Rohan Oza was dubbed Hollywood’s “brandfather” by The Hollywood Reporter in 2015, but his high-profile marketing deals with celebrities have only escalated since then.
After cutting his teeth scaling up brands like Sprite and Powerade for Coca-Cola in the early 2000s, Oza made a name for himself when he left the company and matched rapper 50 Cent with Vitamin Water for an endorsement deal. The drink saw a massive spike in sales as a result, and in 2007, Oza’s former employer, Coca-Cola, acquired Vitamin Water from Glacéau for $US4.2 billion.
Oza found similar success in 2016 when he brought on Justin Timberlake as an investor and partner in the sparkling, antioxidant drink Bai. Dr Pepper Snapple Group subsequently purchased Bai Brands for $US1.7 billion.
Now, Oza is bringing his brand innovation and knowledge to the stage of ABC’s “Shark Tank.” He stars as a guest “shark” in the season premiere of the investment reality show, which airs Sunday at 8pm EST.
Business Insider talked to Oza about his celebrity deals, the shifting necessity of business school, and his desire to “help create the first billion dollar brand” on “Shark Tank.”
John Lynch: Walk me through your experience on “Shark Tank.” With your expertise, what were you able to bring to the table, or dais, as it were?
Rohan Oza: Look, I love “Shark Tank.” The experience was amazing. I feel that America is one of the greatest countries in the world to be an entrepreneur, and what “Shark Tank” does is it taps into and fuels that entrepreneurial spirit. So, I loved the energy that came from funding people’s dreams and building iconic brands. The difference that I could bring was that my expertise in food and beverage doesn’t exist currently on the panel. And that’s a trillion dollar industry that’s getting disrupted because most of the things on the shelves today are bad for you, and millennials are all looking for products that are better for you. So the opportunity to disrupt the aisles, both in stores and online, in food and beverage is huge, and I want to help create the first billion dollar brand on “Shark Tank.”
Lynch: Your most recent success was the high-profile sale of Bai. How did you get Justin Timberlake involved in that drink, and how crucial was he in the sale of it?
Oza: My business partner Ben and I were huge fans of Justin. When we met with him, he completely understood the vision of the brand, the mission, and actually became an owner in the company. He wasn’t an endorser. He was an owner. He fought like an owner. He provided ideas and creativity like an owner, and because he believed in the mission of the company, he became a partner in the company. And that to me is the key: partnering with smart celebrities who want to be an owner in unique and differentiated companies.
Lynch: You set the blueprint for this, in a way, by bringing 50 Cent to Vitamin Water. Huge success, but what made that the right connection at that time?
Oza: At the time, Vitamin Water was a great product. It had real levels of vitamins, half the sugar of sodas and juices, cool packaging. But it was very medicinal. And people were like, “Woah, vitamins and water. That can’t taste that great.” So we needed to create some disruption. 50 was one of the most iconic musicians at the time, and he was very health-conscious and fitness-centric. I had a candid conversation where I said, “I don’t have the money to pay you,” and he said, “Don’t worry. I’ll take it in equity because I believe in the brand, and I believe in myself.” And that became the construct of the equity model that everybody wants to do today.
Lynch: To what extent did your experience working at Coke fuel your interest in these healthier alternative beverages?
Oza: My experience at Coca-Cola was great, in that it helped me learn how to build brands. But a lot of the brands that I was on at Coca-Cola were already established, so I was growing established brands. I learned that Coca-Cola can take brands that are really good and scale them, but they have a tough time creating brands from scratch. So I basically carved out a living working with founders to build the brands of tomorrow, that ultimately, the Cokes, and the Pepsi’s, and the General Mills of the world end up buying, because it’s very difficult for them to create it internally.
Lynch: Generally speaking, how do you decide which celebrities to pursue for the brands you’re involved with?
Oza: A lot of the time, I brainstorm with my team which celebrities have the best DNA fit to your brand. And then, we make sure the celebrities are big fans of the brand. So with Jennifer Aniston [for her endorsement deal with Smartwater], it actually happened during March Madness. I brought all of the women in the office together because they are generally more insightful than the guys, and we did a top 16 women in entertainment, and we did like a March Madness bracketology. Jennifer Aniston ending up winning it because Jennifer had the best DNA fit from a purity, from an aesthetic, from a fitness angle — all the elements that Smartwater matched. Oh, and by the way, she was a huge fan of the brand. And that deal has now been going on for close to 13 years, and she looks pretty much the same today in the ads as she did 13 years ago. She clearly is not ageing. It must be the water.
Lynch: On “Shark Tank,” what does it take to convince you to invest in one of these up-and-coming products?
Oza: The interesting thing about “Shark Tank” is that out of the tank, we’re all friends. All of the sharks are good friends, very supportive. They gave me great coaching. But the minute we’re in the seats, or in the tank, the gloves or, in this case, the mouth guards come off, and the teeth come out. It’s to each their own, and I realised that you have to fight hard to win the brands that you believe in. And I was looking for founders who had unique, differentiated ideas, and passion and conviction to go win with their ideas, because I’m giving them my hard-earned money.
Lynch: As a fellow University of Michigan alum, I have to ask about your experience going to business school there. Do you still see business school as a necessary path for people who are up-and-coming in your field?
Oza: I’m glad that I went to Michigan because Michigan’s network is unbelievable. Someone told me the other day, “You guys from Michigan are like a cult.” And it is kind of like that. There’s no other university that could call someone a “Michigan Man.” An “Ohio State Man” doesn’t even roll off the tongue. So the network that I built and the opportunities I got from Michigan were amazing. I think that people should go to business school if it’s the right fit for them. I.e., I want a change of career. I want to expand my network. I want to better understand some of the fundamentals as it relates to building and managing businesses. I think business school is very valuable for those elements, and if that is what you need to do, then you should go to business school. I don’t think it’s a pre-requisite these days the way it was when I went, to necessarily get into companies, but it can definitely be a value-added tool to help you be stronger when you do get into companies.
Lynch: Since you were there, in business school, what’s shifted in the world that makes it less necessary, in a way?
Oza: I think the ability to create startups, whether it’s in tech or food and beverage or CPG, and people are doing it at a younger age, is more prominent now than ever before. And so smart, talented people who have never had MBAs have created companies, and I’ve partnered with many of those founders. So I think that you don’t necessarily have to have that MBA, but business schools are starting to adapt. When Stephen Ross gave Michigan $US100 million [to further fund the Ross Business School named after him], they have used that to significantly improve their facilities and their teaching approach. So I think that business schools will adapt to the tools that you need today to build brands in the modern era.
Lynch: What advice do you have to young entrepreneurs who are following in your footsteps specifically?
Oza: Well, a few of them. One is, “be your brand.” So don’t market it — live your brand. The second is, “have an original idea,” because original ideas always rise to the top. And the third would be, “bring passion and energy to all those around you,” because that’s infectious, and that’s what helps create an amazing culture in a company.
Lynch: What are the next steps for you at this point? Are there any brands that you’re eyeing that you can tell me about?
Oza: Yeah, I have a few that I’m very excited about. At CAVU, the fund that I co-created, we’ve made 16 investments in the last two years. It’s kind of crazy, but we believe in all our brands because they’re all disrupting the environment, in terms of “better-for-you” products. The ones that I’m very excited about: One Bar, it’s a protein bar that’s 20 grams of protein and one gram of sugar, and it almost tastes too good to be true; WTRMLN WTR, which has twice the electrolytes of Gatorade, but it’s all-natural and tastes amazing; and Chef’s Cut, it’s the fastest growing beef jerky in the country, it’s 30 grams of protein in a bag, and it literally tastes like steak in a bag.
Lynch: Between your experience on “Shark Tank” and your investments, where do you see this generation’s brand mindset shifting toward?
Oza: I believe that the millennial audience is, now more than ever, looking for “better-for-you” products for their generation and are rejecting the products of the past. The high sugar, high carb, high fructose corn syrup, highly processed, low-nutrient-value products are being rejected in favour of the brands of tomorrow. And that’s what I think makes the entrepreneurial angle in food and beverage very exciting, and it’s why on “Shark Tank,” I love bidding on some of these really innovative ideas in the food and beverage space, because these entrepreneurs are truly disruptive. And this year, more seven-figure deals were done this year than in any other season prior, because the scale of the brands and the scale of the founders is getting bigger and bigger on “Shark Tank,” and making it really exciting.
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