Interview by Evan Faber

Brands with Moxie Sozo
004 Aura Bora

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Meet Paul Voge. He is the co-founder of Aura Bora, a craft sparkling water made from real herbs, fruits and flowers, for earthly tastes and heavenly feelings. In this conversation, we talk about how to break through and compete in a crowded category.

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Moxie Sozo was tasked to create a distinctive new brand of sparkling water that not only looked totally different than everything else on the shelf, but communicated their flavor-forward innovation. Watch or listen to his story below.

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What’s so great about consumer packaged goods is that it’s such an intimate experience. I mean, you’re seeing it with your eyes on the shelf and you’re holding it, seeing how it feels. You’re smelling it, you’re tasting it…all five sensory experiences.

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Evan Faber
Hello, I’m Evan Faber, host of Brands with Moxie Sozo. Moxie Sozo translates into the bold application of intelligence and creativity. We are a global branding agency based in Boulder, Colorado. Today we’re being joined by Paul Voge. He is the co-founder of Aura Bora, a craft sparkling water made from real herbs, fruits and flowers, for earthly tastes and heavenly feelings. And if you heard me say sparkling water, and you were like, hmm, I’ve heard about a few sparkling water brands popping up, then you may want to stick around because this conversation is about how to compete in a crowded category. Moxie Sozo was tasked to create a distinctive new brand of sparkling water that not only looked totally different than everything else on the shelf, but communicated their flavor-forward innovation. Aura Bora hit the shelves in January 2020. Just a few months before the pandemic hit. And despite that, is on a lightning streak, having expanded to over 300 natural retailers across the country already. It’s amazing how powerful design can be to spark curiosity even in the crowdest of categories, but that’s not all it takes. So without further ado, let’s talk to Paul Voge.

Paul, thank you for joining us today from Aura Bora. It’s a pleasure to have you.

Paul Voge
Thanks for having me.

Evan Faber
Our pleasure. Would you kick us off by telling us just a little bit about your background? What led you to this project?

Paul Voge
Yeah, of course. About a year ago, I was working for a venture studio, a holding company that started businesses, funded businesses, acquired businesses, so still an entrepreneurial role, but I had a salary and bosses in a traditional nine-to-five job. My wife Maddie and I had been making these peculiar tasting sparkling waters at home with our SodaStream just for fun. As we thought about it more and more, we thought there’s not really in artesanal sparkling water that consumers are excited about. I think a lot of us drink sparkling water as a commodity. And I knew that I was drinking eight to ten cans a day, each day, at work. I would go to the fridge, grab three more that’ll last me a couple hours. But I really wanted something that was a little more of a treat. If you’re going to be drinking something often, hopefully you’re enjoying it. We found that at home with the SodaStream, it didn’t have the same experience as at work in an actual can. So we looked into it and thought, this is a product category that’s growing. It’s a product that young consumers are drinking more and more. I think in the same way that I’m disgusted that my grandparents smoked cigarettes, I think my children will be disgusted that I ever drank soda. It’s a growing trend for a reason. But a big piece of any consumer packaged good is the branding, probably 50% of why people buy things is how it looks. We fortunately found Moxie to design our branding. So that was the beginning. At the same time, we were developing our recipes with the food scientists and developing our branding with Moxie, so that was a year ago and here we are today.

Evan Faber
Amazing. You talked about the sparkling water category being commoditized, and perhaps a commodity would be a product that serves a functional purpose with low emotional rewards. As you’re looking to differentiate yourself from a commodity, the role you play there is dialing in the emotional rewards of the brand, not just the functionality. You mentioned the branding, the look, and the feel. But as you think about the total sensorial experience, the emotional experience you want the consumer to go through with the premium sparkling water, what kind of cues were you looking to play up?

Paul Voge
Yeah, this is actually taken from our very first meeting, Evan, when I came in with those little six-ounce bottle samples, where we wanted each experience to be different from the equivalent private label or conventional sparkling water experience. What’s so great about consumer packaged goods is that it’s such an intimate experience. You’re seeing it with your eyes on the shelf. You’re holding it, seeing how it feels. You’re smelling it. You’re tasting it. All five sensory experiences. A big piece straight-on was, because we decided to use herbal extracts in flavoring the drinks, we knew one, this is going to have a more sophisticated flavor. So it’s going to cater to a consumer that has a palette that they can recognize these herbal tastes, but two, we wanted the aroma to be a big piece of it. Smell is probably the strongest part of your memory. I remember being in that room with your whole team and thinking, wow, can we give the the smell of this delightful lavender, a similar delightful image on the can? Can we translate across all five senses? And I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that, of course we’re always improving. To your to your question, that was part of what we were trying to do. Hey, if we’re going to ask consumers to pay more for this premium experience, we better be using premium ingredients. We better have a differentiated experience overall. I think we’ve done that.

Evan Faber
Yeah, I agree. And even if you look at your Instagram page, so we talked about the product and looking at how to develop emotional rewards to that “engage all five senses,” which is a good exercise for a brand to do. But your Instagram (not connected to the product) also is a showcase of your emotional rewards. You have a unique color palette, you have a unique tone of voice, what sort of personality traits were you looking to build up on that side?

Paul Voge
Yeah, I’ve joked that it’s just my wife’s personality and we put it on Instagram and on the can. With regards to social in particular, it’s so important for brands to have a voice, and that probably was slightly true a few years ago and very true last year, and it feels like even now when so much shopping is done online, behind a screen, your social media should be very clear not just what you sell, and why you sell it, and what you sell it for, but who are you? Why am I buying from you? I’ve used this analogy before, it’s a little stretched, but I’ll go with it. No one stops at a lemonade stand because it has outstanding lemonade. That’s not why they’re buying from a lemonade stand. If you wanted outstanding lemonade, you go to Chick-Fil-A and drink their outstanding lemonade. You’re stopping at the lemonade stand because there’s a whole experience here. The social media piece of a lemonade stand, what you’re actually seeing on the front shingle, is, oh, that’s my neighbor’s kid. And he’s selling his lemonade for 25 cents. I’m mildly excited about his product, but I’m so excited about who he is and his personality and his setup etc. Similarly with brands, the vast majority of people that will come to our Instagram page will not buy from us. However, they will be buying our personality in the light-hearted humor, the levity with which we communicate our message. Hopefully they understand later in life at the shelf when they’re seeing it in the grocery store, oh, that’s the sparkling water company that doesn’t take themselves too seriously and has kind of surreal imagery on their social media page surreal imagery on their cans, I got to give it a try. If the flavors are as surreal as the imagery, then this might be something worth trying more than once.

Evan Faber
Yeah, I think you nailed it, especially at that end when you’re talking about “this is the sparkling water…with.” And that’s the Hallmark of memory structure, which is what we’re trying to create. Visual and verbal memory structures. That’s the sparkling water with the obscure imagery. That’s the sparkling water with this color palette. And it’s fanastic. The other thing which you guys are doing so well, which you touched upon, in this day and age where days seem to blur together, the importance (and we talked about this on a previous episode), but the importance of a pattern interrupt where you’re scrolling through Instagram, and the reason I bring that up specifically with you all is that you’ve not just put images, but they’re peculiar images, you have fruit on stairs, you’ve got all these funny posts going on, it’s witty, it’s obscure, it makes the audience think, or react or feel, which is so important to break up the moment and break up the scroll. So that’s something you do really well as well.

Paul Voge
Thank you.

Evan Faber
Absolutely, you’re in this crowded space, you found the opportunity, similar to what Grey Goose did with the vodka space, hey, there’s an ability to not just have commodity but a premium category. So we talked about how you’re differentiating it from the brand. We talked a little bit about how you’re differentiating it from the product level. And one of the things that really stood out to me was the aromatics. It’s sparkling water that that entrances the senses. So that’s a little bit on the on the product side of things. What about the distribution side of things, pre-COVID? And then post-COVID? Did distribution enter your mind when you were thinking about how you could disrupt an entrenched category?

Paul Voge
Yeah, I’ll answer the question pre-COVID and post-COVID. Because it feels like two different companies, and everyone’s going through that in some extent. Distribution is everything in CPG, of course. There are, what I’ll call, bad products that are well run and well distributed. And they’ll succeed, despite having a bad product because they have great distribution. And they’re great products that have poor distribution that might not succeed because they’re just not enough shelves to get the significant cost savings and they get killed in margin, etc. So we were really worried about distribution, of course. Pre-COVID we thought, okay, yeah, we’re going to do what a lot of natural brands do and go after The Whole Foods, the local natural retailer, the type of grocery store where you might see raisins and nuts in bulk. And we’re just going to fight for shelf space. But where we can be unique, is have sharp, creative and be experts at digital marketing. And I think that’s what we thought pre-COVID of, hey, maybe it takes us a couple of years to get significant shelf space presence (especially the refrigerated section). If you imagine the front of a grocery store, you might get kombucha or cold brew or collagen water. And that’s a very vicious spot. It’s a really competitive spot to be. However, online, if you can have a differentiated product marketed with sharp creative, I think you can have a disproportionate impact and swing above your weight class as a young brand. And then COVID hit and it felt like oh, everyone is now paying for sharp creative. I can only imagine how Moxie’s work went up of oh gosh, we thought we thought we could convince people to buy our consumer packaged goods product cause we sample every day, all day. Now we can’t sample. What are we going to do? We need them to still feel that emotional connection. Well, if all they can do is taste behind a mask, then it better be a pretty appealing image that they’re looking at. So I’ll say pre-COVID. That was our thought with distribution. Right at the beginning of COVID. We got really lucky in that we did secure distribution with the two biggest distribution companies, UNFI and KeHE which did give us access to a lot more shelves than we would have had otherwise. COVID proved out our theory about sharp creative. There are online consumers, particularly if you’re selling a staple good, we see a lot of repeat orders. Fortunately, whether it’s breakfast cereal, or water or sparkling water or beer, there are things that consumers have every single day. Coffee is probably the best example. Those are the CPG products that can really make a significant impact online because the customer acquisition costs can go way down, because the average order on each customer is much longer. You always want to have sparkling water in your fridge, not just at Christmas time. So that’s kind of a convoluted answer your question, but I’ll say our differentiated distribution is not as differentiated now because a lot of people are playing online post-COVID. However, I think we have a nice omnichannel approach (hopefully you saw us on Instagram, if you didn’t order there). If you live near a lot of our stores, because we’re pushing out our promotions to mostly California. And or you’re struck by our product just online and you do buy into that marketing. And this is your online water company you tell your friends about.

Evan Faber
Solid because one of the things you’re talking about is driving discovery through digital and you mentioned tasting behind a screen, looking at the product, what is speaking to you if it’s a sensorial product at that point, and so, one of the things we talk about is this idea of transitioning from e-commerce to me-commerce and putting the consumer at the heart of your commerce experience, being able to personalize and tailor recommendations, meet them where they are, take them where you want them to go, which is all very important building in the digital space. Two buyer-related questions, one, those were some pretty big pitches to UNFI and KeHE, some of the big guys…what made you successful? How did you feel going in and what was your strategy?

Paul Voge
Yes, I’ll say. They were they’re both big distributors. It was a little different. So with I’ll talk about UNFI first even though we got KeHE first and then UNFI second. UNFI: we got authorized there because we got a purchase from Whole Foods. So that was definitely a really nerve wracking meeting. It’s worth telling because it’s kind of a funny story now and who knows, maybe they’ll hear this, maybe they won’t. But we debuted at a trade show. I want to say the last week of October in 2019. So at that point in time, there were 1000 cans of Aura Bora in the world and all 1000 were on my person at that trade show and we canned them ourselves. And fortunately, we got a good enough reaction that we felt like okay, we’re ready to commercialize this. I had heard via one of the other entrepreneurs in the room that a Whole Foods buyer was there but at these trade shows, the Whole Foods buyers always cover up their name tags or they don’t wear them at all. They don’t want to be harassed by entrepreneurs like me. So I didn’t know for sure she had stopped by our booth. I thought there’s a pretty good chance she probably did because it wasn’t that big of a trade show. So that next day, I drove to the Rocky Mountain, Denver Whole Foods and just brought a case of product and I said, Hey, I met the buyer (I think I was honest, I didn’t lie). So hey, the buyer was at a trade show I was at yesterday. I’m just giving her samples. And the person said, oh, okay, great. So you met this person and they said her name. And I said she was at the trade show. Yes. She was at the trade show. They’re like, okay, great. Well, yeah, if she wants the samples, you can just go ahead and put them on her desk. So I was like, okay, we’re taking our shot here, and put the samples on her desk. And fortunately for us, she really enjoyed them, as did the category manager at large. So about five months after that, we got our first PO. And that gave us UNFI. So the pitch there was mostly over the phone. But fortunately, we let the product do the talking. She wasn’t even there. The first thing she saw she get back to her desk was just 12 cans sitting on it. I actually never did suss out the answer as to whether she met us at the trade show or not, because I didn’t want her to know that I kind of lied to get my way into her office.

Evan Faber
Bold Move!

Paul Voge
The second meeting with KeHE was and I mean, I said this to you before, if you have any kind of product, particularly if it’s a fast moving consumer good, it’s not a football season, it’s a baseball season where you’re gonna have a lot of wins and a lot of losses no matter what you do and you just hope that the wins outnumber the losses, and it was a big win to get KeHE. Similarly, we had a loose connection who worked at KeHE, saw the product, sent it to their boss who sent it to their boss who next thing I woke up one day with an email saying, hey, will you send seven boxes of your product to these seven addresses? And a similar thing where I didn’t have to pitch as much. They saw the product and they responded of wow, we think this is a differentiated, branded experience with better ingredients in a category that’s growing and like they knew, that’s the pitch, great awesome. So yeah, all that to say, fortunately the buyers at both Whole Foods and then UNFI and KeHE were able to lock into our vision and see okay, this this could be different enough to earn a spot on shelf and in our warehouse as a result.

Evan Faber
What an amazing move. I think one of the highlights there is that you had to squeeze the opportunity. You had to squeeze the most out of that opportunity moving from the trade show, was she there. You made a bold move. And we do believe don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness. Sometimes you have to take those leaps and act boldly, which is great. The other thing is it was just being scrappy. So now what does getting in front of a buyer look like? I don’t know if you have any perspective on any successes or where you’ve seen the dynamics changing?

Paul Voge
Yeah, so of course securing the distribution opens up I mean, it’s often a chicken and egg thing where you might have a retailer interested but you need a distributor. You might have distributor interested, but you need a retailer. Now that we have both, we have a lot of retailers that order every week, and we have distributors that we are live in their warehouses ready to go. I mean, it’s a totally different game. We’re now it’s just how many buyers can we talk to that taste our product, like our product, understand our pitch, hopefully understand the story and what we’re trying to do. So, gosh, we’re talking to buyers from a bunch of national retailers. But I’d say what’s probably most important there is tailoring it to exactly who they sell to. Without naming any names, the pitch you give to the largest employer in America run by the Walton family looks very different than the pitch you give to the natural retailer headquartered in Arizona. Those are two different pitches, you’re selling the same product on the same shelf, usually for roughly the same price, but one of them is a lot more interested that you’re non GMO, and the other one is a lot more interested in your velocity numbers. One of them wants to know when are you coming out with case packs? What can we get your landed cost to. And one of them wants to know, hey, we really like to have our retailers do sampling and be part of our larger brand community. So I’ll say that has been a learning experience for me because I was one of those naive entrepreneurs that just thought you make a product that you enjoy, that your friends enjoy, and then you sell it, and that’s the whole thing and you kick your feet up and call it a day. Whereas really, that’s like 1% of the experience. 99% is getting the buyers, getting the manufacturers, all of the operations in between making the product and getting it in someone’s hand and scanning at the register is so much work. So these meetings with buyers has been an educational experience. We’ve had pretty good luck so far.

Evan Faber
Yeah, outstanding. What makes you successful at the buyer level, makes you successful at the consumer level. The more you know your target audience, understand their needs, and understand how your product fits into that picture, rather than trying to brute force it through with some wild differentiation that is more self-serving than serving of the audience. So that’s a really fine point. You mentioned nerve-wracking a little bit ago, and there’s a lot of emotions that come along with being an entrepreneur. And you were part of the SKU accelerator. What was that experience like?

Paul Voge
Yeah, regardless of field accelerators try to do exactly what the name suggests of, hey, can we take you from zero to 100 really fast. And that was definitely the experience with SKU. I mean, this had to be evident to both you, Evan, and your team. When I was in your office in July, August, September, November of 2019, I knew nothing about consumer packaged goods. I knew my experience when I go to the grocery store every week. And that’s about it.

So what’s so great about SKU is that I’m talking to experts that I have no business and being in the same room with. And now they’re answering questions that the first month of the program started is the most kindergarten questions in the world of “got it” and “how do I get my cost of goods down? Where do I buy aluminum cans in bulk,” etc. But by the last week of the program in May, was more so of, okay, how do we get our cost-per-click down? Way more intricate questions that is the difference between being a, frankly, beginner entrepreneur in this business where you’re trying to get your toes wet and understand all the nooks and crannies of knowledge. And at the end feeling like, whoa, we’ve scaled out to be a real organization with executives (all of the SKU mentors) on our side that can answer questions at the drop of a hat. So it was a really great experience. I mean, I would recommend it, particularly to entrepreneurs that have a product that you feel like belongs everywhere and deserves to be a national product and you don’t know how to do that, SKU is right for you.

Evan Faber
Excellent. So talking about running a startup, some of the challenges, what was the biggest surprise running a startup? You’re committed to this business, you’re ready to jump in, you’re trying to anticipate all of the wild things that could happen without knowing for sure. What was one of the biggest surprises that sort of woke you up to something?

Paul Voge
Yeah, I’ll say this, this is almost embarrassing because it’s in the name. This is a consumer packaged good, like there are consumers involved here. It’s a consumer-facing business. But you kind of forget when you’re running a business like this, that I have four customers. I sell our product to our distributors who sell it to the retailers who sell it to the consumers in their store, who then hopefully go sell it to their friends in talking about it or having it in their fridge when they come over. But I’m only getting paid from one of those parties. So I have to be involved in each one of those sales cycles of how do I get consumers in store to take it off shelf? How do I get stores to put it on shelf? How do I get distributors to put it in a warehouse to deliver to the stores, I’m involved in all four stages, even though only one actually makes it to our bank account. So all that to say, I was in enough weeks of talking to distributors and retailers that there were some weeks where I just kind of forgot about that last consumer. Like I’m so worried about getting it on shelf, facing things right, in the refrigerated section, for the right price, on time, that I’m totally forgetting, oh my gosh, wait, these consumers have to put it in their cart. So the most direct interaction I can have with the consumer is of course when I’m sampling in a store or even when I’m in a store and they’re buying the product and I just happen to be there. Then COVID hit and all of a sudden human interactions are now fauxpaux. You’re not supposed to talk to people in stores. So I can’t sample. I can’t talk, etc. But we have this email on our website. You can ask about your order, ask us some questions, etc. And that just goes straight to my inbox. To answer your question, the most difficult has just been communicating with consumers. And hopefully at one point, we’ll have an awesome customer service representative that’s great at this…right now it’s me. I got an email and I have it pulled up here. So, as I mentioned, these are consumers that could be anywhere in the country, go to our website, it comes straight to my inbox, and I actually have a special noise that goes off when I get those emails because I try to be fast. I want them to think we have a much bigger team than we do have. This consumer, sorry about this, my browser window closed on me. This was towards the end of June. The first message was, “I bought a watermelon peppermint.” That’s one of our flavors, and then in all capital letters, and “IT WAS THE COCONUT INSTEAD” I can’t eat coconut, so I gagged and I had to throw it out, quote, what kind of crappy quality control do you have at this company? What a rip off.” So, I mean, as you can imagine you said nerve-wracking. I was actually having a pretty good day on that Thursday. Things were going okay. We hadn’t had that many struggles in a few days. And then just my heart just dropped to my stomach. Not just because this consumer had a bad experience, which of course, the strength of the business is consumers having great experiences. But if what she was saying was true, that meant we somehow made an error in our manufacturing of the wrong liquid went in the wrong cans. The peppermint liquid was instead filled with the coconut liquid. So I of course, within 10 seconds, wrote her back. Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry you had that experience, what store did you buy this in, and I was really hoping she was gonna say a store in the Bay Area so I could just get in my car and drive there. Fortunately for me, she did. It was a store in San Francisco. So I’m driving across town. Just just sweating at this point of, oh my gosh, this is about to be the worst day because I’m already going to the worst case scenario of is this a recall? I mean, obviously, yes, this is still safe to drink. It’s still one of our products. It’s just in the wrong branding and I run across town, buy all of the watermelon cans from that store. And I just start cracking them open and taking sips to make sure. Fortunately, I had the customer take a picture of the bottom of the can where we have our lot numbers written. And I could see, wait a second. I know that lot number I was there on that day I tasted that product. This is just a case of tastebuds being misaligned. So it was eventually a huge relief. But it was an embarrassing moment of, oh my gosh, have I let this thing get so out of control that I don’t even know what liquid is going into what cans, and I now have a consumer that was, so wronged by us? Didn’t have that problem. But now I have the secondary problem where I have a consumer that lives in our primary market that was clearly interested enough to buy our product the first time, and she had a bad experience. So I’m trying to figure out how do I, how do I word this response such that I can show empathy and show that I really care about her experience. But also don’t want her to think that we have, quote, crappy quality control. So I ended up responding in a very political way, thank you so much for your concern. I actually went to that store 10 minutes ago and tried all of those watermelon products with that same lot number and I can confirm that is our peppermint watermelon flavor. And I was hoping her reply would be okay, I must have just chewed a piece of gum, something was off my tastebuds. And instead, she had a very fiery response. So I think I lost that customer, no doubt, but it was a funny day in the life of Aura Bora. Oh my gosh, that one experience tied up all of the pieces of this business. Do we have a problem with manufacturing? Did we not check it when it went to the store? Does the consumer at the end of the supply chain here, hate what we put at the beginning? Turns out she did. She thinks pepper watermelon tastes like lemongrass coconut. I can’t change her taste buds. But yeah, all that to say, that’s one small example of a big learning curve of running this kind of company.

Evan Faber
Yeah. And probably her taste buds were misaligned is the most tactful way anyone could have said that. So, that is a consumer issue that could have had brand-wide implications. But challenges come in all shapes and all sizes and they test your metal. They test your values, they test your confidence in yourself and in what you’re bringing to market. And there was another challenge that came through product being on shelf. You had gotten some feedback that a few people felt that, well tell us a little bit about what they came to you with?

Paul Voge
Of course, yeah, so I’ll say, this is our second iteration of branding (what we currently have on shelf). It’s very similar to the first, but the primary difference is that we have five flavors, and each one has a different scene depicting, to my point earlier, surreal imagery of the ingredients. So this is a desert scene, you can see that it’s a cactus rose flavor, so you see rose flowers and cacti. We’ve done that on all the cans. But in our first iteration, we had the idea of, okay, what if the world we’re creating at Aura Bora was a human being interacting with all of these wild ingredients, the herbs and the fruits on this planet that’s similar to Earth, but where strawberries are the size of an Escalade, in a surreal version of Earth. We’ve thought this is the one human being on Earth. We’re gonna have him in all of these scenes living by himself. And actually, you use this description, Evan, I think it’s great for any Seinfeld fans. It was kind of like a J. Peterman experience of this guy going on this wild journey of paddling on a giant coconut through blades of lemongrass in an Amazonian scene, or he’s crawling to a mirage in the rose scene in his huge desert with enormous cacti the size of skyscrapers. And that is how I understood the product. And I love that Moxie came up with those designs. I thought it was an amazing way of, one, depicting our ingredients, but two, in my view, that guy was almost a metaphor for how I wanted our consumer to interact with the product. Oh my gosh, this is a peculiar flavored water and it’s exploding and I’m exploring the same way this guy is exploring the taste of this can. And that’s how I saw it, which very quickly, I realized, not everyone is having the same experience. So, this is another example of my heart sinking, because you try your best. And it’s not enough. I wasn’t aware enough. So to your point, Evan, one day, I want to say it was in February, if my memory recalls, at that time, we were only in 40 stores. So we didn’t have a huge footprint. So not a ton of consumers were coming across our product. And I got two messages in a row in the same week, which maybe, one, you can start to think, oh, this this probably isn’t anything, but the fact that they both happened the same week really made me think, oh, we have to rethink this. And the message was, hey, we find the guy depicted on your can, his skin color looks like it’s supposed to be Polynesian or Pacific Islander, not too different from the name of your company. The name of our company is Aura Bora. Which (I have no relation to the island of Bora Bora. I’ve never been there) was meant to be a totally made up word that had some hippy connotations with the word aura. It was tongue in cheek and that it sounded similar to an exotic island not dissimilar from Fiji, another huge water company, and in their view, they thought hey, the imagery on the can and the name made me think that this was supposed to be a Pacific Islander/Hawaii type product. And then I saw this man that seemed to have orange skin and it seems to me like you’re appropriating their culture with this product. Obviously as you can see on this video, I’m very much a white man, not at all from anywhere in the Pacific Islands. I wish! It sounds like a better way to grow up than how I grew up. But the problem immediately hit me. Oh my gosh, I was totally blind to that. I didn’t even think of it. In my view, I saw this man with orange skin and I always thought it was more like the Simpsons, like he doesn’t really have a race. He’s just a guy on this planet. And the focus was way more so how he’s interacting with our ingredients, not about his identity himself. So I got the first email, I started to be a little bit nervous. And then I got the second one and thought, I might not know what this feels like because, frankly, white men don’t get appropriated. So I don’t know what that feels like racially, to have your culture put on blast like that. And whether I think we did that or not with our design, the fact that two separate people in the same week could have that feeling made me think, hey, this is a consumer product. I got into this because I wanted people to have a delightful experience with sparkling water. The fact that two people’s delightful experience soured not at the taste level, they might still like the product, but soured because they started to think, is this is this company appropriating someone else’s culture for its own profit? I didn’t sleep those nights, I felt sick. So we went to Moxie and we dealt with it and decided, hey, we’re going to go another way. Stick with the surreal imagery, but we’re going to have animals instead of humans. And fortunately, we were able to work with your team and quickly transition there, but it was definitely a learning experience. And, of course, during COVID, we’ve seen a number of big brands have similar changes in packaging for that same reason. I know Aunt Jemima most recently, but I think there’s some other examples as well.

Evan Faber
Yeah. It’s an incredible story and how you reacted to it. This was months, months before the culture shifted, and the sensitivities along those lines for the mainstream, were brought into focus, not necessarily for the people that we’re going through them, and you drew that distinction very well. So you looked at it from a human level and said, look, we can change the character to an animal. That wasn’t the intention. That doesn’t change the feel of the brand. But your ability to, even at an early stage, act as responsively as you did to be nimble, to respond to the category and consumer demands and react before it became a huge issue before you scaled, you didn’t brush it under the rug. We work together to get something to get something out there. And it’s a powerful moment for brands to be reflecting about what role do they play in the lives of consumers. And it’s a powerful moment for branding and advertising to grow up and mature and ask themselves if branding and marketing and advertising are a major source of communication, what responsibility do we have with the stories that we tell, the messages that we send, and the world that we’re helping to create? And so from the brand side and from the agency side, moments like this, that push us, that strain us, that stretch us, are the ones that also broaden our horizons and give us new ways into the future to create a better experience for everybody. So I appreciate you sharing that and it’s both the from the agency side and the brand side needing to pay attention to these things and partner through these things, so much appreciated. Did you happen to follow up with them after the change or have you heard anything post-change? Where are things now?

Paul Voge
Yeah, those two folks, The huge credit goes to them for having the courage to say anything. My wife had a great point where she said, those are the two people you heard from. I don’t know how many people just thought that and thought, oh, this guy with kind of an orange-hued skin, not wearing very many clothes on what looks to be an island. I think that is not appropriate, but then didn’t send me an email. So I’ll give huge credit to them in that it’s way easier as a human to just think something and not say it. It’s a difficult conversation, someone had to send me an email, a total stranger and say, hey, I like your product, but…and it can be, I made the analogy once of, if you have a friend that’s not that great at singing and they’re about to audition at American Idol, it’s kind of your responsibility, if you’re a real friend to say, hey, you might be better at something else. You’re not actually that great a singer and these two folks, fortunately, had the wherewithal to do that. So actually both of those experiences ended up in phone calls with them. So I can totally understand their perspective, which at first was education. Me just trying to figure out, what do you see here? What was so funny about those phone calls was, I think you have to not take yourself too seriously. If I thought I was ignorant before getting on that phone call, I knew I was after. I thought, I didn’t consider any of that. We were in those meetings, and I just kind of thought, oh, man, how great is it that he’s on this island and it’s super hot, so he’s wearing a loincloth, they did such a great job of drawing that loincloth. And then on the on the phone, this other person is perceiving the loincloth in a totally different way. I thought well, first of all, this is how humans learn. Forget brands and agencies. How are any of us supposed to learn if we can’t have innocent conversations with one another? So to your question, I did follow up with them after the conclusion and said hey, you guys are absolutely right and as much as I love J. Peterman, and his escapades, these new animals are another way that we can celebrate the brand but not at the expense of appropriating anyone or offending any of our consumers. So all that to say as much as I love J. Peterman, I might like the sloth a little bit more. It’s still up for debate but you still have great branding, so we didn’t we didn’t lose anything there besides time and money.

Evan Faber
Yeah. Well, the characters on pack now might lend themselves even to richer storytelling moving forward.

Paul Voge
Absolutely.

Evan Faber
And create a whole world for consumers to enjoy. So appreciate that. So, two more things, which I wanted to talk about. One of them is we ask everybody a bold question. At the second to last thing and you have very, you have an open approach to entrepreneurship, you’re willing to listen, you’re willing to change. You’re willing to accept the fact, Marty Neumeier says that a brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what your consumers say it is. And you took that to heart at the consumer level and at the buyer level as you were creating your brand. But in any event, you have a wonderful approach. So the bold question to you and it could be business related, it could be personal, up to you. What is a piece of advice that you got that changed how you thought about something?

Paul Voge
This is a two-part answer. I’ll give one that’s really specific to, in particular, beverages and snacks, kind of fast-moving items in grocery stores. There are a lot of metrics that CPG entrepreneurs look at. How many doors are you in? What’s your sales? What’s your monthly sales? What’s your velocity, etc. And it’s hard to know which of those numbers to prioritize. I got great advice from a seasoned CPG seasoned executive of, hey, it’s really great to grow door count, it’s a big sexy number, how many stores can we find you in, so you can almost imagine bragging about it at a party. And her advice was, if you don’t have the velocity in those stores, it’s just a house of cards. It could be gone in a second. You could be in 1000 stores on Monday and zero on Wednesday, if the product is not moving. So her advice was, in the stores you’re in, you need to have a stronghold and be moving enough product through the stores and then scale rather than getting in 1000 stores and then try to move velocity. It’s a lot harder to do, you’re now stretched really thin. So I’ll say the first very specific advice was focus on velocity. Don’t worry about doors. And the truth is, it’s great advice for a number of reasons, but if you’re a fast moving brand and you’re doing amazing velocity at 100 stores, blink in six months later, they’d be in 5000 stores. That’s how quickly things can scale in this industry. But it’s far more important to have that velocity before the door count. That’s the first piece of advice. The second piece of advice was from someone that’s not in CPG. But they were talking just on an emotional level knowing that I’ve wanted to be an entrepreneur my whole life. I was the the kind of kid who sold (I made fun of this kid earlier) but yeah, sold lemonade to neighbors, traded baseball cards. For years, we sold Christmas trees in our front yard just for fun, just to get to know the neighborhood. So this is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. As a kid I didn’t say I wanted to be a successful entrepreneur. I just said I wanted to be a entrepreneur. I am, regardless of whether we’re successful. I can say that today, bar none. And someone’s point was, their advice was, hey, you got into this because you didn’t want to have a boss. You thought it was more fun and it’s a fulfillment of a lifelong dream. The least you could do is have have fun. And I think there are days where I can get so drowned in the paperwork and the operations and the logistics of getting things on the right trucks, that I kind of forget, why am I doing this? What’s the alternative? What else would I be doing to make a living? And then I remember that I should stay light. Let’s get some levity in here. This should be a fun experience. If we’re going to be a fun brand run by a stressed person who’s not having fun, we’re not gonna be a fun brand for very long. So if the strength in our product is that it’s interesting and fun and whimsical, I need to be the same way leading the company. So the second piece of advice was just don’t take yourself too seriously. Have fun. This is supposed to be fun.

Evan Faber
Hmm, great piece. Both pieces of advice are great pieces of advice. And you are a joy to work with because of that as well. Paul, you packed so much wisdom into your answers today. And I really appreciate it. The last thing that we do to thank you for participating is a shameless plug. So what should the audience know about Aura Bora? Where can they find you and anything else you want to share?

Paul Voge
Sure, if you’re listening to this and you live in Colorado, New Mexico or Utah, go to your local Whole Foods, buy one of each can, send an email to the website. I already told you that it goes straight to my inbox. I’ll answer in 10 seconds. Tell me your favorite flavor, your least favorite flavor and why. If you’re listening to this and you don’t live in the Rocky Mountain region, go to our website AuraBora.com and see some of those fun animals we’ve been talking about. Order to your house, it’ll get there in the week. And same thing, tell me your favorite flavor, least favorite flavor, Aura Bora, AuraBora.com

Evan Faber
Awesome. I mentioned it before, but you blend a number of intellectual and emotional gifts together in how you approach entrepreneurship and building a business and by extension, how you approach life. And so having your voice on this podcast was a tremendous benefit for us and everybody. And it reminds me of how thankful we are to be working with you, and clients like you who are brilliant and driven, and have a purpose and want to make a change and stir things up. So, Paul, thank you so much for joining us today.

Paul Voge
Of course, Evan, thanks for having me. Hey, for any entrepreneurs listening to this, it’s really hard to find relationships and partnerships that you enjoy, and working with Moxie has been an absolute joy. You guys are unbelievably talented. I’m always humbled by your designers and humbled by the creative approach you guys take to branding. So pleasure is mine. Really glad to be on it. Thanks for just chatting. This has been a blast.

Evan Faber
I’m humbled by that. Thank you Paul!

Paul Voge
Of course!

Evan Faber
Great conversation with Paul. One thing I like about him is how laser-sharp focused he is on delivering insights, and a few of the bold moves which we’ve taken away from that conversation: One, employ any and all means to get that foot in the door. So he took some moves with Whole Foods identifying the gatekeepers, and he didn’t let anything stand in his way. He found a creative way to get the product in front of the right people and let a mix of curiosity as well as perseverance on his part, help him get a foothold with Whole Foods. The next bold move is being the mindset of your company, remembering why you started and holding true to your brand. In the case of Aura Bora, it’s maintaining their visual style and playful attitude. This goes back to a theme which we’re always talking about, which you cannot just compete on product, you have to compete on brand. And that brand doesn’t just translate to your communications, it translates to your company. You can’t be a fun company and a fun brand run by sad people. Ups and downs are the price to pay for the giant reward of charting your own course. So be the mindset of your company. And last but not least, evolution is progress. Be self-aware and show response. Take feedback to heart. Solicit it. Lean into it. Establish who you’re going to trust and who not. One of the reasons I’m not envious of entrepreneurs is not the lack of information and advice out there. It’s the over-abundance of information and advice out there. And you hear all different kinds of advice from all different types of people and what do I listen to? And so yeah, part of it is discipline on how to create that sort of mindset of who you’re going to trust. But when people who you do trust are giving you feedback, take a minute and slow down and figure out what you can do, what makes sense. What you can do to respond to shifts happening culturally, what you’re hearing through the website email, you know, beyond your radar and in terms of your initial thought of what your brand might be, and what it might need to become in order to succeed. If Aura Bora is a thoughtful brand and listens to feedback. So, employ any and all means to get your foot in the door. Be the mindset of your company. And know that evolution is progress. Be self aware and responsive. So thank you, Paul, for those insights and thank you all for listening. We’ll talk again soon.

Published

September 23, 2020

A Special Thanks To

Paul Voge