How Jamba Put Smoothies on the Map

Now pushing 30, the brand is still squeezing all it can from the fruity segment it pioneered

It’s not like nobody had ever thought of mixing juices before, but Jamba’s formula of appetizing combos and alarmingly enthusiastic associates offering to “boost” your drinks was a perfect match for health-conscious Gen Xers.
Courtesy of Jamba Juice

Two years ago, Saturday Night Live aired a skit featuring Kenan Thompson and Beck Bennett stranded in the desert and dying of thirst. As Bennett gazes blearily into the distance, a wondrous vision appears. It’s a chipper young man wearing an apron and standing at a counter. He’s holding up an ice-cold yellow smoothie. “Bananamatazz with a zinc boost—for Mark!” he yells.

The vision? A mirage, of course. But the smoothie counter technically wasn’t. It’s Jamba Juice.

Quick-service restaurants have always furnished rich material for comedy, but in the case of Jamba—and these days, it’s just Jamba (see sidebar)—there’s serious business behind it. The brand that began as a 700-square-foot blender joint in California’s central coast region is today a multinational corporation with 800 stores. The multiconcept restaurant company Focus Brands, which operates Cinnabon and Seattle’s Best Coffee among other well-known names, plunked down $13 a share for Jamba last summer, taking the firm private to the tune of $200 million. Now, Jamba is in the middle of a revamp that will put more emphasis on entrees like steel-cut oatmeal and granola-based bowls.

Jamba began life as Juice Club (1), a trendy joint in San Luis Obispo, Calif., opened by entrepreneur Kirk Perron (2). The popularity of the chain’s thick, sweet and fruity smoothies (3) helped it expand quickly throughout the late 1990s. Jamba’s swirly logo (4) is meant to suggest juice in a blender, though the loud and tropical colors have been toned down in the most recent incarnation, where green emphasizes the arrival of more vegetables. Jamba never lacked for enthusiastic fans, including this group (5) who tooled around in a Jamba-wrapped car in 2000. But when Focus Brands bought Jamba last year, new management decided to rethink things. The most visible change: The “juice” portion of the name is gone from the store signage (6).
Courtesy of Jamba Juice

Makeovers aside, though, Jamba will always be the concept that helped put smoothies on the map, and president Geoff Henry says that kind of recognition is indispensable. “We’re fortunate that Jamba has been a category leader,” he said. “We have an awareness that sets us apart from the competition.” The Jamba smoothie, he believes, is the best-tasting one on the market. After all, he said, “we’ve spent three decades perfecting it.”

Way back in distant 1990 (when MC Hammer was a big star and nobody had heard of the internet), a 27-year-old Safeway supermarket manager named Kirk Perron got the idea to open a juice shop—the sort of place that would sell a healthier alternative to convenience-mart slush drinks. After draining his savings and borrowing $30,000 from his mom, Perron opened a place called Juice Club. Following a slow build, business picked up, and Perron began expanding. With a bit of help from Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, Jamba landed a few VC partners, and by 1996, the company had a nice footprint (nearly 30 stores) and a new name: Jamba Juice (Jamba is Swahili for “to celebrate”).

Jamba Juice announced in early June that it was retiring “juice,” a move made as part of broadening the concept’s appeal and distancing itself from the sugary associations that consumers have with smoothies. And while customers will no doubt notice the shorter name and the new menu, other changes are more subtle. Specifically, both the brand logo and the interior design of the restaurants are more muted than before. “It was about creating a neutral backdrop to highlight the goodness of the food,” said Jennifer Jones, managing partner of the Sterling-Rice Group, which oversaw the refresh. Also toned down was the color palette of the “whirl” (that’s the springy thing in the logo). “It looked very sugary,” Jones said, suggesting “cotton-candy flavors.” And with 67% of Americans now saying they’re cutting down on sugar, candy is not what you want to suggest on a menu.
Courtesy of Jamba Juice

It’s not like nobody had ever thought of mixing juices before, but Jamba’s formula of appetizing combos and alarmingly enthusiastic associates offering to “boost” your drinks was a perfect match for health-conscious Gen Xers. And today, three decades later, it’s still a good fit for millennials, too. But consumers have gradually awakened to the fact that juice drinks often contain a lot of sugar, which has in turn led Jamba to “grow up with its guests” by offering a diversified menu and quietly dropping juice from the name.

But the energy “boosts” remain, along with those jocund staffers—who were the target of that SNL spoof. Far from being offended, Henry was happy for the validation. “The brand has been part of the popular culture,” he said. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

This story first appeared in the Aug. 19, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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