Q&A: Going “rogue” to deliver a taste of Japanese goodness

This week we chat to Sean Cunial, the Co-Founder and Director of Rogue Beverages, a health and wellness company leading the charge in the emerging nutri-tonics category in Australia. During his time as the COO of The Coca-Cola (Japan) Company, Sean learnt the benefits of Asian practices such as traditional medicine and “super foods” – and how popular they were becoming in the West – foresaw Japanese nutri-tonics as the next wave.

ISB: What is it about Japanese nutri-tonics that inspired you to set up a venture around them?

SC: During my career with Coca-Cola, I was fortunate enough to spend 15 years working and living in Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan.

The Japanese had a highly-developed wellness tonic market incorporating solutions for energy, liver function, eye health, skin health, and so much more. In contrast, the vitamin shot category barely exists in Australia. I thought this presented a great opportunity to provide something different to Australian consumers given the rise in health and wellness.

ISB: Please tell us a little about the reason behind branding your nutri-tonics as SHOJO.

SC: We had two key objectives when developing the SHOJO brand – communicate that it was a contemporary wellness beverage providing proven functional ingredients, while acknowledging the inspiration and heritage from Japan.

In Japanese folklore, SHOJO is a sea spirit with red face and hair who has a passion for singing, dancing and drinking sake. The legend says SHOJO was having a party on the beach when he encountered a boy hoping to fulfil his dying fathers wish for a drink of sake. SHOJO provides the father with a drink that returns him back to health.

While SHOJO is non-alcoholic, we loved the idea of a Japanese sea spirit that lives life to the full and gives people drinks that support health and wellness.

ISB: Which aspects of running a business you learnt or experienced as an executive in Coca-Cola you have implemented, or plan to implement, in this venture?

SC: There are three key aspects that I have brought with me into this venture:

  1. Planning: while balancing day-to-day demands with longer-term thinking can be challenging, my partners and I make sure we create space to plan, review and adjust strategy on a regular basis.
  2. Leverage your knowledge base: given our business operates in a category in which we have worked for more than 20 years, the team always looks to leverage
    the expertise of people we know who have proven experience and capability in areas that we don’t.
  3. Execution is key: unlike many brands which go for rapid distribution and then fail because awareness, trial and repeat purchase lag distribution, we are implementing a thoughtful and purposeful distribution strategy. Nutri-tonics are a relatively unknown category in Australia and so it is critical to educate people, encourage trial and build loyal consumers.

ISB: What were the main challenges in making the shift from working for a global corporation to being a small-business owner, and how did you overcome them?

SC: Resources! Moving from a global corporation with significant people and financial resources to running a small business with limited people and financial resources has been the biggest challenge so far. You often know what you would like to do but are not able to do it as quickly as you would like because of these limitations.

ISB: How are you going about ensuring nutri-tonics are taken seriously and aren’t just seen as a fad?

SC: We continually educate our retail partners and consumers that the nutri-tonic category is a well-established and proven category across Asia with an estimated global value of USD 68.4bn; it has recently emerged in the USA and Europe and is growing rapidly; and, given the accelerating demand for wellness and “better-for-me” products among Australian consumers, the sizeable Asian heritage population in Australia and the fact that trends in the US and Europe often emerge in Australia, we believe wellness tonics / shots will grow in Australia.

We’re also focused on working with retail partners that believe in the category and who are interested in supporting its development and growth. This is not a fad.

ISB: Finally, what is the number one lesson you’ve learnt on your journey you’d share with others looking to make the transition from a large corporate environment to the start-up sector?

SC: You need to be patient but persistent! I’ve been used to having the ability to engage and potentially persuade the trade to achieve rapid penetration and budgets to build awareness. This is much more difficult as a small player.

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