Bai CMO Michael Simon on moving creative in-house, selling surprise and the brand's new corporate parents

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"It's cheaper" to work with an in-house agency and there's "more agility," says the beverage brand's lead marketer.

Bai prides itself on surprising people with the unexpected. The coffee fruit-based drink has built its eight-year-old brand around the core message that it has just five calories yet is shockingly sweet. The approach goes back to the unconventional origins of the beverage, formulated in the basement of founder Ben Weiss, not inside some corporate test lab. And the company's creative has been decidedly oddball with advertising from agency Barton F. Graf boldly declaring "None of this makes sense."

Last year, Bai parted ways with the New York agency and produced its first national Super Bowl ad in-house. The spot, starring Justin Timberlake, a corporate investor and chief flavor officer, and Christopher Walken, ran during the 2017 game. The ad will soon make its return to the airwaves this summer as part of the company’s "Bye Bye Bye Sugar" campaign.

According to Bai CMO Michael Simon, the in-house agency approach "has worked out very well" for the company. In fact, within the last "three to four months," the brand has moved most of its creative production internally, said Simon, who joined Bai from Panera Bread in 2014. 

At the time, Simon hired Barton F. Graf to raise brand awareness, which was hovering at 7 percent. The agency produced TV spots that said it didn’t make sense for Bai to taste so good and be good for you, too, illustrated by the nonsensical juxtaposition of a newlywed bride and her husband who she just met on TV. And in 2016, the brand ran a regional Super Bowl spot created by the shop that featured an atypical horse whisperer.

The company, acquired earlier this year by Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, recently introduced a video content series that takes a much more serious approach to the surprise theme, focusing on the true stories of people who defy the odds. The docu-style series, called "Unbelieve," made its debut at the Bai-sponsored Tribeca Film Festival with a film about yogi Jessamyn Stanley and was produced in partnership with Tribeca Studios. Last week, the brand released the second video in the series, a story about a two-man team who invented glasses that give the colorblind the chance to see a wide array of hues.

Campaign US spoke with Simon about what it’s like to "Unbelieve" and how he’s pushing creative boundaries in-house.

How did you come up with the concept of the "Unbelieve" films?
It emanated from a broader communication strategy. We have a two-pillar approach. First and foremost, as a new brand, is about driving awareness, consideration, trial. We're now in the process of putting together the functional side of our communication, which is really the paid advertising. That's really talking about the story of Bai through the filter of, "Here's a product that's good for you that you don't have to sacrifice taste."

And then there's the more emotional side, or the engagement side, which is really what "Unbelieve," or what unbelievers, are all about. It really started with our brand manifesto, which explains to consumers what we mean by unbelieve. We also have a founder story that really is a demonstration of unbelieving. Then there are these four videos that we worked in partnership with Tribeca Film, which is really celebrating other people who've challenged the status quo to get to a better place.  

What are you trying to accomplish with the series?
I would liken it a little to the early short film work that Chipotle did. It talked about their values in terms of food integrity and ethical, humane sourcing and less around Chipotle the restaurant. I think the important piece of this is, we're not doing the videos in isolation. Time is not our friend here, but ultimately you will see an integrated campaign through television, digital, out of home, social, that will keep reinforcing this notion of unbelieving, both specifically to our beverages but also to our values. Just like Chipotle tried to own food's integrity, we hope to be able to own this notion of unbelief.

The brand produced all this work in-house? Why and what does the internal team look like?
We've actually brought everything in house at this point, so we have an in-house agency, Tribeca, and then we’re also guided by Alison Brod, our PR agency, to really think through not only content, but the distribution strategy. Those are our key strategic partners.

The in-house team is in the neighborhood of 20 to 25 people. They handle everything from package design to advertising. There's a number of benefits to having an in-house agency. It's cheaper, although that's not really the primary benefit. We have a lot of people who really understand the brand and what we're about. And there's a level of agility that we just don't get from outside agencies where you develop a brief, they have two or three rounds of creative, it has to go through two or three levels within the agency, then back to us. There's a lot of back and forth, and I think having our in-house creative agency really allows us to have a more collaborative relationship, because we're sitting with them every day. So it's worked out very well to date.

Do you recruit your creative talent from ad agencies?
Chad Portas is our chief creative officer. He comes from SapientNitro. We have people from Arnold, from Mullen. It's been interesting that we've been able to recruit a lot of people from agencies, people who really wanted to be on the other side, because they wanted to have a little more ownership of the whole process. They also wanted to be more closely aligned and integrated with other pieces of the business.


Pepsi tried to be culturally relevant with work produced in-house and failed. How is Bai avoiding the same fate?

The Pepsi thing, to me, screamed of inauthenticity. Coming through a big, corporate lens and using Pepsi as a tool to bring people together, but really around bigger political issues, it just didn't ring true. The challenge with Pepsi is they're a large corporation, and so the way they really showcased it in advertising came off in a way that maybe wasn't as authentic. 

I think for us, because we're small, we're a challenger brand, people root for challenger brands. If we do it correctly, it can actually be something that can be a meaningful added value.

Are you considering advertising a purpose-driven message?
We are in the process of developing some thoughts on that. One thing we talk about is our key ingredient, the coffee fruit. It’s the outer berry to the coffee bean. The coffee purveyors will take the bean, and they'll dispose of the outer berry or pulp. What happens is, it just decomposes; often times, through the process of separating the bean from the pulp, the pulp gets washed into water streams, and as it decomposes, it becomes toxic and ruins water streams.

The whole foundation of our business was built on our founder working with third-world farmers to get the coffee fruit and figure out a way to create a soluble extract that goes into our product. In effect, by working directly with the farmers, we give them a second revenue source. They used to throw away the outer pulp; now they're getting paid for that as well. And by using the pulp in our product, we also minimize, or at least try to mitigate, some of the environmental challenges that occur as a result of the processing of the coffee bean. 

What’s the biggest brand challenge facing Bai?
First and foremost, we need to continue to build our distribution. We are spawning grocery and club in mass, but small format—drug and convenient stores—we still have huge opportunities. With that, there's also depth of awareness, getting more flavors, gaining more shelf space. Also getting off-shelf merchandising, particularly for a new brand, and really trying to drive awareness and trial.

The other piece, which is really around awareness and trial as well, is conveying our message through external advertising. We always talk about in-store as our ground game, and our external advertising, both paid and earned, is more about our air support. So it's the combination of those two things.

But Bai is quickly becoming a larger brand due to the Dr. Pepper/Snapple Group acquisition in January. How has that affected you as a company?
What we bring to Dr. Pepper is a youthful enthusiasm, an entrepreneurial culture. What Dr. Pepper helps us as we grow and mature is, how do you inject a little more discipline and structure into a company that five years ago was less than $20 million and last year was a $250 million business and hopefully get close to $400 million this year. You can't operate them the same way. Dr. Pepper brings a lot of capability. I mean that's what big companies are good at, is managing scale and efficiency.  

Bai has sustained high double and triple digit growth over the last seven or eight years, but we're barely scratching the surface, because we're not available everywhere. We haven't aggressively spent a lot of money on marketing. I think enough to get us started, but we believe this business has huge potential, 'cause it's moving where consumers are moving. They want better-for-you products, and they don't want to have to sacrifice the taste of these beverages.