Rohan Oza is arguably one of the most successful marketing men in the US.
He's made millions from his success in turning food and beverage products into global brands that everyone from across the globe will recognise – Vitamin Water, Pop Chips, and Vita Coco. Prior to this, he turned around the fortunes of Powerade and Sprite by boosting revenue through some innovative brand endorsements.
He even worked as an executive at Coca-Cola but he admitted to Business Insider that he "quit before I got fired" because he wasn't very corporate.
But the self-depicted "brand messiah" and the man dubbed by The Hollywood Reporter as "Hollywood's Brandfather" didn't have it all handed to him on a plate. He started off his career in manufacturing in an M&Ms factory in the industrial British town of Slough. Now he counts 50 Cent and Rihanna – who he calls RiRi – as some of his closest celebrity business partners and friends.
He has come an incredibly long way, so Business Insider decided to sit down with him to see how on earth he managed to get out of manufacturing and into the worlds of Hollywood and marketing and as founder and CEO of Idea Merchants Capital.
Business Insider: How did this all come about? Did you always want to be in marketing?
RO: After going to Harrow [a famous private boarding school in Britain] and then Nottingham University, my first job was actually in a factory for Mars' M&Ms. I was involved with the manufacturing side but I really wanted to get into marketing. I asked my boss but he said I didn't have the necessary marketing skills. I said "alright, let's agree to disagree," and I left to go to Michigan in the US to study for my MBA. I always wanted to work with iconic brands and the US is the place where all those iconic brands and the US was the place where brands were at the time.
BI: So you ended up working at Coca-Cola, surely that was the pinnacle for you?
RO: I was an executive at Coca-Cola and was part of an amazing team that made Sprite one of the coolest brands in America. I helped build the brand with smart partnerships and built a bridge between Sprite and hip-hop culture and got American artists, NBA athletes on board. I brought Sprite to life on basketball courts and at concerts. I then was moved to (another Coca Cola brand) Powerade.
While I helped sales grow more than 30% at brands like Sprite, it is very hard to make the same massive impact at other brands – these companies are too big and there are too many cooks in the kitchen. I wasn't very corporate either so I thought I would jump ship before Coca-Cola fired me.
BI: What did you do after that and how did Coca-Cola take your resignation?
RO: I had a party and then my boss asked where I was going. I said I was going to be a partner in Vitamin Water, which was small and made around $25 million in revenue annually in 2002, and he just laughed and said "good luck with that." Well it was funny because we ended up selling the company to Coca Cola for $4.2 billion in 2007.
BI: How did you grow the company so rapidly? (Oza helped grow the company's sales to $700 million a year by the time he left in 2004.)
RO: I believed in the brand and Vitamin Water is a breakthrough product in the food and beverage industry. I believed in order to make a product a success you need to be a brand messiah, not a marketing manager. I only hire brand messiahs – they live and breathe the product, not just sell it. They have to create a culture around the product itself. There's a statistic out there that 1 in 10 people influence the rest of us. So you have got to find who those people are to spread the word. Unfortunately due to terrorist activities, this stopped one of the best ways in doing that.
BI: Terrorist activities? What do you mean?
RO: Before airports changed [referring to the September 11th attacks in 2001] I used to take products everywhere, which were mainly bottles of Vitamin Water. I would hand the flight attendants the drinks, the hostess on the gates, other people on the flight. You've got to think about how these people influence large amounts of society. They see thousands of a people on a regular basis and it just takes people with that reach to say they love something and recommend it to as many people as possible. You win brand fans that way.
Obviously now we can't take a large amount of liquids on a plane but this is an example of how you can build up a brand culture without taking just traditional routes of advertising.
BI: So is that where celebrity endorsement comes in? How did you get rapper 50 Cent to become part of the Vitamin Water brand?
RO: I was looking for someone who already loved the product and would be an easy fit for it. My friend knew 50 Cent so we gave him a call and spoke to him and his manager. They were great. Fiddy said he didn't want or need any money for being involved, he just wanted skin in the game. He loved the product. [50 Cent doesn't drink alcohol and regularly drank Vitamin Water, ate healthily, and trained in the gym every day]. That was good as we didn't have much money to give him. It worked out and the rest was history. He was one of two biggest rap artists at that time – him and Jay Z. [50 Cent was paid $5 million in cash and asked for a 5% stake in the company in exchange for his endorsement.]
BI: Vitamin Water ended up selling for billions to Coca-Cola, why didn't you retire after that? What's your net worth?
RO: [Laughing] Let's just say my mum is very proud. I know business publications like to talk about net worth but I don't really like talking about it. You can make a guess from knowing I entered Vitamin Water very early on and the company sold for $4 billion.
When it sold, though, I didn't want to retire, so I became a venture capitalist and be involved with products that I really connect with – like Vita Coco (coconut water), Pop Chips, and Bai (anti-oxidant infusion drinks). Bai itself is now valued at $500 million.
BI: So what's next on the venture list for you?
RO: Bai is my favourite in the gang in a nutshell. It solves the diet dilemma – everyone wants things to taste good but without a tonne of sugar. This takes out the likes of Pepsi and the Coca-Cola. People also are growing more towards to not having artificial sweeteners, so that strips out the Diet Cokes and Diet Sprites out there too. Bai solves this. It's not big in the UK but it will be.
BI: So which celebrity are you looking for to join Bai as an ambassador?
RO: We are brainstorming on that as we speak, but not every brand needs a celebrity partner. It has to be a good organic fit where the brand is a fan of a celebrity and the celebrity is a fan of the product. People are smart and need a natural fit otherwise it will be too forced. If a celebrity endorsement is clearly forced and the people will reject it and people will tell you about it. People's antennas for bullshit is a lot sharper these days.
BI: I know you said that you have to find the right fit for a brand but surely you must have a dream celebrity to tout Bai?
RO: If you ask me who's my favourite celebrity, it's Taylor Swift. And yes, she would be good for Bai. Unfortunately she currently sponsors a product that may not be as good for you as Bai [referring to her endorsement of Diet Coca- Cola,] but you never know.
Taylor's the most iconic musician and celebrity on the planet. She does what she wants and isn't deterred by the press or anyone else. She managed to influence one of the biggest corporations on the planet – Apple – that's real power. She also rolls with a posse and a crew of people who are all beautiful females.
BI: Do you ever get celebrities approaching you to get involved in products that they love?
RO: Not really. We usually look for celebrities that are a natural fit. For example, with Vita Coco, I knew Guy Oseary (Madonna's agent) and Madonna was a fan already. Through him, I got her on board and that became huge. Then RiRi (pop star Rihanna) got on board and it was just perfect. She's a great example of having the exact right fit for a celebrity for a brand. She personally drank it, comes from the Caribbean, which is where coconut water comes from, and is big on social media.
BI: The equity share in endorsements seems a pretty good deal. Who else gets it?
RO: I believe everyone should have a share in the success, not just endorsers or myself – that's why everyone who works for me gets an equity stake early on.
BI: It really does sound like you live and breathe every product you market – sounds a bit hectic! When and what do you do to relax?
RO: I travel a lot. I self-diagnosed myself with Seasonal Affective Disorder so I follow the sun, like most British explorers I suppose! In the winter I spend my time in Beverley Hills, and then in the summer I go to the Hamptons – it's a great place to relax and reminds me a lot of England.
I also love throwing parties and dancing. I throw a lot in LA and even have Western and Bollywood style dance-offs. People always say I throw the best parties because everyone dances.
But every now and again, I like to do a spot of bowling. It reminds me of my days at Nottingham University (where Oza did his first degree), where we'd just go bowl and get pissed.