How You Can Take On Billion-Dollar Brands With The Right People And Product

Huib Van Bockel is the former MD of Red Bull but now he leads a small startup producing Tenzing, a 100% natural energy drink – so how does a David brand take on the Goliaths?

1. What Is It About You That Beats The Competition? Building a brand can seem like a massive job – where do you start, especially in the face of brands who have been spending millions getting hench in the marketing gym? Huib Van Bockel says that the smaller the team, the more you have to focus on the most important thing: the product. ‘It’s very hard to compete with all the big energy drink and soft drink players because of their massive budgets, but the one thing that I immediately win with is the product: 100% natural, low in sugar, quality ingredients and that’s what my main focus will be. Jeff Bezos the head of Amazon has my favourite quote: “Advertising is the price you pay for having an unremarkable product.”’

Marketing has become like Tinder – within one second you’ve decided whether to engage

2. Marketing Has To Add Value Once you are ready to talk to your customers, don’t fall into the same trap as those still trying to use outmoded methods. Van Bockel points out that Facebook users scroll through 100 metres of content every day. ‘Marketing has become like Tinder – you’re scrolling through and within one second you’ve decided whether to engage in the brand or content, or swipe it away. My philosophy has always been that your marketing has to add actual value.’ Simply put, your marketing shouldn’t rely on disruptively interrupting customers, but instead offer something people actually want to watch or engage with.

3. Realise That Giants Can Be Outdated Just because a billion-dollar brand got there first doesn’t mean the landscape never changes. ‘The likes of Coca Cola are effectively stuck with their old product, that they can’t really get out of because people don’t like it when they change the recipe,’ says Van Bockel. Tastes and attitudes to high-sugar content and additives have shifted since the big brands set up shop, to the extent that a different approach can be revolutionary. ‘When I met with the people who actually make the drinks for you, who also work with the big brands, I said, "I want to take 50-55% of the sugar out of the drink,” they replied, "Oh and what do you want to replace that with?” And I said: “Nothing, just take it out.” They said that literally nobody had asked them to do that before.’

4. Start From Scratch A startup has to come from nothing but that brings with it a real competitive edge. ‘The beauty of coming in as a new player is that you can just start from scratch,’ says Van Bockel, who went to a Doctor to find out what the functional level of sugar for an energy drink is – turns out it’s 5%, the same as in an IV drip. And treading a new path can take you to unexpected places, as he found out when someone told him about the strong, salted tea that Himalayan sherpas drink. ‘That inspired the two key natural components – the caffeine which we take from guarana, green tea and green coffee, and then the Himalayan rock salts that help to keep you hydrated.’

5. Tell Your Brand Story Innovative products always have a story attached, so allow that to become a part of your brand. When Van Bockel came up with the idea for the brand name ‘Tenzing’ he contacted the family of Tenzing Norgay to ask permission, and he has ended up working with them on profit sharing and environmental projects to de-litter Everest. ‘I had always been a big Tenzing Norgay fan – I love the fact that he aimed extremely high and was unlikely to achieve his goal, being a poor yak herder, but he was the first, with Sir Edmund Hillary, to climb Mt Everest.’

The highs are so high because you’ve done it yourself, but also because the lows are that low

6. There’s Strength In Numbers David and Goliath stories often rely on a small but closely knit and heavily engaged team. ‘We are a very small company and if we want to take on the big guys then we have to have a community – building a genuine community where everyone takes a stake and becomes a part of the journey,’ says Van Bockel, who takes a freewheeling approach to leading staff, in that he doesn’t impose a brand philosophy. ‘That’s what I like about RISING as a platform – we always aim high like Tenzing did, and the only thing that binds us is that, and wanting to achieve something cool together.’ He also seeks the opinions of his network in LinkedIn and elsewhere, as a way to test ideas, which builds awareness of the brand while genuinely helping him make decisions.

9. It’s A Rollercoaster – But It’s Worth It ‘I don’t want to give the illusion that it’s in any way easy – you never also think, “oh I’ve made it now,” there’s always this drive in you that asks “yes but will we be able to maintain it?”’ says Van Bockel. He says there have been times when the orders were not coming in, salaries had to be paid and he wondered if the startup was going to make it.‘The highs are so high because you have done it yourself but also because the lows are that low – you can only have amazing highs if you have those lows. I’ve learnt now that this is part of the process. In the beginning you’re like “I want to be big,” but then I quickly realised that it’s about building a team and enjoying the journey together.’

WHAT NEXT? For more on building a brand, as well as helping a community grow to support it, check out Huib Van Bockel’s book The Social Brand.

Follow the author @mattfitnessray