Slice, a once-popular soft drink from the 1990s, faded into obscurity for years before being relegated to the trademark trash heap — discontinued and, for all practical purposes, dead.
And that’s exactly where Mark Thomann, a Chicago entrepreneur with a knack for reclaiming old brands, hunts for treasure.
“People remember the brand, but they don’t always remember the specifics,” Thomann said. “It’s sort of like clay that you can mold how you want.”
Dormitus Brands and Spiral Sun Ventures — two separate entities run by Thomann — are partnering to relaunch Slice later this year after acquiring the brand’s trademark rights, which were formerly owned by PepsiCo. The new Slice will be a lower-sugar, lower-calorie beverage sweetened only with real — possibly organic — fruit juice, Thomann said. The product’s still being developed, but the plan is to distribute it nationally through regional retailers in six months or so.
The amount of carbonated soft drinks sold in the U.S. has declined for more than a decade, as consumers have increasingly eschewed sugary drinks for healthier alternatives. These are boom times for sparkling water, such as LaCroix, but Thomann and his associates believe there’s a market for something just a bit sweeter.
“If we were just relaunching it the way it was before, I don’t think it would be successful. … We believe this will be a $100 million brand in the next five years,” Thomann said.
In the U.S., the total volume of carbonated soft drinks sold has decreased from 51.4 billion liters in 2012 to 47.4 billion liters in 2017 — a decline of about 7.8 percent, according to data from Euromonitor International.
Meanwhile, sales of alternative drinks — everything from bottled tea to flavored water — continue to grow, while still representing a smaller part of the beverage industry by volume, according to Linda Montag, senior vice president at Moody’s Investors Service. But despite this shift in consumer tastes, large corporations like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, which also own healthier brands, are poised to capitalize most because of their considerable marketing and distribution muscle, Montag said.
As one recent example, PepsiCo is launching a new flavored sparkling water called Bubly by the end of February. Coca-Cola owns pop alternatives like Honest Tea.
Facing such competition in a crowded marketplace, the successful revamp of Slice is not guaranteed.
But Thomann believes he has a solid plan for distribution and marketing that will help the brand catch fire. Already, some Chicago retailers, such as Treasure Island Foods, have committed to carrying it, while other larger retailers have expressed an early interest, he said.
Revolution Brands, the Chicago-based product development and marketing firm working with Thomann on the project, is in the process of selecting a manufacturer, said Glenn Backus, managing partner of Revolution Brands.
Flavors are likely to include grapefruit, berry and lemon-lime, Backus said. It’s too early to say exactly how many calories and grams of sugars the new Slice will have, but it will be healthier than a normal soda, while sweeter than most flavored water, he said. Think Spindrift, but a bit sweeter.
“I think there’s an opportunity to have something more palatable (than most flavored waters),” said Backus, a former executive with companies like Topco, H-E-B and Trader Joe’s.
The end game? Grow the brand, prove demand for the new concept and then sell it back to Big Soda in a few years.
“Frankly, Coke and Pepsi could get into a bidding war if they want,” said Joe Gioconda, Thomann’s attorney and business partner, laughing.
Acquiring the U.S. trademark rights for Slice was a matter of routine for Gioconda, an intellectual property attorney formerly with Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago. Now in New York, Gioconda has partnered with Thomann on seizing rights to other old brands when they’re abandoned, such as Aiwa, an audio equipment brand, and Coleco, the old-school video gaming rival of Atari.
Thomann and Gioconda recently sued Anheuser-Busch for trademark infringement after the beer company aired a Super Bowl commercial last year featuring Spuds Mackenzie, the bull terrier that was used to market Bud Light in the 1980s. The problem, as they saw it? They own the Spuds trademarks now through a company called Spuds Ventures and plan to eventually use the brand to sell dog treats. The two sides reached a settlement agreement.
“We’re always looking for these legacy brands that have been abandoned as a matter of law but may still have some value,” Gioconda said.
PepsiCo put up some initial resistance to Thomann and Gioconda acquiring the Slice trademark rights, arguing among other things that it still sold an orange Slice concentrate for fountain soft drinks, according to documents filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. But Gioconda responded that PepsiCo had abandoned at least 24 Slice trademark registrations and provided evidence — including a recorded phone conversation with PepsiCo’s customer service line — that the product had been discontinued.
By November 2017, PepsiCo voluntarily withdrew its opposition. New Slice Ventures — Thomann and Gioconda’s new firm — had prevailed.
PepsiCo didn’t respond to numerous calls and emails for this story.
Thomann believes Slice will be pleasantly familiar to people of a certain age who have since turned to healthier products. Those consumers have grown up and changed; so, too, has Slice, Thomann said. He also believes it will appeal to millennials who might not know the brand at all.
Not all of Thomann’s attempts to revive dormant brands have worked out as planned. Salon Selectives, a former Unilever brand acquired by his former firm River West Brands, was an example of poor timing and too much operational risk, he said.
Thomann nonetheless chalked it up as a learning experience.
“You can’t treat these brands like what they once were,” he said.
(Article from the Chicago Tribune)