How to go from marketer to brand owner

While many marketers might daydream about flipping their life upside down and launching their own product, few make this a reality. Former Red Bull marketer Huib van Bockel is one of the few, launching his own energy drink ‘Tenzing’. We speak to him to find out how marketers can make the leap to become business owners.

Huib van Bockel used to spend his days orchestrating flashy Red Bull campaigns as UK marketing director, until he suddenly left the company in December last year. One year on, he has now launched his very own energy drink ‘Tenzing’, but made with half the sugar of his previous employer’s product.

Tenzing tries to be everything that its competitors are not. It is made with all natural ingredients – including Himalayan rock minerals, green coffee, and lemon juice – and has the same sugar level as coconut water. Pod Restaurants and King’s College University are the first to stock the product, which is also available online.

But the decision to launch his own rival product wasn’t made lightly. After seeing a gap in the market, van Bockel was keen to jump on the growing appetite for low-sugar drink variants. He also believed that if you want to disrupt a business, it’s always best done from the outside. As a result, he handed in his notice at Red Bull. We speak to him to hear how his year has gone.

The energy drink market seems to be quite saturated, so where did you see a gap in the market?

It’s saturated with a lot of identical me-too products that are 100% copied. But there was no energy drink that’s both 100% natural and very low in sugar. So on a product level, it’s totally new. It’s really important to get that across to people, because if they perceive you as just another me-too brand, things obviously become difficult. What I saw at my long time at Red Bull was mostly the exact same product in different packaging. That’s what I wanted to move away from.

How will you communicate the difference of the product to people?

One of the key things that we’re going to do going forward is sampling. I go out sampling myself for a couple of hours a week, which is not something I would have done in my previous job. Having one-on-one conversations with people is hugely important to us.

That’s also interesting about going from a big company to a small company. If you work for a big company, they’re always thinking about how they can get the next million people on board. But I’m thinking: ‘How do I get people to hear about this product?’. Once people taste it and know what’s inside, it’s not that difficult to convert them. As a result, we’ll be doing a lot of sampling and social, using platforms like Instagram to show what we’re up to.

If other marketers would want to do the same, how should they make the transition?

It all starts with the product. It has to be genuinely competitive and unique. This might sound logical but that’s where it often goes wrong. You also have to be emotionally prepared, because it’s a lot tougher. If you have a big brand name behind you, it’s easy to get appointments. Obviously it’s not your name but the big brand name that helps you get your foot in the door. So on the one hand it’s tougher, but on the other hand it’s much more rewarding.

One of the key things is letting go of the things you think you know and starting from scratch. I have spoken to a lot of people, and particularly start-ups as you can learn a lot from them.

That’s what I like the most about it – doing everything myself, starting from scratch. When I received my first flyer I was genuinely super excited. But then there have been a lot of sacrifices – we moved to a smaller house, and you need to be prepared to have a lower income for quite some time.

Do you think marketers are well placed to make this sort of move?

I didn’t start thinking: ‘I’m a marketer, so I’m well placed to launch this product.’ I had to learn everything, from sourcing and sales to operations. It’s definitely helpful if you know a bit about everything.

But when it comes to knowing what people want, having a concept and selling a product that actually works, I think marketers are probably best placed to know their way around that area. A marketing skillset is a very important thing to have. But if they’re too focused on creating a big ad, that’s of no use.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learnt so far?

The key thing is to get feedback, but knowing when to ignore it. You also have to really believe in your business. I love that our product is all about nature, and we donate 5% of our profits to projects that help sustain the environment. If you have a higher purpose, that’s what you’ll remind yourself of when things are a bit tougher. It’s crucial, because you will get knocked down.

What is your ambition for the brand?

Even though it’s cheesy, I want to start small but dream big. My first goal is to make it a success in London. It’s a great breeding ground for new start-ups and it’s very forward thinking. When you have proved yourself there, it’s easier to roll it out nationally and to other countries. But I’m in it for the long haul, I’m not in it to sell it. I want to build a big global brand over next 10 to 15 years.

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