Building a Nationally Renowned Brand Without Selling Your Soul

Honest Tea co-founder Seth Goldman

From organic ingredients to guerrilla marketing, Honest Tea is the poster child for doing business differently. So it’s not entirely surprising that when company co-founders Seth Goldman and Barry Nalebuff set out to tell their roller-coaster ride to success, they wrote it as a memoir in comic book form. Mission in a Bottle, which comes out Sept. 3, is disarmingly informal and frank, much like CEO Goldman, who, between meeting with executives at brand owner Coca-Cola and speaking at a cooperative grocers’ conference, discussed the challenges of launching and preserving an unusual brand.

Why take a comic book route?

I was trying to read all these green business books, and they just get so turgid. They’re lecturey and preachy. At the same time, my oldest son was in his last year of high school—so maybe he had a little extra time— and was bringing home these really absorbing comic books.

What was the dumbest decision you made in creating this brand?

The one that really haunts us is [buying] the bottling plant. … We lost money, but the biggest factor by far was just the distraction—that I was driving to Pittsburgh every month trying to keep this thing afloat or from going under.

And the smartest decision?

The biggest positive that actually sort of continues through today is that we created something that we’re passionate about and believe in. Throughout all those challenges, there was always a question of whether the business was viable, but there was never a question about whether we believed in what we were doing.

What’s your litmus test for brand extensions?

It has to fit within our beverage positioning. Our platform is authentic, organic and lower calorie—obviously different than what’s out there.

Will you go beyond beverages?

We have looked at snacks. We’ve done some Honest Bars. I think we call it the Salad Bar—it was a bar with vegetables in it. Less sweet, organic and less sugar.

Steve Jobs said it’s not the customer’s job to tell you what they want. Do you agree?

I do, and I say that as I speak to you from the Coca-Cola building. [Laughs.] The reason Honest Tea wasn’t created by the bigger companies was because any market research would involve a taste test, and the taste test would say, “I want the sweeter drink.”

How do you ensure that corporate ownership won’t spoil Honest Tea?

Part of it is the fact that I’m still running it. It’s the same team, and the office is [still] based in Bethesda, [Md.]. I’m in Atlanta, but this is perhaps once every two months or so that I’m down here. The [other] key is to be very close to our customers … And then, our marketing is still very grassroots.

I love the line, “Sleep isn’t that important in the first year.” Was that you or Barry?

Absolutely me. I was definitely the one on the front lines. One of my favorite scenes is the one where I crack a tooth, go to the dentist, and he says, “Well, you’re gnashing your teeth at night. Are you living with any stress?” And I said, “Well, I guess you can say that.” He says, “Well, you either need to find a way to reduce your stress, or I can tell you about a mouth guard.” I said, “You better tell me about the mouth guard.”

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