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Apr 23, 2019

It’s remarkable to hear John Bello’s current take on SoBe, the lifestyle beverage brand that he co-founded and sold to PepsiCo for nearly $400 million.

Already an accomplished marketing executive when he launched the brand in 1996, Bello helped shape SoBe’s healthy halo and exotic vibe by infusing its drinks with trendy functional ingredients like ginseng and ginkgo biloba. However, he admits that SoBe was essentially “sugar water” packaged and designed to give consumers what they believed to be a healthier option.

“There was a user base that liked the fact that there was ginseng, ginkgo and guarana in it,” he said. “And almost every week on every lifestyle show they would be talking about something new that could make you stronger, smarter, skinnier and sexier, and that’s what we promoted. The reality was, we were sugar water. We had a user base that really felt that what they were drinking was better than the alternatives.”

Bello’s admission is part of an intriguing conversation included in this episode. In it, he expounded upon the development of SoBe, including early missteps and why coming of age during an era of “healthy hedonism” turned it into a top-seller.  He also chronicled his long career as a business executive and entrepreneur, which began with an ROTC scholarship and a tour of duty in the Vietnam War and included roles with General Foods and the NFL. Bello also explained why he accepted an offer to become chairman of Reed’s, a ginger-centric brand of craft sodas, and how he views its products as providing the kind of functional benefits that SoBe lacked.

Show notes:

2:42: Interview: John Bello, Co-Founder, SoBe/Chairman, Reed’s -- In an interview recorded at Reed’s headquarters in Norwalk, Conn., Bello recounted how his experience in the Navy provided a foundation for his business career and how he earned the nickname “Merchant of the Mekong Delta” during the Vietnam War. He also explained why working on the Sanka brand while at General Foods was his “first exposure to wellness,” and what he learned about branding and distribution while at PepsiCo. Later, he spoke about his experience as the vice president of marketing for NFL Properties and how it gave him his first taste of entrepreneurship and how a stint at AriZona paved the way for SoBe’s marketing strategy. He also explained why the initial concept for SoBe failed and how the brand’s embrace of “healthy hedonism” and timely distribution opportunities gave it a runway for success. Finally, he spoke about why he joined Reed’s and why he views its ginger beer brand as potentially filling a void in major beverage portfolios.

Brands in this episode: SoBe, Reed’s, Maxwell House, Sanka, AriZona, Mountain Dew, Pepsi, Hint, LaCroix, Goslings, Cock'n Bull, Fever-Tree, Bundaberg, BodyArmor