- Player: Grant Rushmere
- Brand: Bos Brands
- Established: 2009
- Visit: bosicetea.com
When Grant Rushmere first envisioned Bos Ice Tea, he did it through the lens of creating a global brand. This wasn’t going to be a small local brand that would grow organically, and maybe enter international markets in the distant future.
No. This was a brand engineered for stratospheric growth, which required a ballsy optimism and willingness to go big or go home.
Of course, that just means a harder and longer fall if things don’t work out, but Rushmere and his founding partner, Richard Bowsher, weren’t thinking about that. They had their eyes squarely focused on the one year mark.
“That’s how much runway we had,” says Rushmere. “We could see the date when we were going to run out of money, and we were hurtling towards it.”
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But they had a plan, and they were going all-in to pull it off.
“From the beginning we jumped in with both feet. We approached retailers and secured contracts that we knew we wouldn’t be able to sustain down the line if we didn’t get funders on board, but it was a calculated risk that we were willing to take.”
The strategising went like this: Both Bowsher and Rushmere had seed capital, Bowsher from the sale in 2000 of his Silicon Valley-based streaming media company, Streaming Media Inc, and Rushmere from the sale of his business, Afro Café, to Red Bull (yes, that Red Bull) founder, Dietrich Mateschitz. But although they could get the business off the ground, they knew they’d need a lot more money to finance high-level growth and launch internationally.
Organic growth curve
Rushmere and Bowsher saw three options. One was a lower, more organic growth curve, made possible because Bowsher’s rooibos farm would supply the base product.
“Richard moved back to South Africa from San Francisco. He settled in Cape Town and then bought an incredible piece of mountain land in the Cederberg as a getaway,” says Rushmere. The land bordered a rooibos farm, and Bowsher was soon spending time with the farmer, discovering a love for rooibos and how it’s grown and fermented.
By the time Bowsher and Rushmere were introduced by a mutual friend, he had bought the rooibos farm from the farmer. Klipopmekaar Farm was the ideal supplier of the base product for Bos Ice Tea.
“I had developed the idea, brand and product, but I didn’t want to be a lone ranger,” says Rushmere. “I was looking for a partner who would co-invest in the business and bring skills to the company. Richard was ideal. He loved rooibos and actually produced it, and he is excellent with contracts and HR matters. Where I think a handshake will suffice, he puts a contract in place that protects everyone’s interests. Together we had the skills this business needed.”
Joining forces meant that they had everything they needed to launch a niche brand, including the funds for slow, contained growth.
Bootstrap or invest
Option two was to put more money in themselves, or find other seed funders. “We didn’t like this option. Equity is cheap early on, and expensive later. We wanted something of value to offer investors, not just an idea. This also wouldn’t let us scale at the rate we wanted to.”
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Building an attractive business
Which leads us to option three: Building a business that is highly attractive to investors, already has market share and is a proven concept — but at the risk of losing everything if those investors don’t come on board.
“We knew we had real potential and market enthusiasm, and we gambled everything on it,” says Rushmere.
“We also had support from all the major retailers, including Woolworths. They liked that we were a local South African product. We were growing fast, and we had successfully differentiated ourselves from our competitors. We weren’t overlapping Lipton and Nestea. We had different messaging and a different taste.”
This all played into the ultimate plan of securing an investor. “We exuded confidence. This is what ultimately secured us the Woolworths contract. We knew the contract would be attractive to investors, but we needed an investor on board to actually be able to deliver to Woolworths. Timing was everything.”
The risk paid off. In 2010, three major investors came on board. Up to this point, Rushmere and Bowsher were the sole owners, with a 60/40 equity split. They now made the strategic decision to dilute that equity and hold a smaller percentage in a much bigger business.
“We believed that the greater potential of the right investors could impact massive growth. We’re in the FMCG market — we couldn’t do this without big growth — so we made the decision to take the potential we had created and run with it.”
Bringing investors on board
First, Invenfin, the venture capital arm of the Remgro Group, came on board. The alignment was perfect. Rushmere’s plan had been to generate market traction before approaching investors. Invenfin’s priority sectors are technology and food and beverage, with a preference for businesses that have achieved meaningful market traction, are on-trend globally and are poised for rapid growth. Bos Brands ticked all their boxes.
Next, former Manchester United FC coach Sir Alex Ferguson invested in the business as an angel investor. “This was a personal connection,” says Rushmere, who is a friend of Ferguson’s son and daughter-in-law. The business model sufficiently piqued Ferguson’s interest to get him involved, and he remains a shareholder to this day.
Finally, Vovo Telo founder Dave Evans not only invested in Bos Brands, but became a member of its management team as well.
“Vovo Telo was a client. Our early strategy was to focus on delis and speciality stores, introducing the brand to the public and developing a niche consumer base. In his stores, Bos was outselling Coca-Cola. Dave was intrigued – he had an SAB background and an MBA, which gave him incredible training and insights into the consumer beverage market, and he’d sold a 51% stake in his business to Famous Brands. He was ready for a new challenge, and we were it.”
The right investors don’t only bring money to the table, but expertise as well. Dave Evans joined the business as its CEO. “I’m an ideas guy. I love products and marketing. Richard has a great talent for HR and building the structure of a business, and of course has the rooibos farm. Dave is an operations guy.
He could build this out better than any of us, and his addition to our team was invaluable in our overall growth plan.
“Alex is an internationally recognised personality. Don’t ever discount the lift a product — particularly a consumer product — can receive from being associated with a famous personality. Alex also has a wealth of connections and associations that have proved invaluable as we’ve moved into international markets.
“And of course, Invenfin came with incredible links and networks, as well as the know-how associated with building successful companies. Over the years the influence and guidance Invenfin’s team has given us over and above the capital investment has been invaluable.”
The power of marketing
Gutsy moves and calculated risks aside, the success of Bos Brands is a lesson in the power of marketing. In their first year, Rushmere and Bowsher spent as much on marketing as their turnover.
As their revenue has increased, they haven’t pulled back on marketing spend — they’ve grown it. Rushmere is a firm believer that you get what you pay for, and what he’s been aiming for since the inception of the brand is no-holds-barred growth.
“I’ve always been someone who loves creating products, building a brand and then aggressively marketing it,” says Rushmere. “My first business, Afro Café, attracted the attention of Red Bull’s head of advertising and the man who came up with the line, ‘Red Bull gives you wings’, Johann Kastner. He then introduced me to Dietrich Mateschitz, who became first a partner, and later bought the whole business, and this association gave me unfettered access to the Red Bull engine room.”
Since Red Bull is arguably one of the most successfully marketed brands in the world, this access came with lessons that Rushmere has put to good use, first in launching Bos Ice Tea, and later in growing the business, both locally and internationally.
“You have to do your research,” says Rushmere. This sounds so obvious, and yet not all start-ups spend enough time on this incredibly important first step.
“Roger Hamilton [a New Zealand entrepreneur and founder of Wealth Dynamics] has this incredible analogy. He tells a story about how he and his 11-year-old sister were drawing stick figures in summer art class. They weren’t looking anything like real people. And then the teacher taught them a trick. She told them to turn the piece of paper upside down, and draw the space around the figure. Once you turn the paper the right way up, you have a perfect figure. That’s what business is like. You need to take a step back, look around, really see your competitors and what they’re doing, and then find the gaps. This is the only way you can define your own space.
Rushmere’s next piece of advice is to never stop digging. “This was a big awakening for me. I’d present researched ideas to Dietrich and he would say, ‘nope, not there yet. Keep searching.’ I had to work at it and keep distilling my idea. I had to find a way to get to the simplest form to convey my message.
“The more complex you get, the less likely it is that people will take on your message and embrace your brand. You need to create a Trojan horse. As a consumer, if you can see the idea of the brand and it’s simple enough, you will assimilate it into your personal narrative. As a brand, once you’ve got that right, you can add depth. Adding layers to your narrative takes time. It can’t be rushed.”
According to Rushmere, there is a set process to brand creation. First, make the early interaction with your brand simple. “Think about human nature,” says Rushmere.
“If we had a full CV of every person we met, before we knew them, we’d form opinions, make assumptions and be overwhelmed. But, if you meet them, find them friendly, open and engaging, then you want to learn more — and you’ll keep learning more. Finding a brand that you like and identify with is the same.”
Once you’ve set this foundation, you follow up with your brand story. “Brands need to be humble. Think about the most successful brands in the world. Their messages are incredibly simple. Red Bull gives you wings. Coca Cola: Open happiness. Nike’s iconic, ‘just do it’. These are all simple messages that have been repeated a lot. These brands have sold a simple idea that has layers and layers of complexity behind the simplicity — but none of that was created in a day. Most importantly, all successful brands are easy to recognise, remember and relate to.”
Bos’s tagline is ‘Not just an ice tea’, highlighting how one simple sentence can have layers of complexity: Rooibos is an alchemical transformation, and the brand’s portrayal of itself has always kept this front and centre.
“Rooibos is a green plant that has no flavour,” says Rushmere. “You need to break the cell structure and ferment it in the sun to reach the flavour. We use this alchemical ‘twist’ through all of our communications. From a wagon that serves drinks topped with an umbrella that looks like a palm, to giraffes on bicycles selling ice tea, but looking like ice-cream bikes. Everything we do is about a sense of transformation — what you expect to what we actually are. Everything had to have a trick in the box. If it didn’t, we didn’t do it. This built an expectation around the brand, without us giving long discourses about who we were and what we stood for.”
So how do you get there? “It’s a process of distillation. We have a tendency to want to squeeze more and more in. You have to fight that urge. Anything that’s not necessary must go. Simple, beautiful packaging is an important first step. For us, this meant a really cool can that was bold, colourful and recognisable. The fact that the product is organic and contains less sugar than other ice teas and soft drinks comes later. In your first view we’re not telling you any of this. Our sole aim is to grab your attention with a memorable name and cool packaging.
“Part of the success of beverages in particular is that they need to be entertaining. They transport you emotionally to a happy, entertaining place. This means the brand needs to trigger the subconscious, not just through taste, but emotions and ideas.
“If you try to sell too much upfront you’ll lose that impact. Insecure brands do this and you achieve the reverse of a simple, powerful statement.”
What does this mean for Bos Ice Tea? “We knew we were tapping into a huge global market on the high end of the consumer scale, and that iced tea speaks to a health trend, but this didn’t mean we should scream health from the front of our packaging, and in our marketing messages. If you do that, you lose all sense of fun. You want your consumers to feel a little naughty; like they’re having fun. Long-term, that’s how you build brand equity. It might sound counter-intuitive, but from a brand’s perspective, an emotional hook is much easier to defend than a functional hook. By tapping into emotions — what the brand stands for and how it makes you feel — you give the brand a voice; you’re not just selling features and benefits. If you take a functional approach to marketing, you’re basing everything on the fact that you contain less sugar than other soft drinks. What happens when someone comes along with even less sugar? You’re suddenly dead in the water.”
Fun, quirky, Afrochic — Bos Ice Tea has cemented its place in the hearts of South African and European consumers. And the brand’s journey is still just beginning.
The 360˚ secret to brand building
As the Bos brand has matured, its message has become more sophisticated, and its interaction with consumers more refined, but its essence was shaped from the beginning.
“Most brands want to say as much as possible in their early stages,” says Bos Ice Tea founder Grant Rushmere. “You need to fight this urge. Let your customers consume your product without too much noise.
“My Dad used to give a speech at our 21st birthdays. He said that there are three cycles of seven to get to 21 years old. The first seven years are physical. The next seven years are emotional, and the final seven years are mental. Once all three stages have been completed, you’re an adult — but it can’t be rushed.
“Brands are the same, although thankfully it doesn’t take 21 years to grow a brand. Instead, you need to have been around for three years before you can develop a 360˚ brand. During that time you’ll have been developing a story and a narrative, and consumers will be getting to know your product, but you won’t have been delving into the complexities of your values. This has a long tail. If you try to do your whole 360˚ in six months, it won’t work. It’s too much all at once and becomes overwhelming for your target market.”
The three stages of a 360˚ brand
- Create a physical product.
- Tap into emotions. “In our case this meant building up the fun before talking about the health benefits of our product, but for other brands it’s about highlighting your relevance. No matter what you do, if you bear your soul a little bit and really show your consumers who you are, you’re helping them to make the decision to buy. This can polarise your market, but that’s okay. If you stand for something, those who feel the same way will be drawn to you. The secret is to be authentic and resonate with your market.”
- Go serious. Once the brand and market are mature, it’s then time for the more serious message (in Bos’ case, the fact that the product is organic, contains less sugar than other soft drinks and has health benefits.)
“The most important thing to remember is that it’s all a process,” says Rushmere.
“This can’t be rushed. As brand owners our intent doesn’t always manifest either, and that’s okay. Let your consumers decide who you are. Don’t shove your message down their throat; let them form an opinion, and then create a dialogue with them. If you align your messaging, you will create a space where your consumers can share experiences with you, and that’s more powerful than any message you can try to force on them.”
Of course, Rushmere is the first to admit that this takes confidence. “You can’t please everyone. Try and you might lose your soul. Instead, start with one simple idea: What is important to me? If you know why you are doing this, and you can find your purpose, then the rest will follow naturally.”
One final word of advice: Be consistent above all else. “Don’t be afraid to be repetitive with your message,” he says. “It’s important to not jump around, and that means sometimes you will be repetitive. Think things through carefully, and then don’t change them — it’s expensive, it confuses the market and people won’t know who you are.”
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Bos Brands’ global strategy
South Africa’s market is small compared to the US and Europe. Local ice tea consumption is 800ml per person, while the US and EU have 18 litres and 8 litres respectively. Switzerland on the other hand consumes 26 litres of ice tea per person per year.
Given South Africa’s tiny market, Rushmere and his team have used their local launch as a building block to develop the brand and its story, but ultimately they have always been focused on the international market.
Currently Bos Brands’ market is 50% international and 50% local.
“Half of our business is in Europe. We entered Holland and Belgium first. We chose the Benelux countries because this is a premium product, and so we needed to look at markets that have the potential for premium performance. China is huge, but price points are low. We were looking at premium pricing, and markets with more than 10 litres per person consumption. The Benelux market is huge; it’s sitting at €1 billion.”
In addition to a love for ice tea, the Benelux countries already know and love Rooibos tea. “Fruit flavoured Rooibos tea is extremely popular in Holland and Belgium in particular, so even though we were a very South African product, we weren’t completely unknown.
“We also understood that our ability to influence the market is good because the countries are geographically close to each other, but at the same time each market is slightly different, allowing us to learn valuable lessons before spreading ourselves out.”