Laura Murray & Jennifer Bui/Thrillist
Food & Drink

How Snapple Became the Myspace of Drinks

I was standing in a packed subway car when I saw the ad.

Dear New York,
We need your help. The rest of the country doesn’t love Snapple as much as New Yorkers do.
Bummer, right?
Show us why you #LOVESNAPPLE and we might share it with the rest of the country.
Love,
Snapple

Has it come to this? I wondered. Has the once-mighty beverage that captured our teenage hearts and wowed us with that hollow bottle cap-popping sound really sunk to this cheap ask? I found myself feeling a pang of embarrassment on Snapple’s behalf. Seeing a grown-up brand groveling for affection is a drag, like a past-his-prime standup comedian demanding laughs from an indifferent crowd.

Also, I thought, when’s the last time I drank one of those things?

My memories of Snapple are sun-dappled, like its logo. I remember drinking it for the first time as a kid one summer. It was a stifling Iowa day. Our family had gone swimming at the city pool, and as we drove home in our gray Astro van I was dying of thirst. I saw my mom had a Snapple Peach Tea in the cup holder. The beads of water falling off the chilled bottle made it look as if it were sweating. I thought iced tea generally tasted like rust, but I was desperate and asked my mom for a sip. She obliged, and I proceeded to take a long gulp. I was hit with the rush of sweet peach, and unlike the other teas I had choked down, this one didn’t clobber me with a heavy, tea-leafy aftertaste. My mind was blown. That was it.

The love affair lasted for a few years in the early 1990s, until I became a serious runner and gave up Snapple for water. Legions joined me not long after as Snapple fell out of favor and lost its dominance over the market and the popular imagination. But the ad -- part of a new “Born in New York, Made for Everyone” marketing effort that no one seems to understand -- brought those memories back.

What happened to Snapple? I wondered. How did something so widely loved and even revolutionary wind up as the MySpace of soda alternatives? I decided to go find out.

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Meet the guys who made it

Turns out, New York was the right place to start. Forty-three years ago, a pair of window washers here teamed up with a health food store owner to sell a line of fruit juices. Their names were Leonard Marsh, Hyman Golden, and Arnold Greenberg, but friends called them Lenny, Hymie, and Arnie (they’ve all since passed away). They named their company after one of their first products, Snappy apple juice.

In the beginning they sold 100% juice drinks, but soon they realized that using real fruit cut into their profit margins. In 1986, they knocked the fruit content down to about 10%. Then in 1987, they introduced flavored iced teas, and for the first time in history iced tea tasted appetizing. Sales took off.

Lenny, Hymie, and Arnie built Snapple by following their guts. They listened to Howard Stern’s radio show on their way to work, so they started advertising on it to hear themselves on the radio. Stern liked these beverage peddlers from Long Island, and he’d go into long digressions about the wonders of Snapple, even though the company had paid for only 30 seconds of airtime. Then the founders learned that Rush Limbaugh liked Diet Snapple, so they started advertising on Limbaugh’s show as well. Later they used one of their own employees as a spokeswoman, the Long Island-tuned “Wendy the Snapple Lady,” in their ads. (More on her in a minute.)

That go-by-feel approach extended to product development. “Screw focus groups,” Lenny would say. “If we like it, the customers will like it.” That led to some crazy flavors -- Ralph’s Cantaloupe Cocktail, Kiwi Teawi -- that hardly contributed to the bottom line but did wonders for Snapple’s persona. By 1994, the company was on the brink of $1 billion in sales.

Then it all pretty much went South.

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Meet the guys who pretty much made it go south

In my quest to find out how Snapple fell off, I called Mike Weinstein, chairman of the INOV8 Beverage Company. Weinstein was CEO of Snapple from 1997 to 2001, and since he was tasked with reversing the damage done by the previous owner, he has a pretty good sense of what went wrong.

In late 1994, Chicago-based Quaker Oats, which had turned Gatorade into a powerhouse, bought Snapple for $1.7 billion. Quaker Oats thought it was a no-brainer: if a couple of window washers could shape Snapple into a potential billion-dollar company, just imagine what guys in suits with MBAs could do with it.

Of course, what the guys in suits did was immediately drain Snapple of all its rogue spirit and charm. “Snapple was the class clown, and Gatorade was the jock quarterback,” says Weinstein. “Quaker Oats tried to treat them the same way, and it failed.” Quaker did things like cut back on the low-margin zany flavors to reduce production costs. It even ended the brand’s relationship with Howard Stern, after he made one offensive comment too many. And worst of all, it did so when their former biggest fan was away on vacation. Stern would spend the next two years ranting about “Crapple.”

In 1997, with Snapple sales having dropped to about $550 million, Quaker sold the brand to Triarc Companies for a paltry $300 million. (The Harvard Business School has since turned Quaker’s spectacular fumble into part of a case study in what not to do to a brand.) Triarc briefly reinvigorated the brand and sold it off to Cadbury Schweppes (along with Mistic and Stewart’s root beer) for $1.45 billion in 2000. Cadbury failed to combat the upstart vitaminwater from elbowing into Snapple’s territory, and the brand faltered again. In 2008, Cadbury spun off its uneven beverage unit into the publicly traded Dr Pepper Snapple Group.

Since then, Snapple has limped along, with an average annual growth rate of 2% over the past three years, per company reports. According to Beverage Digest, in 1996 Snapple controlled 21.4% of the tea market and 16.4% of the juice market. Last year, Snapple’s market share was at 9.3% for tea and 7.1% for juice.

An odd man out in a crowded marketplace, it's neither old nor new. It’s not crazy like energy drinks, nor established like Coke and Pepsi, nor aimed at a particular demographic like sports drinks. It doesn’t have the nutrients of vitaminwater, or the real fruit of odwalla or the, well, water, of bottled water.

The world -- or at least much of it -- has moved on.

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Which means it’s time for a marketing campaign no one understands...

When I set out to find out the truth about Snapple’s situation, I planned on taking a scenic trip up to Westchester, New York, to visit the brand’s HQ. The only issue was that the brand has since moved its operations to Plano, Texas. That Dallas suburb, I learned, is where the New York-focused marketing effort originated.

The “Born in New York, Made for Everyone” and #LOVESNAPPLE campaigns are tailored to the times when ever more companies are asking customers to advertise their products. It has become an annoying marketing crutch -- needy, clingy, and sometimes gross and wrong -- and one that, as companies should know by now, has the additional drawback of being virtually uncontrollable:

The last one is a fair point. For all its talk of being “Made from the Best Stuff on Earth,” Snapple’s non-diet varieties contain about the same amount of sugar as soda drinks (which have been on the decline for a decade). As we know, consumers don’t quite have the same carefree attitude toward obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay as they did in the freewheeling ’90s. But the disconnect there is redoubled by the additional problem of badly misjudging the rest of America’s zeal for being told what to do by New Yorkers. (Something Texans, of all people, should have a good handle on.) As Bryan Zygmont, of Dubuque, Iowa, wrote: "I think it's comical that Snapple seems to think I should drink it because New Yorkers do. Get a grip, jokers. #LoveSnapple (but not)."

The campaign went beyond basic tweet solicitation. A Tumblr page was also set up to collect the best #LOVESNAPPLE posts and amplify the brand with a little of Snapple’s own sauce. There you can find a video of Nick Cannon (even though he lives in New Jersey) talking to a ventriloquist on a subway platform (because that’s common in NYC) about Snapple. There’s also a small galaxy of “real New Yorkers,” including John, the hard hat-wearing construction worker, and Girolama, the Brooklyn pizza-maker, who love the brand that is paying them to love the brand.

The disconnect is inevitable, says Weinstein. “When you’re sitting in Plano and are trying to guess what New Yorkers want, you’re probably not going to be right.”

Which means it’s time to call Plano, Texas

Still, I was willing to give Snapple the benefit of the doubt -- we had history, after all -- so I called the company’s marketing director, Brent Chism. He took my call, but then proceeded to thrash me with buzzwords. To wit:

On appealing to New Yorkers for help: “That happens to be where our most passionate fans are, and we thought what we would like to do is tap into the passions those fans have and the love they have for Snapple and have them share that with the rest of the country.”

On the social appeal of the campaign: “We want to enable our fans to express the passion that they have, and we want to use the content and comments they provide to talk about the brand and show people that this isn’t just a big company talking about the brand, but this is a brand that people love and that people made.”

On authenticity: “What makes Snapple unique in the space is that we’re not the same. We’re a little bit different, but we’re always interesting and interested in being authentic and engaging with the consumer in that way.”

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Alright, screw this -- I’m calling the Snapple Lady

Her full name is Wendy Kaufman, by the way. I tracked her down via Facebook, and my sense is that if you ever worked in the cubicle next to hers you’d laugh a lot, which is probably why the founders chose her to be their company’s face.

Wendy started with Snapple in 1992 and operated its one-person customer service department. “If you had a question, I was going to get you the answer,” she says. “I didn’t have children, so all of the Snapple drinkers were my babies.” She parlayed that into a starring role in Snapple’s TV ads. Sitting at a reception desk, Wendy answered fan mail in her 30-second spots. She helped the nice ladies at the Sassy Seniors retirement home hair salon in Sparks, Nevada, “flavor up their taste buds.” And she helped shy, nerdy Kevin from Wisconsin ask his dream girl out. “Dawn, grab him,” Wendy said. The spots were huge.

But Quaker Oats dropped her because it felt she was too Long Island for a national audience. Triarc briefly brought her back, then stopped using her too. Cadbury never used her at all. Still, Wendy made a lasting impression. “Whenever I go through an airport,” she says, “I hear ‘Hey, Snapple Lady!’ I am out in the world as the Snapple Lady, without a brand.”

I asked Wendy what went wrong. She says that Snapple strayed so far from its roots, both literally and figuratively, that it doesn’t have any sense of what originally made it great. “I am not sure that any of them running the business have any idea about the way that it was,” she says. “These people who are perpetuating the brand are the people who have cut off their connection to the past.”

“It’s like when the Tin Woodman lost its heart,” she says. “There is nothing in there anymore.”

One perk, though: Wendy was on contract through 2007, and was still getting paid even though she wasn’t being used. At one point, she tried to convince Twinkie to hire her as a spokesperson. More recently, she’s been doing “what I want to do when I want to do it,” crossing items off her bucket list. In May, she went to Nevada and shot a glock, uzi, and machine gun for the first (and last) time. “It’s not a bad life,” she says.

A final attempt at closure

Central Park on an 88-degree Sunday afternoon is the perfect place to look for people drinking Snapple. It’s got the right mix of locals and tourists and roasting, stinking heat. And Snapple says New York is its strongest market, home of its “most passionate fans.” For old time’s sake, I picked up a Snapple Peach Tea at a hot dog cart on my way into the park. I threw back the first sip, and it felt as if I had been smacked in the face by a peach sugar punch. A heavy, tea-leafy taste followed. It wasn’t like I’d remembered it.

Maybe you just had to be there.

As I walked around the park for 90 minutes looking for kindred souls, I saw only one more person with a Snapple. A woman carrying an empty bottle of Lemon Tea. I attempted to stop her, to ask her about Snapple, to ask her what it means, or meant, even going so far as to hold up my bottle to show solidarity. But she would have none of it. She gave me a wide berth and quickly walked away.

Matt McCue is a writer based in New York City. He writes about pop culture, business, and lifestyle stuff for places like Fast Company, Fortune, Delta Sky, and now Thrillist. Follow him: @mattmccuewriter