Message on a bottle

Urban Juice & Soda, a Vancouver firm that began selling soft drinks four years ago under the name of Jones Soda, owes its phenomenal success to a grassroots interactive marketing strategy that's fuelled explosive growth and spawned a rabidly loyal following....

Urban Juice & Soda, a Vancouver firm that began selling soft drinks four years ago under the name of Jones Soda, owes its phenomenal success to a grassroots interactive marketing strategy that’s fuelled explosive growth and spawned a rabidly loyal following.

Just how successful is Jones Soda? Last year, the company sold more than a million cases of pop across North America, an increase of more than 135% over the previous year. Growth in the two years before that was just as phenomenal.

The company produces, bottles and sells 19 flavours of soda with names like Fufu Berry and Whoopass Energy Drink primarily to an ultra-desirable audience of 14- to 24-year-olds. The sodas have distinctive labels that feature black-and-white photographs, many of which are submitted by customers. The company also maintains a Web site (, which is set to relaunch June 1.

The new site will be positioned much like a Web portal, with the goal being to build an online community of Jones Soda loyalists. Although the company’s current Web site runs contests and provides information about the events in which Jones is involved – such as extreme sports and music – on June 1 much of the content will change, and just like the soda labels, much of it will be created by customers, rather than the company itself.

"We’re going to use (the Web site) to collect content," explains Urban Juice’s 36-year-old bald but goateed founder and president, Peter van Stolk. "Culture, essays, art, movie reviews, everything."

Van Stolk says he’s seen plenty of companies blast into the market and disappear from the radar just as fast. That’s why alternative distribution channels, measured growth and sponsorships figure prominently in his strategy of "grounding" the brand. But the real secret of the company’s success, says van Stolk, is allowing customers to interact with the company – both on and off the Web site, which he says has "grown organically" to more than 45,000 unique visitors per month.

The emotional connection the company has managed to forge with its customers is such that even van Stolk is occasionally overwhelmed by it.

"I get tackled in Taco Bell in Arizona because I’m wearing a Jones pin and people want an autograph," he recounts. "I get people driving for four days up to Vancouver to come and sit outside – sit outside! – and wait for us to come to work. This is soda, man, and these guys are fired up about it because it’s given them a voice. Jones Soda’s all about giving them a voice."

It all began with the funky Jones labels. The company has used thousands of photos taken by its customers to grace the labels of its 19 brands. Each time a photo runs, it appears on as many as 150,000 labels. Last year, the company received some 40,000 submissions – all without benefit of advertising.

Customers respond to the Jones brand, says van Stolk, because their work, their voice, is being acknowledged on every bottle of soda. The same philosophy applies to the company’s Web strategy, he says.

"Our goal is to create a community with Jones Soda," says van Stolk. "A product on a Web site is just a product. It’s relevant to a point, but then it becomes not relevant. We’ve got to change that, and we’ve got to make it relevant. And so our Web strategy is to make it relevant in a fashion that’s fun for [the consumer]."

As for advertising and promotion, the only vehicle that will be used to boost awareness of the Web site will be the inclusion of the URL on the bottle labels, which themselves have become such a hit that customers have begun trading them on the Web.

The Web site is the latest incarnation in a grassroots marketing strategy that’s seen Jones Soda establish retail distribution through such unlikely avenues as tattoo parlours and sex shops.

Today, the site has plenty of areas that invite participation from Jones fans. One section features a contest challenging people to say why the company’s funky promotional RV should come to their town. Another gives away posters, CDs and cases of Jones Soda.

"There’s something that we’re doing that’s right, because Nike’s phoning us, Armani’s phoning us…Fox is phoning us, Levi’s is phoning us, Starbucks is phoning us – everyone in the world is phoning us because they send their focus groups out and they go to kids ‘What’s cool?’ and they say ‘Jones’ and they come back and say ‘Can we play with you guys?’"

From Karen Howe’s dining table: Creativity, COVID and Cannes

ICYMI, The Township's founder gathers the best of the best campaigns and trends so far.

Cannes Base Camp

By Karen Howe

I’m attending Cannes from the glory of my dining room table. There’s not a palm tree in sight, yet inspiration and intel are present in abundance.

Cannes Lions is a global cultural pulse check. The social course correction in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and BLM has delivered far greater diversity in the judging panels as well as the work. And we are all better for it.

I’m proud to say that creativity defeated COVID, which speaks to its power. Great work and big ideas flourished, despite unimaginable odds.

The work from the past two years spans a vast emotional range. From the profundity of Dove’s “Courage is Beautiful” to the hyper exuberance of Burberry’s “Festive,” they are opposite ends of the spectrum, but each answered a need in us.

Take note, the ascendency of gaming cannot be understated. Smart brands have embraced the channel. It makes sense, because gamers participate to meet others around the world, not just to play. And they represent a huge and powerful community. That’s why QSR Wendy’s gamified their iconic gal in RPG’s Feast of Legends.

Burger King sponsored the unknown Stevenage Football Club, transforming the team into online heroes and vaulting BK into the fray at the same time. Once again, the brand embedded itself in culture.

The birth of gaming tourism arrived when Xbox snuggled up to travel guides and created a brilliant baby: a travel guide for gaming worlds. It, too, embedded itself in culture.

From the standpoint of social good, Reporter Without Borders showed how it worked with Mindcraft for its “Uncensored Library” to bypass press censorship, with Minecraft providing a loophole to a space where young people could be educated. It provided youth with a powerful tool to fight oppression: truth.

COVID changed us in unexpected ways. We learned how to pay attention again and there was a notable lack of 30-second commercials. Instead, longer format content thrived. Apple’s WFH was seven minutes long. Entertainment reigned king, so we find ourselves returning to our advertising roots.

Seeing competitive brands form partnerships was one of this year’s other great surprises. The brilliantly simple “Beer Cap Project” by Aguila to reduce binge-drinking saw the brand reach out to competitive beers to join in. Aguila put incentivizing (keyword: free) reminders to drink water, eat food and get home safely on its bottle caps from all sorts of fast food chains, ride-share co’s and H2O brands.

On a personal level, I’m so proud of Canada again this year. Given that it was two years of work from all over the world being judged, even making the Cannes shortlist was an accomplishment. Canada is herding in the Lions in tremendous numbers – and it’s not even over. Fingers are crossed.

KAREN-HOWE-PIC-higher-rez-300x263Karen Howe is a Canadian Cannes Advisory Board Member and founder of The Township Group