groups, they shipped out odd flavours, like Apple Pie or Papaya Colada, purely based on what their customers requested. Most new flavours failed but all of them were loved by their customers.

At their peak, Snapple received over 2000 fan letters, artworks and songs dedicated to their beloved brand – per week!

And when it came to advertising, they spoofed the promotions of big brands and turned their fan mail into a poorly produced and quirky TV ad-campaign starring Wendy, the real office assistant working at Snapple.

All work and no play is boring all the way.

In hindsight, a lot of things went wrong with the Quaker Oats Company’s purchase of Snapple, starting with the price (too high), the market environment (too competitive), and their ambition to sell it like Gatorade (absurd).

But deciding to bench Wendy the ‘Snapple Lady’, retire the ‘100% natural campaign’, and institute a rational approach to product development was where they went really wrong.

Snapple cost the Quaker CEO and President their jobs and hurried the eventual purchase by PepsiCo.

As Holt Douglas wrote in his analysis of the Snapple saga:

The buzz that Snapple generated was the consequence of the power of its myth. Simply getting people to talk about something [ . . . ] is not a particularly noteworthy event. Most such talk quietly fades away from memory. [ . . . ] What sticks are the stories that affect how people think about themselves in the world.”

Holt Douglas

But this story has a happy ending because where Quaker failed, Triarc succeeded.

They revived the funky packaging, quirky flavours, and made the brand fun again. After buying Snapple for $300 million in 1997, Triarc sold it to Cadbury Schweppes for $1,45 billion just three years later.

What can we learn from Snapple?

Here’s what I took away from the story of the rise, fall and the eventual revival of Snapple:

  1. Stand out and make that distinction clear in everything you do.
  2. Bring your brand closer to your customers in every way possible.
  3. Cherish what your customers value no matter how weird it might seem.
  4. Prioritise gaining lifelong fans over reaching sales goals.

Iconic brands aren’t always the ones with the highest revenue.

They’re the ones with the most committed fans.

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