Hope Floats

1 12 2011

Yesterday my GA popped into my office for her weekly assignment, but before we could even begin to talk, she started telling me with breathless excitement of her hopes to set up an import company in the US. She told me about the specialty beverage produced in her home country, and she queried me about how one gets started in this line of work.

How serendipitous that I had just encountered a similar such business endeavor while in Florida earlier this month. I texted my brother in Tampa for a quick refresher on the company name and background. Turns out an entrepreneur near where he lives had started importing a British fruit beverage in 2009, and was laboring to gain distribution.

The product is Frubob, “the first premium fruit float.” As in fruit beverage with chunks of fruit floating in it. No kidding.

My brother gave me a bottle to try a couple of weeks ago, and I will admit to taking a step back. Chunks of anything in my drink just do not appeal to me. In all likelihood, I never would have purchased this had I seen it down at the 7-Eleven. But given that it was now free, I closed my eyes, opened my mouth wide, and…enjoyed.

So far, Frubob has only gained distribution in the state of Florida. And that’s why I used this as an example with my GA, because she would face the same hurdles as did this entrepreneur. I did my dissertation many years ago on new product distribution and achieving acceptance in supermarkets. It is no small task, given that there are 15,000 new items each and every year, and the largest supermarkets “only” stock 45,000. This means that in a three year period, it would be possible for a grocery to completely turn over its array of products, replacing each item with a new one.

Which ain’t gonna happen.

Complicate matters by selling products that require refrigeration or freezing, and you suddenly find the battle for shelf space intensified even more. Oh, and never you mind for a minute that unique products (Frubob claims to be launching an entirely new category, although I probably would not go that far) require “educating” consumers and corporate buyers. It’s a far cry from just introducing a new flavor of yogurt.

But novelty can sometimes work to your advantage, as long as consumers (and buyers) are no too puzzled by it. Floating fruit chunks? Not so sure. Yeah, it was good, but like I said, I would probably never have picked it up on my own. Naked Juice is one thing (yummy fruit smoothies), but floaties is quite another.

So I talked it up with my GA in a big way. I tried to encourage her, but also caution. Gaining distribution is tough even when the product looks like a hands-down winner. And just because something works in one country (Frubob is very popular in its homeland, the UK), does not mean it will work here. Vegemite sells like hotcakes in Australia, and peanut butter does here, but not vice-versa.

I suppose I could have donned a clerical collar when I told my student that marketing without distribution is dead, but I’m sure someone would take a swipe at my having hijacked a popular verse in the Book of James. But it is true. The hardest part Frubob USA has right now is gaining distribution, followed by educating consumers. And my GA would face similar hurdles. It’s not like grocery and convenience store buyers sit around wondering, “Now what new products could I put in the store today?”

But I give credit to both the Frubob guy and my GA for having the entrepreneurial spirit. Hope really does spring eternal among eager businesspersons, people willing to put on the breastplate of risk aversion and the belt of confidence. I wish the Frubob guy and my GA well in their respective aspirations. I know it is an uphill battle, but it is a battle that can be won. Just look at your local beer cooler next time and take note of Corona. Foster’s. Heineken. Those beers didn’t just walk into our country.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll all start to prefer fruit chunks in our smoothies. It wouldn’t be the first time we latched on to a crazy idea. I just hope I don’t burn for co-opting scripture.

Dr “Bottoms Up” Gerlich

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