Tea rarely makes headlines in the business section of the news, but the story of Honest Tea’s disappearance from shelves this year stirred up a lot of anguish for lovers of the brewed beverage, like myself. The Bethesda-based brand had built quite a following since its creation in 1998. After a solid decade of growth, Coca-Cola purchased the brand with the promise of bringing co-founders Seth Goldman and Barry Nalebuff’s passion for organic, fair-trade teas to the world. In 2022, Coca-Cola broke that promise. While it might be dramatic to say my road trips will never be the same, I quickly learned that I wasn’t the only person feeling aggrieved by this business decision.
The question looms: Can any successful corporation take over a heart-driven passion project and accelerate it toward success? The answer, in this case, is — well — not exactly. However, the co-founders’ response to the news shows that the heart behind brand stewardship can be more potent than some of the world’s largest corporations.
By the time Coca-Cola had purchased Honest Tea, it had gained recognition as the top choice for tea drinkers, including then-President Barack Obama. Its dedication to sourcing organic products for fresh, unique flavors set Honest Tea apart from other brands. The beverage’s glass bottles, and the fair-trade sugar used to lightly (yet naturally) sweeten some flavors, were conscious choices by Goldman and Nalebuff. From the start, the co-founders had been vocal about the heart and “honesty” behind their products.
Today, the heart behind their original mission is still beating. In 2020, Goldman and Nalebuff started Eat the Change, an environmentally friendly snack company. Within just four months of Coca-Cola’s announcement to discontinue the brand, a new — and quite similar — product was scheduled to hit grocery, gas station, and convenience store shelves. Suddenly, Just Ice Tea was born. The brand, purposely similar to Honest Tea, is just one example of entrepreneurs sticking with their mission — even in the face of doubts, denial, or discontinuation. They were able to accomplish this so quickly because they already had a successful, workable model to roll with. As one might say, they had done this before.
That Special Touch Makes All the Difference
Imagine creating a passion project for the exact corner of the market that you are aiming to reach. Before you know it, big brands are giving you a second look. They see your plans, workshop your ideas, or even buy you out to combat competition. Some of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs have been through this journey.
Take Soichiro Honda, for example. He led his business by way of passion. Honda’s love for automobiles encouraged him to start an apprenticeship at 15. When he opened his first business, investors doubted him — but he carried on. As he expanded the business to manufacturing, Honda started creating parts for Toyota. He ended up patenting many of these parts as he created the Honda Motor Company. His love of innovation and automobiles carried him through.
The head of MGM told Walt Disney that his character, Mickey Mouse, would not fare well with audiences. He believed that women would fear, rather than love, the cartoon mouse. Disney’s love for the mouse encouraged him to keep drawing, and the rest is history.
Milton Hershey sold his caramel company to his bitter rival, the American Caramel Company, in 1900. While Hershey went on to succeed with the Hershey Chocolate Company, the American Caramel Company closed its doors in 1928. The difference for these budding entrepreneurs is likely the passion and drive they had to become successful, regardless of what the large corporations were up to.
Of course, not every story like this ends with a billion-dollar company or international fame — and it doesn’t have to. Currently, Just Ice Tea’s early projections are strong, but if they don’t expand beyond the popularity of Honest Tea, the endeavor can still bring organic, fair-trade beverages to a market that desperately needs them. Goldman and Nalebuff are continuing to persevere with the heart that made Honest Tea so successful, and that heart makes all the difference.
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Why Leading With Heart Sets Brands Apart
Why did the big guys fail where the little guys succeeded? Heart. Corporations like Coca-Cola can’t give ideas like Honest Tea the white-glove treatment that individuals offer. They crunched the numbers for their multiple tea brands, and despite the gap in the market that Honest Tea was able to fill, those figures weren’t enough for the company.
However, for many small companies, the numbers aren’t the only metric deciding the fate of their products. It’s the people who are fulfilling their health goals without sacrificing their morning beverages. It’s the eyecare, healthcare, and water access that a village receives from fair-trade premiums. It’s the moments when consumers take a sip without guilt or worry and remember their favorite childhood teas that they shared with their family. An anecdote like this may not matter to some corporations, but they matter to the founders who create products with heart.
“Honestly … we were heartbroken when our beloved tea brand was discontinued. After growing with us for 23 years, our organic farmers were left stranded,” write Goldman, Nalebuff, and their collaborator, celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn, on the back of Just Ice Tea bottles. “We couldn’t let that happen. So we got brewing.”
Leading heart-first changes your perspective on success and failures. Even when you face rejection after rejection, poor management, or a plateau, your heart will tell you that your dream can still be fulfilled. You push forward. For many inventors, founders, and entrepreneurs, success lies just beyond this final push. In the end, I count this as a win-win situation for Goldman and Nalebuff. Not only did they realize their dream company once, but twice. And they were able to make a profitable sale in the midst of it.
Can a large corporation take over a heart-driven passion project and accelerate it toward success? The story of Honest Tea sheds an unhopeful light on the answer. But the developing story of Just Ice Tea is a reminder that consumers recognize and respond to brands that are built with ethics, morals, and goals. Admittedly, I was disappointed to hear that Honest Tea was discontinued, but I feel even better knowing that my dollars will be going to Just Ice Tea, and support the mission the founders set out to fulfill.