“Honored that you’re (hopefully) enjoying some of the dorm-room dream!” emailed former Kingston High football player Jim DeCicco last Wednesday. Underneath his name was his proud title: “Oldest Brother/CEO.”
True to their millennial emphasis on experiential marketing, the DeCicco brothers rarely let pass any opportunity for prioritizing experience over stuff. The narrative of the three plucky young small-town brothers from Kingston, New York inventing a magical energy drink particularly resonates with their own 20-something generation .
This past Sunday, Feb. 11, the three brothers appeared on the ABC national Shark Tank show. On the TV program, taped back in June, the DeCiccos were valuing their business at $10 milllion. The sharks thought the fast-growing young business should be valued at half of that. No deal was reached.
The DeCiccos think they made the right move. Since that taping, Sunniva Super Coffee has continued to expand into many additional markets. You can bet the three brothers will take full advantage of the media opportunities that their appearance on the well-known business reality show will generate. It’s already providing them a surge of recognition.
I bought my first 12-ounce Sunniva Smooth Mocha Super Coffee at the QuickChek on Washington Avenue last week. I must say that I liked the smooth taste of the cold beverage. And I will report that drinking it gave my aged body a buzz (90 milligrams of caffeine, the amount one gets from a cup of coffee).
On one side of the carefully designed and shaped container was a vertical row of four small circles, each with a tiny image: Pure Focus (thought balloon), Positive Energy (light bulb), Powerful Vibes (rising or setting sun), and Nothing Artificial (circle with a line through it).
On another side, as mandated by the government, was a list of the ingredients, beginning with purified water, Colombian coffee, organic maple syrup, trademarked Sunniva super creamer, milk protein and purified coconut oil. There were seven grams of sugar in the container.
The next batch of Super Coffee carried by QuickChek won’t contain any sugar — something the Shark Tank didn’t know at the time of the taping. Total calories per container will be reduced from 120 to 80 through the replacement of sugar by essence of monkfruit, a highly concentrated Southeast Asian sweetener which has virtually no sugar, no calories, no carbs and no fats.
The young woman at the checkout counter was a Kingston resident who knew the three DeCicco brothers as local athletes. The Sunniva products had sold extremely well at the beginning, she reported, but now sales were slowing down.
As you probably know, QuickChek is not a supermarket where you buy your weekly groceries. It’s a large fuel-selling convenience store promising shopping basics that people commonly use and need quickly.
QuickChek carries a large variety of energy drinks, mostly priced between $2.50 and $3.50. Differentiating one’s product from the competition is very important to business success in the energy-drink industry. Having a narrative that builds consumer identification with the brand is as important as design, distribution and shelf space. The more closely you identify with the DeCicco brothers, the more likely you are to become their customer.
My Smooth Mocha was not in the formidable wall of coolers lining the back of the store but at a nearby snack island, sharing space with a startling variety of foods: Chobani yogurts, Naked protein smoothies, Natalie’s juices, Kevita kombuchas, Argo tea, and a bunch of house-brand stuff ranging from unpackaged apples and bananas to sandwiches, wraps, containers of strawberry-blueberry parfaits, and cookies-and-cream mousses. Neat packages combined apples, pecans and-gouda cheese; red-roasted hummus and crostini; fruit salad; carrot, celery and ranch-dip dressing; and my personal fave, apple, celery and peanut butter.
Four containers of Sunniva Maple Hazelnut and 15 of Smooth Mocha were on display, and I paid $3.29 for mine.
Youngest Brother Jordan (founder), 22, Middle Brother Jake (chief operating officer), 24, and Oldest Brother Jimmy (chief executive), 25, have a millennial story in spades. In their by now well-established company narrative, they portray themselves as slightly goofy but determined young jocks “inspired to change the way humanity consumes its coffee.” Not “strictly” a sports drink, Super Coffee is “geared more toward the health-conscious coffee drinker.”
Jordan is portrayed as the star basketball player at Philadelphia University who was falling asleep in class until he concocted a brew that fueled himself, his teammates and his classmates into high-energy orbit. At first, he made the elixir in his dorm room, another narrative detail with which his generation can identify. He dropped out after his sophomore year to make Super Coffee.
Jake joined Jordan after his senior football season at Georgetown University. Not “strictly” a sports drink, Middle Brother Jake explained to a Washington-area publication in 2015, Super Coffee “is geared more toward the health-conscious coffee drinker.”
Jimmy, captain of his college football team (“I played philosophy and studied football at Colgate University”), is said to have “traded paychecks for passion.” After college, he did sports production and then spent three months as a financial researcher for a subsidiary of the Blackstone Group before teaming up with his brothers two and a half years ago.
Sunniva’s growth strategy won’t be the first to focus on where millennials congregate (such as colleges) and then spread to other places where they live and travel. That’s sort of what Facebook did, spreading like wildfire from Northeastern college campuses to the wider population.
The sharks notwithstanding, Sunniva has attracted a million dollars in seed funding and more in a round of post-seed money, Jim DeCicco said. The terms of the agreement with the latter funder prevents him from saying what ownership share the brothers surrendered to this investors, he said.
Sunniva now has 1,200 distribution accounts, up from 150 a little more than a year ago. Is its sales volume sufficient to justify its shelf space? The DeCiccos expect the publicity boost provided by their appearance on Shark Tank to help tip the scales in establishing the Super Coffee brand on the national stage.
This Kingston Tiger trio are proud of their local roots. Jim ends one of his emails to Kingston, “Tiger pride!”
Since their sons’ recent high-school days, their parents, Jim and Kirsten DeCicco, themselves former football and lacrosse and soccer players respectively at the University of New Hampshire, have moved from Hurley Avenue in Kingston to North Carolina.
The business started from Sunniva’s foundational narrative served first the Washington DC metro area and then expanded throughout a good chunk of the Northeast. The ambition, of course, was to go national. A recent arrangement with the food marketing and distribution Sysco, which among other places serves many colleges, will get Super Coffee into 30 additional distribution centers and many more millennial strongholds.
Sunniva headquarters have been located for more than a year at 110 Wall Street in Manhattan, probably just a few yards north of the original stockade built on the orders of Peter Stuyvesant five years before he ordered Kingston’s stockade built. One good Wall Street stockade may lead to another, but the contrasting physical outcomes over time at these two locations have been striking.
Human society is capable of harboring a wide variety of dreams, and each generation seems to evolve its own contrarian story.
“I was compelled to make an impact and driven to pursue my dreams, and that’s something we want to inspire others to do,” explained Youngest Brother Jordan DeCicco, who gave up his full scholarship and promising sports career to drop out of college and develop Super Coffee. “We want other young people to become leaders and shake up current industries.”