BevNET: Former Rockstar Execs Make it 'Weird' with New Tea Brand
After spending nearly two decades working in marketing at Rockstar Energy, Jason May’s first post-acquisition venture was bound to feel a little strange. He decided to make it Weird.
Weird Beverages is a new venture founded by May, who serves as CEO, and two other former Rockstar employees — president of sales Ronnie Bruland and VP of marketing Mike Kelso. The trio all worked together at the Las Vegas-based energy drink brand from 2001 through its acquisition by PepsiCo in a $3.86 billion deal.
Last month, the company launched its first product, Weird Tea. The drinks are available in White Peach Oolong, Passion Fruit Black Tea, Moroccan Mint Green Tea — each containing 55 mg of caffeine per can — and non-caffeinated Chamomile Hemp Hibiscus Tea flavors. Packaged in 16 oz. cans, each flavor is organic certified, sweetened with cane sugar and contains 40-90 calories. The drinks retail for $2.79 and are also available online in 12-packs for $30.
May said he had been interested in the tea category for years, noting that Rockstar had attempted in the past to make energy versions of tea drinks, though none were ever broadly successful. However, recognizing innovations within the category in the natural and specialty channels, May believed there was white space to disrupt the iced tea shelf in mainstream outlets.
“I just felt that it was a category that has continued to show growth, but there was just kind of a stall in the evolution,” May said. “You’ll see premium boutique tea in glass, natural ingredients, fair trade, organic, interesting flavor combinations, so as I looked at it I just thought why is none of this really translating into convenience? Why is this only in specialty grocery?”
Though some convenience retailers, such as 7-Eleven, have made a conscious effort to expand their better-for-you beverage sets, the channel has not traditionally been a large source of sales for healthier products. However, May said he sees Weird Tea as following in the footsteps of yerba mate brand Guayaki, which has helped introduce premium, natural canned tea products into the space.
“I did not intend to go up against Guayaki yerba mate but they’re the ones executing a premium product at a premium price, single-serve and 16 oz and have been able to really do a great job in convenience,” he said. “And as I look at it, that’s the premium tea option when you walk into convenience stores nationally. And so that’s what we’re positioned against.”
While Weird will not attempt to mimic the Rockstar playbook, the founding teams’ history with that company and specifically its experience in scaling brands within convenience retail will inform the strategy going forward. Although the pandemic has impacted traditional sampling and event marketing strategies, May said the company will eventually adopt similar practices once it is safe to do so again.
Weird Tea is currently available in about 40 stores in Southern California and Austin, Texas, but May said the company is in the middle of a larger production run to support a broader rollout. However, the company is in no rush to grow nationwide and May said the strategy is to focus on regional growth, focusing on roughly four or five different geographies for at least the first couple years of the business.
May said he hopes to have eight SKUs on the market within the next two years and said the company has several products in development.
Though the name Weird may strike some as risky, May said the term represented a shift in cultural attitudes towards countercultures and offbeat individualism. While brands in the past may have wanted to avoid being potentially off-putting for mainstream consumers, he believes the concept of weirdness connects with young consumers today. Additionally, he said the name was memorable, noting that no one he told about the project during development forgot what it was called.
Weird will also seek to build out its platform as a lifestyle brand, with the potential to expand into different product formats in the future. Unlike Rockstar, which like many energy drink brands emphasized extreme sports in its marketing, May said Weird will look to partner with artists and focus on music and arts festivals to grow its brand platform.
“There’s such a celebration of individuality that’s happening with the youth and with Gen Z. It’s not just accepted, it’s encouraged to fly your freak flag,” May said. “And I just felt like Weird really described what we’re doing with regard to how we were building our product line.”