nudie’s Tim Pethick gives branding a squeeze
Tim Pethick knows all about business branding. After all, between the cars and hot air balloons, nudie juice became one of the Asia/Pacific region’s most influential brands. So how was it done? Pethick lays bare his branding tips.
If it wasn’t for the dot-com crash of 2000, the world may never have seen a nudie. Tim Pethick’s nudie, that is. After realising his role in search engine company BT LookSmart wasn’t going to bring the results the dot-com boom promised, Pethick, known as Tall Tim, took time off to decide what to do next.
Time spent in Chicago in the late 90s introduced him to the pure fruit juice drink, Fantasia, and his passion for fresh fruit and creating a product to get excited about, inspired him to replicate it in Australia. The result was nudie.
Getting excited about the idea was one thing; the next challenge for Pethick was to find the same passion for the branding. The fun name—nudie, symbolising pure, unadorned fruit juice—is matched by a cute logo, and reinforced by the nudie cars, hot air balloons and other merchandise, carrying the cheeky brand through various media. Then there’s the website. Complete with games, poetry and even product information, I dare you to be able to spend less than five minutes poking around. (I especially love Tall Tim’s profile—he measures in at 199cm, by the way).
Pethick laughs at the idea that the cheeky brand might represent himself. “It’s not so much me coming through, it’s what I like coming through. The whole premise behind nudie, behind everything we’ve done in nudie, is let’s focus on market research based on a sample size of one: me! And really what I thought as a consumer was, there are lots of categories or industries where product or services aren’t done well.”
So he decided to create a product that solves the problem. “Almost all the bottled juice created before nudie was crap juice. It was made from concentrate, reconstituted, it’s bland, and why did we all drink it? Because there was nothing else available.”
Then, looking at other packaged consumer products on the market, from fruit juice to laundry detergent, Pethick noticed they all had something in common: they were very boring. “I thought wouldn’t it be nice if I could create a brand that was a bit funny, irreverent, cheeky, because I’d like that as a consumer.”
All of this obviously worked, as Pethick recalls his greatest professional achievement—nudie being recognised as one of the top 10 most influential brands in the Asia/Pacific region for brandchannel.com readers, alongside juggernauts like Toyota, Samsung and Sony. “When I launched nudie it was designed to be the pinnacle of my career. I’m a big fan of lifelong learning, and every experience I have had, everything I have seen, I draw something from—and I tried to put it all into nudie! So when that vision is rewarded, that’s a tremendous buzz.
“Top 10 brand, yeah that’s great, but 25 years of my professional life has gone into making it look easy.” Part of this professional life includes a background as a chartered accountant, and even in his early years he challenged the conventional wisdom that guided his path. Making the leap from number-cruncher to branding and marketing guru, he says, was possible because he wouldn’t perceive any barriers to making that jump. “There’s no reason why an accountant can’t be as good a marketer as someone else.”
Despite the success, not everything has been beer—or juice—and skittles for Pethick, and particularly nudie. There was, of course, the factory fire in 2004, which wiped out the production facilities and meant nudie-less shelves for almost five weeks. Recovering from that was tough enough—staff worked from home for the next three months—but the rapid growth of the business meant the fire insurance policy taken out 12 months previously was vastly undervalued. (He recommends any fast-growth company should renew their policy every three months, not 12.)
There were also teething problems, such as early fermentation concerns and bottle caps not fitting, but as Pethick admits, if it wasn’t those problems it would have been others. “You’re just challenged continuously in building a business.”
The rapid growth of the company was another thing Pethick wasn’t prepared for, and looking back he thinks it was too fast, too soon. “Enormously rapid growth is not necessarily a good thing,” he says. There’s also the strain on resources, not just financial: “It also demands people. And bringing people on really quickly, and getting them up to speed, is really challenging.
“I’m not sure where the balance lies. You can control growth to the extent that you miss the opportunities. So you want to be able to take advantage of the opportunities, but you don’t want to grow so quickly that the business frays at the seams because you can’t access resources you need to fill that growth quickly enough. We grew too rapidly.”
The rapid growth magnified all the challenges and left nudie short of working capital to fund the growth, opening the door for external investors. This, he says, is when the company moved from a “controlled, vision-led environment,” to one where he had to diffuse his views in favour of input from investors, eventually leading to Pethick’s removal from the day-to-day operations.
Pethick is adamant that had nudie’s growth been slower and more controlled, there would have been no external investors. And would he still be working on the brand day to day? “Absolutely, because I think that is the fundamental key when you’re building an emotional brand and an emotional connection to the customer.”
Pethick describes this period as “incredibly tough”, and one which took him about 12 months to get beyond. “I’m not sure many people really think of it in these terms, but the entrepreneurial process is a creative process; it’s about building something from nothing. In that regard, it’s far more akin to artistic process than it is to a commercial process.
“And, as the business becomes more successful, it changes the nature of it to an extent—whether you step out completely from that business or whether you grow with it, the relationship you have and the emotional bond you have to that process changes.
“It’s still hard for me sitting on the sidelines looking at things and thinking I would have done that differently, but it’s a fact of life, I guess.”
Now, as a minority shareholder in the business, Pethick is keen to keep watch over the business, but says it’s more about looking out for his baby, rather than keeping an eye on the profits. And in business circles, especially when talking about entrepreneurs, Pethick is comfortable with the knowledge that he is always going to connected to nudie, as long as those running the business continue to foster the ethos and don’t tarnish the brand he was so adamant about protecting. “So far they haven’t made fundamental mistakes,” he jokes. “I think I will probably maintain a healthy interest in what’s happening in nudie forever, really. I’ll always have a special connection with it.”
Although a bittersweet story of fast growth and success, Pethick’s nudie history fast-tracked his life as an entrepreneur. As well as founding roles in Joy Herbal natural health products and Max Super (superannuation for young Australians), Pethick is involved in the launch of six new companies, including garage makeovers, mobile phones for kids and organic ice-cream. “There are a couple of key lessons from the whole nudie experience and I’m certainly applying those in the [other] companies.
“We consumers in Australia are not well serviced,” he explains. “And that provides lots of opportunities for entrepreneurial small businesses to leap into niches and provide a really valuable product or service.” Authenticity and integrity are important, he adds, as is offering something new, something different—the key to nudie’s success. “That’s why I think the fun and the positive, cheeky nature of the brand is so important.”
Aside from the emotional branding lessons, Pethick learnt that distribution in Australia is difficult and expensive. “These days, the key to success for any small business—whether selling products or services—is tackling distribution. If you can get the distribution model right, so it’s effective, efficient and economic, then any business can work.
“I still get approached by people who come to me with these great ideas, great products or potentially great brands, and I have to say, how are you going to distribute it, who’s going to take it into the store, how’s it going to get there? It’s the point of the equation that everyone loses sight of. And I did too, when I started nudie. I thought about nudie as a brand and focused an enormous amount of energy on that, and less energy on how do we actually get this moving around the country efficiently.
“So in my next projects in business life, in entrepreneurial life, I’m going to focus on the distribution puzzle first and foremost.”
And that life looks very promising. Thanks to his vast experience, Pethick has become a bit of an entrepreneur for hire, one who enjoys people approaching him with business ideas. “I’m a bit like Richard Branson, I’m a sucker, and I’d love to say yes and get involved in everything!”
And while he can’t, he makes a habit of sitting down and having a coffee with these potential entrepreneurs and tries to give them practical advice. “There are so many great ideas out there—there’s no shortage of ideas in the world—and people think if they’ve got a great idea, they can build a business. But that’s not the case.”
Instead, he says, successful businesses are all about the execution. “An idea without that execution or capability is useless.” So when he sees people with great ideas who need a little coaching to bring these ideas to life, that’s when he gets involved.
Andrew Barlow, CEO of Max Super, approached Pethick to help with the branding of his company because of the huge success of nudie. “He redefined the [juice] market to make the competition irrelevant. It was perfect for Max Super because we were creating and establishing a new, fresh brand that appealed to young people. His experience is phenomenal, as is his diversity.”
Branding is his key role, but another part of his own appeal, Pethick says, is his ability to see what needs to be done and roll up his sleeves and get it done quickly. Barlow agrees: “An entrepreneur is the difference between coming up with a good idea and being able to act on it, and that sums up Tim.”
“He has burning passion and real attachment to each and every one of the brands he has created,” adds Ken Melia, marketing manager of Joy Herbal. Melia first worked with Pethick on nudie, and says he’s also a focused, supremely confident leader who works well under stress, and has “buckets of energy”, needed not only for all the work projects but for family life, with his wife and three young children.
Although unwilling to put a label on the skills that make him entrepreneurial, Pethick admits he possesses the right mindset to be a success. “Any entrepreneur, at least in the early stages, needs to be able to do everything in the business, and they need to be able to do it well,” he says. “Flexibility or versatility is crucial.”
Being a ‘big picture’ person, who can also pay attention to detail, is another trait he thinks is inherent in entrepreneurs. “I can solve a problem, but I’m not necessarily that good at designing a process around that solution.”
This problem-solving ability is also crucial, he adds, especially as every start-up business is going to face a number of barriers and setbacks. “You have to believe in the potential success of the business and you have to have confidence that you can deliver that, and the drive to get up and make it happen. And I’m a very driven individual, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but in the entrepreneurial environment it works really well!
“With the new businesses I’m working on a new structure,” Pethick explains. “Because I’m rolling out a number of them at the same time, and there’s only one of me, I’m setting myself up almost in the same way that a venture capitalist does, and what I’m investing into each of the businesses is intellectual property, if you like.” Largely that’s going to be about pushing through “inertia”, making things happen, as well as the branding component. “Then I’m going to bring in general managers or skilled operators who will carry it forward from that point.”
As an entrepreneur with one huge success, Pethick is aware of the challenge of finding the next ‘big one’, or one to come close to matching nudie’s success, but he is confident he will find it. “I think I’ll know when I find the next nudie, and I know how to build the next nudie.” The challenge lies, he says, in replicating it. “It’s not just about the ideas and the process of creativity that I have, it has to exist at the right place at the right time. It’s much easier the first time around because it catches people unawares and so it delights them.
“So you have to keep fresh, you have to invigorate, so the next nudie is going to be more challenging. But I know that at some stage over the next few years I will find the concept, the market opportunity, and the right time and the right place to create another one.
“Powerful brands are beacons, focal points, not just for consumers but employees as well,” Pethick adds. “If an employee believes in the brand, the brand promise and the integrity of the offer, then half the battle is won. The rest—training them with specific skills in terms of their roles—is the easy part.”