Putting brand success in consumers’ hands

Peter van Stolk is not your average beverage-industry executive. And neither is his creation, Jones Soda, an average soft-drink brand. Both are fun, a bit irreverent, engaging—and very successful.
Van Stolk started what would become Jones Soda Co. 20 years ago, making the unusual move from professional skiing to beverage distribution. In 1996, he reshaped the company to focus on brand creation, and Jones Soda was born.
The brand’s inaugural photo labels were actually done by a photographer who helped design the brand’s identity, but the interest from customers who wanted to submit their own photos was immediate.
Using a proprietary printing technology, van Stolk began inviting consumers to co-create the brand’s labels by sending photos to be considered for use on the packaging.
It was a smart strategy that served to create enormous buzz and instantly turned Jones into an in-demand brand with built-in emotional appeal.
Not every fan could make it onto the packaging, though. Van Stolk considered the flood of photo submissions and wisely began offering customers the services of myJones; customers whose shots were not selected but still felt a deep need for the personalized packaging could buy 12-packs of the soda with custom labels for $34.95.
This consumer-engagement strategy is the hallmark of the Jones Soda brand, and is largely responsible for its $30 million in annual revenues that comes from a growing cadre of Jones Soda addicts in the 12- to 24-year-old age range, give or take a few years. Dedicated fans seek out the youthful, graphics-intensive brand and even collect the bottles.
“An emotional connection is the framework of what people need for the brand to be relevant, and why people pay more for a brand. They feel attached to it. It feels fun to them. It creates a feeling,” van Stolk explains.
Likening Jones’ brand strategy to that of Starbucks, he says, “You can buy a cheaper cup of coffee just about anywhere, but Starbucks is an experience. How we do that is by letting people interact with our brand, having their photos on the label. We put something they love on the bottle.”
Van Stolk acknowledges Scott Bedbury, a Jones Soda board member and former marketing executive at Starbucks and Nike, as an important influence on Jones’  marketing strategy.
“His mentorship is around keeping our brand relevant to the consumer,” he says. “We grapple with that every day in our packaging, how to keep the essence and the core values of the brand on board. That’s the most important thing, making sure the values of the brand are maintained as we put out more and more product.”
Based on the products’ increasing distribution, Jones Soda will be filling quite a few more bottles going forward. In the last three years, the company has secured national distribution through Target, Barnes & Noble, Starbucks and Panera Bread cafes. Kroger and 7-Eleven are distributing Jones Soda regionally.
To maintain the brand’s edge of unpredictability, van Stolk says he examines packaging in his travels to Europe and Japan and looks outside the beverage category—from shoes to food to cosmetics—to see what other brands are doing. The action sports industry (skiing, snow boarding and skateboarding) was also an early interest for him.
Though, Van Stolk cautions, brand packaging is as fickle as the fashion industry. “You have to create something that will stay in vogue for many years. If it’s too trendy, like low-rise jeans, you know it’s eventually going to go away. You have to find the line where it has some longevity,” he explains.
Van Stolk seems to have found that narrow but profitable line for his brand and its packaging. “No one else is customizing their bottles every month,” he says. “We’ve been doing it for 10 years. We’re in the driver’s position.” BP
Name: Peter Van Stolk
Age: 42
Title: President and CEO, Jones Soda
Years in current job: 20 years
Where or when do your best ideas come to you? 
“Ideas come to me in the car.”
What do you consider the ultimate branded package?
“It’s a combination of many. I wouldn’t want to pick just one.”