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
prodigious spike in sales as a result, and
in 2007, Oza’s former employer, Coca-Cola,
acquired Vitamin Water from Glacéau for $4.2 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
purchased Bai Brands for $1.7 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
John Lynch: Walk me through your experience on “Shark
Tank.” With your specific expertise, what were you able to bring
to the table, or dais, as it were?
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
Lynch: Your most recent success was the
billion-dollar sale of Bai. How did you get Justin Timberlake
involved in that drink, and how crucial was he in the sale of
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.
You set the blueprint for this,
in a way, by bringing 50 Cent to Vitamin Water. 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
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
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 aging. 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
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 realized 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 the prospective
students of 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
Lynch: Since you were in business school, what has
shifted in the world that makes it less necessary, in a
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 $100 million [to further fund the Ross
Business School named after him], they’ve 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 for young
entrepreneurs who are following in your footsteps
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 you’re eyeing that you can tell me
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
Lynch: Between your experience on “Shark Tank” and in
your recent 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
favor 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.