Ep006 – Mark Thomann, Founder, Dormitus Brands
Fabian Geyrhalter talks with entrepreneur and investor Mark Thomann about his passion for revitalizing beloved but discontinued consumer brands. His portfolio includes Cingular Wireless, Brim Coffee, Aiwa, and as of late, the 90’s PepsiCo drink, Slice.
Mark is an entrepreneur who is dedicated to both relaunching iconic dormant brands as well as investing in early-stage consumer packaged goods companies, focused on better for you products. His fund, Spiral Sun Ventures and his brand revitalization company, Dormitus Brands, are currently collaborating on reinventing the soda brand Slice as a “better for you” beverage.
This episode is full of branding and startup nuggets that no entrepreneur or marketer should miss out on. Mark has been doing this for a while and gained an enormous amount of knowledge and his passion is contagious.
You can learn more about the new Slice, reach out to him via LinkedIn or ask me for his personal e-mail and I am happy to facilitate an introduction. We will soon announce a way Mark asked my listeners to participate in the new Slice brand definition. Stay tuned by following us on Instagram as it involves some free product samples while being part of informing this re-birth of an iconic brand.
________________Full Transcript (includes notes cut from the podcast due to Skype reception issues):
Fabian Geyrhalter: Welcome to episode number 6 of Hitting The Mark. Today we are fortunate to have a conversation with someone who does not fit into the founder nor the investor category. Why? Because he is both, and I promise you this will be an episode that every brand’s builder may it be an entrepreneur who a marketer should listen to. Mark Thomann is an entrepreneur who is dedicated to both relaunching iconic dormant brands as well as investing in early-stage consumer packaged goods companies, focused on better for you products. His fund, Spiral Sun Ventures, and his brand revitalization company Dormitus Brands brands, are currently collaborating on reinventing the soda brand Slice as a better for you beverage. That being said, welcome Mark.
Mark Tillman: Thank you very much.
F Geyrhalter: So, Mark I read about you in Entrepreneur Magazine. I think it was the latest issue, and I was fascinated by what you’re doing. So the headline in the magazine read “Remember Slice soda? It’s back, but very different”. Why these entrepreneurs spent on nostalgia for the old soda brand? So, interestingly enough, I released a book last year that talks about several traits that I suggest today’s companies to own in order to turn into an admired brand. Heritage I sone of them, which is a very close neighbor to nostalgia, and tell us that strategy behind that more. How did it come about? Where you are currently at with bringing this, I guess it’s a Pepsi Cola brand form the 90s, where are you at with bringing that back in a whole new light?
M Tillman: That’s a great question. I’m very passionate about brands and history, and Dormitus Brands and prior to that, river west brands, which is owned by Dormitus Brands, would look at relaunching iconic brands at certain categories, and whenever I look at brands, there’s a part of me that is always trying to figure out ways to give it a new reason to believe and make it new and different and innovative. So, with Slice in particular, and because of the fact that I invest in the health and wellness category what spiral sun ventures, we saw a formally a brand that was quite significant not only in the US but globally. It’s still one of the larger brands in India, frankly, today, which Pepsi Co owns. But I see a category that’s very significant from a revenue standpoint. In certain categories where private label’s very small, it’s a great indicator for whether or not a brand matters in that category, so soda I particular, beverage in particular, is very much a lifestyle and people identify by what they’re drinking. So, when we looked at Slice, and I acquired the rights to slice with my partner who was a former trademark litigator. We ended up getting the rights to slice in North America, in the US and Canada, and we are in the process of launching the brand. We’ll have product probably within the next 45 days. Our first significant run is going to happen, and we have about to thousand grocery doors committed to it already without actually having the product bottled or canned. But, the whole ideas when I looked at the soda category and I saw it was a category that was declining and the natural part of the beverage category was actually rising, I said to myself, “well people really need something that may be a little sweeter than sparkling water, but not as sugary as the slice of the 1980s and 90s and 200s.” So, slice was really created to be a bridge for people that are no longer wanting the sugary drinks like soda, and giving them something that’s all natural, that has no sugar added, that’s seven grams of sugar that comes from organic juice, and otherwise, it’s completely just natural juice as well as sparkling water. So it’s sweeter than a Lacroix for example, but much healthier than a traditional soda.
F Geyrhalter: So, congrats first. I mean, that’s an amazing launch already, pre-launch, being in so many stores. So that idea of the name working for you and to your advantage has already left its mark, it sounds like.
M Tillman: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting. I remember when I first started talking about it. I was first interviewed about Slice, a lot of people were very interested in trying the new slice, but I remember one blogger came out and said: “Doesn’t he know that coca cola failed when they came out with new coke?” And my response to that blogger was, “You know, if I was just reinventing slice as what it was before, I would have absolutely no interest. And frankly, the soda consumer has changed. I’m a previous soda drinker, I no longer allow the family to drink soda. It’s obviously too much sugar, and it actually came from my wife who reminds me that she is the one who basically told the kids they can no longer drink soda, so it’s water or healthier drinks. And today, I believe that the consumer wants a new type of drink that has some sweetness, but it’s all natural so it’s better for you.
F Geyrhalter: So, that’s fascinating to me, and it’s a strategy that caught wider attention after Shinola famously took its name from a defunct shoe polish brand. And then I think in 2011 they launched as the Detroit watch brand. At least, then they were the watch brand. Now they’re so much more. But, how do you change the brand narrative with a legacy name? I mean, especially in your case with Slice, where it is basically the opposite of what it used to be. So, how do you do that form a brand language perspective? How do you suddenly say “Here’s slice, we want you to still associate it with the old brand, but in a very, very different way.” ?
M Tillman: That’s the trick. That is the difficult part. You have the old attributes and what people remember of Slice, but I think it’s very important that regardless of the brand, the product has to be right, and the data has to support the product launch. Taking Slice and reinventing it primarily for a new consumer, and also for consumers that had previously been dedicated to the beverage, that is a tricky thing to do. To reinvent. But it’s not different than buying a house from the turn of the century and keeping the exterior, but modernizing the interior. And people would rather live in a house that was built in the late 1800s, because of the beauty and the way it was built, but inside, and for the family that’s living in that house, you want the modern accessories and conveniences that come with the house that was built in 2018, or 2019. And so, that’s really what I try to do with a brand, is play off the heritage, but more importantly reinvent it ina way that it appeals to not only the old consumer that is not longer drinking those sugary beverages, but also appeal to the new demographic, the millennials etc, that don’t want a lot of sugar in their drinks. So, you have to look at the data. The data has to support the re-launch, but without question, you have to reinvent, and I’m thinking this is going to be a successful re-launch, but sometimes they’re not. And for varied reasons why you ask the question. My guess is the date is there to support a successful launch, the retailers are there to support the launch, and hopefull,y the consumers will be there to drink the new slice.
F Geyrhalter: Right. Absolutely, and last but not least the design is so important with consumer packaged goods. How involved were you with the design agency with the process of form the font choice to how much of the boldness of the old slice to we bring into the new, and how should the shelf appeal be? Did you work very directly? Were you very hands-on involved with it in meetings and in strategy, or did you let them run their thing?
M Tillman: We were very involved as a team. We have a group that comes from a pretty deep routed experience within retail, a group called revolution brands that’s doing a lot of the RND as well as the packaging work etc. But we not only sued our internal team. We did focus groups, and we also used the retailers to help us with whether or not the packaging actually appealed to their consumers. And so, we really drew upon the entire community within slice, including our initial launch partners at grocery to determine what we thought was the right packaging, and we did a lot of consumer research, and we looked at also what the competitors were doing, and frankly that took a very, very long time. Most people don’t realize that there’s a shortage of cans out there, aluminum cans out there, so –
F Geyrhalter: Oh, really?
M Tillman: Yeah, because the big companies are utilizing all of the capacity. So you have to pivot when you see there’s a shortage of slim cans, you move to a more conventional can, but the packaging itself was a collaborative effort, and I was very much involved, and so were all my partners.
F Geyrhalter: Interesting. When you go through that entire process, and it sounds like it was quite a prices. There was so many data points, so many opinions that you sought from different partners, retail etc, how much of the old brand was still intact, or how much of the old brand were you even allowed to utilize? I know there was litigation, I know you got the name. In the end, is there anything left besides the name?
M Tillman: There’s a nod and a wink to the heritage and the brand with the slice from the fruit that’s still on the packaging, so there’s a tribute there, but it’s not … Obviously, it couldn’t be identical to what the old slice looked like. But the name itself is a great name on its own, regardless of the heritage of the brand, and it denotes exactly what we’re trying to convey with the new beverage, and we’ve protected it vigorously since we have been able to obtain the trademarks. There have been a number of companies that have tried to file trademarks to use the slice name in various variations within beverage, and the great thing about having a fantastic trademark litigator as one of your partners is that he’s very good at what he does in protecting the trademark and also, he was very important obviously in obtaining it in the first place.
F Geyrhalter: You’ve got the right partner there.
M Tillman: Yeah.
F Geyrhalter: Let’s talk about this often mistaken, and yet so important to you word that is branding. What does branding mean to you? It obviously means a huge deal to you, but how would you describe branding? I know it’s a very difficult question, but how would, you describe branding? What does it mean to you?
M Tillman: You know, it’s a great question, and if you were to ask me when I was solely doing the relaunching of iconic brands, I may have had a different answer. And that answer was probably more about restoring, revitalize, those types of adjectives to describe what branding was. Today, and working with these early-stage companies that we invest in, but primarily in health and wellness, but primarily in food and beverage, I often think about community, and neighborhood. There was an old … The old speaker of the house in the 80s was a guy named Tim O’Neal from my neck of the woods, originally I’m from Boston. And he became famous because he had the quote, all politics is local. And I believe branding and building a brand is the same thing. You first want to own your community, in your neighborhood. And then, word of mouth spreads when you have a great product. It’s so important to build from a foundation, or a community that’s … we have a brand that we invested in called base culture, and the founders, a young woman, incredible entrepreneur named Gordon, and she was a cross fitter, and that cross fitter community started to really engage with her brand of gluten free paleo products. And that community is the one that goes to Walmart, and goes to whole foods, and goes to Publics, and goes to the HEB, goes to all these retailers to find her product. And it creates a movement. So to me, branding is about community, about creating a movement. And once you can do that and you have the foundation, you can become a great big brand. But you need that foundation first
F Geyrhalter: Right. Absolutely. I think that’s a very fresh take on it. Here’s a quick personal story: So, my dad is a violinist, and in his prime time, he worked on some of the biggest stages in the world, right? Carnegie Hall, Musik Verein, and all of those. And one day, when he came back from a tour in Japan, he brought home this tiny but mighty super high-end tape recorder by a company called AIWA. And it was a marvel of technology and quality. It was so tiny, that he used it to secretly record all of his solo concerts on stage, because he could just sneak it in there, that no one saw it, and then at home, us kids were just not allowed to ever go near it because it was so expensive, and no one could ever touch it. And you actually owned Iowa and one point, and to me, that is just truly amazing. How did that come about? I know that is not the main topic today, but I just want to quickly ask you, how did that deal come about?
M Tillman: Yeah. It actually goes into the bigger question of how you relaunch a dormant brand and it really is about surrounding yourself by talented people, even if it’s a relationship with the grocer, with the distributor, or with the teams. It’s about not only investment capital, but human capital. And AIWA, I was able to get the trademark rights here in the United States first, and then I found a very entrepreneurial group that had an incredible background in consumer electronics. The company was called Hail electronics, and the entrepreneur was a guy named Joe Borne who was a fantastic inventor and engineer. He actually invented something called the skip doctor which fixed scratches in CDs and he had a great small company, but he didn’t have a brand, and he was always inventing new audio products, and I remember going to have a cup of coffee with Joe and saying “Joe, why don’t we team up? Why don’t you rename the company AIWA USA, and your reception at retail and on Amazon etc, direct to consumer, is gonna be very, very different by having a brand with great high-end consumer electronics and consumer audio.” And that’s really where Iowa began. IM still a significant shareholder int eh company. I’m still a board member, and I’m still a big advocate, so the company grew from … Was relaunched and grew from zero to a multimillion dollar company in a very short period of time. But for me, I like to marry these early-stage companies with brands. And in particular, brands that were once loved and successful, and then taking new innovations and bringing that to the brand is so vital to make it successful. And that’s where my innovation comes from. It generally comes from other people that just don’t have the brand to go with great product.
F Geyrhalter: It’s really Brand Upcycling, you’re doing here. Right?
M Tillman: You’re right.
F Geyrhalter: But how did that fascination start? Was there a certain moment, or was it just organic that you had one opportunity and you thought about it, and you tried it out and it just kept growing into a real habit?
M Tillman: You know, for me, I love history. At one point in my career early on, I taught history, and for me, seeing these brands go to the waste side because these big companies would consolidate and it wasn’t the band’s fault that they were discontinued. It was generally through acquisition, and Brim Coffee for example, when general food sold to Kraft, all the sudden, Kraft had sunk an end to Brim. And so, they had to pick, and they discontinued Brim. And so when I relaunched Brim, it’s a line of not coffee. There’s still some coffee, but it’s primarily a line of appliances but their appliances, if you go to Brim dot com, it’s not just any old coffee maker, it’s coffee pour overs and cold brew machines, and grinders. It’s artisanal, and there’re things that the new consumers are looking for right? With an old brand on it. But for me, it is about the preservation of history, and I couldn’t understand why these great brands from my childhood would go away. And then I started looking at ways to revitalize them as I was looking at launching new products and new brands. Why not take an old brand and reinvent it for a new consumer, and giving a nod to the heritage of the brand? In some cases, it’s very, very difficult. I own Collico and Collico vision, which was an old gaming brand. An extremely difficult category to create content, because it’s extremely expensive to create games and ones that actually appeal to my kids for example. Look at the old Collico catalog, they’re like … They play it for li two seconds. They’re like eh. I’m bored. But, that’s one where it was probably a better option for me just to license it, and it does very well, but it’s a flashback that sold throughout retail and online, and I get a royalty. It’s a licensing deal. But it was just too difficult for me to reinvent it in a way because of the category, because the competition, because the amount of investment to make new games, it just didn’t make as much sense as taking in Iowa and reinventing it, or taking a slice, or taking a brim, or taking any of the other brands that are currently in or portfolio. So, at times I basically say okay. I can’t do it.
F Geyrhalter: Yeah. And it’s so much a timing thing too. It’s a scythe guys thing. I went to a bar the other day, and everyone played Nintendo games on big screens and I’m like what just happened? So I think a lot of it has to do with that. But okay. So, lets put your investor head on. Question about the startups that you invest in. When do you advise your better for you consumer products startups to invest in branding? And obviously, for them, the packaging is super important, but where does it start with you for branding as an investor? Where do you see look guys and gals, we gotta push more into this direction, really think about brand strategy or really think about positioning a really … What are some of these key advise pieces that you give brands? Well, startups.
M Tillman: Well, it has to be early on it, and branding has to be authentic. We like brands where founders are very much value-oriented, and values from their own ethos as individual entrepreneurs, but we like brands that have a mission for example. I’ll give you a quick story just to illustrate that and a challenge that the brand has. So, once of the brands that we invested in is called Patcha soap. And Patcha soap is a handmade soap. Its made in their own facility in Hastings Nebraska. Wonderful, wonderful people Abby and Andrew who are now married, but at the time they were just the two entrepreneurs, and they ended up getting married, and the mission-based company, they give back millions of dollars to where they source their essential oils and so forth in Africa, and they teach people, indigenous people in Burgundy in particular, how to make soap and how to start businesses around soap, so it’s a little different than a tom’s shoes. Where instead of just giving away soap, they’re actually teaching them how to create new businesses around soap, and they also dig water wells and so forth. So they have incredible passion about the mission. But, you probably have never heard of Patcha soap, but I guarantee you’ve seen it before. If you have ever been in a Whole Foods, and you see that beautiful colorful-
F Geyrhalter: I think I’ve seen it.
M Tillman: Yeah. That’s Patcha soap. So they have a great product with incredible distribution, but people don’t know their brand, and people don’t know their mission. And once people understand their mission and know what the brand is due to that mission and through a branding process, I think they’re going to be even more successful than they already are. And the company’s growing like crazy, but they need branding. They need to really build their brand because these companies, when they sell, it’s really … and they generally sell to the big companies, the big CPG companies. It’s all about brand building. And because the Krafts, The General Mills of the world know that they can take a hundred million dollar brand and turn it into a billion dollar brand cause they have the trucks and the distribution necessary to take it from a hundred to a billion. But they have to see their brand being built in the proper way. So my suggestion to the Patcha soap folks is to really find the right agency, find a way to build that community that I talked about earlier, and to not only be a product company, but they need to become a household name. They need to go into points of distribution which are much more about band building. They have very little presence online for example. They don’t sell a lot on Amazon. So, one of the key initiatives today is to build an Amazon site, and be able to go direct to consumer. Cause they also need to know who their consumer is.
F Geyrhalter: Right.
M Tillman: And they need that type of feedback. And so, yeah. Great challenge for the company. I love the investment. I love the mission. I love the people, but they truly need to figure out how to build the brand.
F Geyrhalter: Well, the great news is now everyone knows where there is a great brand consultancy and I’m happy to talk to them.
M Tillman: Yes. I would absolutely love you to do that.
F Geyrhalter: This is interesting because it all comes back to … For you, with that particular, it really came back to the founders and their passion to actually really move the needle and do something that’s bigger than just the product. I mean, really touching people in many ways. Where it’s not the Toms model like you said, but it educates and it goes down to the ground level of let’s help people became more self-sufficient. And grow. What are the top criteria when you pick a start-up to invest in? Obviously, it’s the team, it’s the passion. In his case it’s not so much the product, it’s potentially more market fit. What are one or two of the key things that you look for?
M Tillman: The data has to support that there’s white space there. There’s lots of me too brands out there. It has to be disruptive, it has to be innovative, and it has to fill a void. And yes, it’s always about the entrepreneur and the founder, and making sure they have the right values, and they have to … You’re just going to assume that they’re gonna work their tail off, but most of these early-stage brands fail. So, a lot of these founders and the reason I created spiral sun was really to help give them the network of brand agencies, distributors, retailers, things that maybe they couldn’t pick up the phone and call the right distributor and call the right grocery store. They just really needed those connections and that network in order to really see business. So, we’re a little different in the fact that I am an entrepreneur. I’m also an energy director of a fund. It helps because I can understand their plight. Right? And for me, it’s so gratifying to be able to help them, and also about six, seven years ago, I personally got sick, and I started looking at our food system being a bit broken, and I became very passionate about making a legacy, and not only investing in dormant brand, but investing in better for you food. And so, for me, it became a passion so help these entrepreneurs succeed. And so, for my own ethos, I definitely wanted to combine my love for taking these dormant brands and relaunching them, but also for making them better for you from a food and beverage standpoint.
F Geyrhalter: Right. I relate to that quite a lot. Really appreciate it Mark. Listen, I know where the first one hundred people listening can get their hands on some Slice if they want to leave some feedback, but where can others find slice? What kind of market will it be in, in a couple of weeks from now, and how can they learn more about spiral sun ventures? Where do you want them to go to get in touch with you?
M Tillman: I’m big on answering emails personally. It’s very easy to find me. If you don’t want to use linked in, they certainly can email me, and they can request through you or whatever the case may be. We’ll figure that out, but I have no problems answering emails and making sure people know how to get to slice. But slice will be available regionally, the northeast, the Midwest. Really a national footprint, but in the first year, it’s going to be at retailers like Wegmans, and High V and Publics etc throughout the country. So we’ll have to figure out in the first year where people are so they can get it, but we’ll also have it in converse sight. So you can get it through Amazon, we’ll be able to deliver anywhere.
F Geyrhalter: Anywhere but India right?
M Tillman: Can’t do India.
F Geyrhalter: And that will be a second podcast episode where we will talk about that.
M Tillman: You know, the mango flavored slice there is extremely popular. We will probably have a mango flavor at some point.
F Geyrhalter: There’s no surprise there when it comes to flavors in countries. Thank you, Mark, from the bottom of my heart for taking the time during your busy schedule, especially now when you’re in this pre-launch phase, and for sharing your thoughts, your stories, your advice without listeners. It’s really, really appreciated.
M Tillman: Oh, I appreciate it. I enjoy this, and I look forward to doing it again sometime. And I’ll put you in touch with the CEO Patcha.
F Geyrhalter: Thank you. I appreciate it. And thanks to everyone for listening, and yes I have to say it again. Please hit that subscribe button and give the show a quick rating. It’s a brand new show. It needs all the TLC it can get, and this podcast is brought to you by FINIEN a brand consultancy creating strategic, verbal, and visual brand clarity. You can learn more about FINIEN and download free white papers to support your own brand launch or rebranding efforts at finien.com. The hitting the mark theme music was written and produced by Happiness Won. I will see you next time when we once again, will be hitting the mark.