The Tinkerman – From Stealth Bomber to Super Soaker

The Tinkerman – From Stealth Bomber to Super Soaker


So, what do you do with your evenings if you’re an Air Force engineer and working on the Stealth Bomber during the day? Well, if you’re Lonnie Johnson, you invent a new type of high powered water pistol and give it to your daughter.

“I gave the plastic gun to my seven-year-old daughter, Aneka, and watched as she used it to play with the other kids on the airbase. They couldn’t even get close to her with their little squirt guns.”

The plastic gun turned out to be the prototype of the Super Soaker, the water pistol that transformed water fights around the world.

Lonnie Johnson had always loved to engineer things or, as he would tell the BBC in an interview, “I’ve always liked to tinker with things. It started with my dad. He gave me my first lesson in electricity, explaining that it takes two wires for electric current to flow – one for the electrons to go in, the other for them to come out. And he showed me how to repair irons and lamps and things like that. The kids in the neighbourhood took to calling me ‘the Professor’.”

‘The professor’ got a scholarship to Tuskegee University, famous for the Tuskegee Airmen, where he got a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and then graduated with a masters in nuclear engineering.

In 1975, he was called to active duty in the Air Force and worked on US space launches that used nuclear power. An analysis he did that identified a possible failure that NASA had overlooked caught their attention and he was invited to join the Galileo Mission, the unmanned spacecraft sent to study Jupiter and its moons.

Lonnie J b&wIt was here that work on the Super Soaker began. “So in 1982 you could say that I had a fun day job working on these spacecraft in Pasadena, California, but all this time I continued to tinker on my own ideas in the evening.

At that time I was experimenting with a new type of refrigeration system that would use water as a working fluid instead of ozone-destroying CFCs. One evening, I machined a nozzle and hooked it up to the bathroom sink, where I was performing some experiments. It shot a powerful stream of water across the bathroom sink. That’s when I got the idea that a powerful water gun would be fun! But it was months before I did anything about it.”

In fact it wasn’t until he re-joined the Air Force and relocated to a military base in Nebraska that Johnson would combine his work as first engineer testing the B-2 Bomber, the Stealth Bomber, with finishing his first prototype ‘soaker’.

As well as letting his daughter use it, he started to show it off around the base. “I took it to an Air Force picnic one day and a superior officer, a major, saw it and said, ‘What is that you got, Johnson?’ I said, ‘This is my water gun, sir.’ And he said, ‘It looks really strange – does it work?’ So I turned to him and shot him right between the eyes. After that, the picnic was over. Everybody was throwing cups of water, cups of beer and it just turned into a big free-for-all.”
Sensing its potential, Johnson wanted to manufacture the gun himself but, when he got a quote of $200,000 for 1,000 guns, he quickly decided he would have to partner up with a toy company.
There followed seven years of frustration and false starts. Then, in February 1989, Johnson went to the American International Toy Fair in New York and came across a company called Larami.

The then vice president, Al Davis, was interested – sort of.

Super soaker blueprint“I can’t really review a product here,” he told Johnson, “but if you’re ever in Philadelphia, where our headquarters are, I’d be happy to talk to you. Drop in and see us… [but] don’t make a special trip.”
Despite this lukewarm response, Johnson decided he would follow up the lead and started work on a new prototype of the water gun. He used plexiglass and PVC piping, and instead of keeping water inside the gun itself, a two-litre soda bottle sat on the top and acted as a water reservoir.
Johnson picks up the story, “I remember sitting in their conference room with the president and vice-president of the company and some marketing people. I opened my suitcase, took the gun out and shot it across the conference room. And they said: ‘Wow!’ I knew that I had captured their imagination.”
The next challenge was one of commercialisation. This gun was way more complicated than the “little squirt guns” that were on the market, but after lots of work they brought the price down to $10. Even then, neither Johnson nor Larami were sure that anyone would pay anywhere near that amount for a water pistol.


In 1990, the gun first appeared in the toy shops. It was called the “Power Drencher” and despite no real marketing support it sold well. Based on this initial success, plans for a bigger push were made.

“The following year, we rebranded the toy the Super Soaker and did a big push on TV. That was the summer we sold 20 million guns, and I remember just staring at my royalties’ cheque in disbelief” recalls Johnson.

Further generations of Super Soakers followed and today more than 170 Super Soaker models have been launched, generating more than $1bn (£760m) in revenues. Johnson also went on to design the N-Strike range of Nerf dart guns, which used some of the same compressed air technology and earned him even more royalties.

And what has Johnson done with all those royalties?

“I didn’t buy a yacht or anything. I’ve spent the money on something much more interesting – to me, anyway. I have built a scientific facility in Atlanta, Georgia, which has about 30 staff”.
They are working on next generation batteries and engines, but Johnson still wants to tinker “I have a few ideas in mind – not toys, just consumer products that I know will be easy to manufacture and that will sell well. “

And the moral is, what may seem like a little idea can turn into a big brand success. Do you have a little idea with big potential?

A tale of two stores

A tale of two stores

Once upon a time, there were two stores.

New brThe first is sleek, chic and minimalist in design, with white walls and wooden parquet floors. It offers “modern, refined clothing and accessories for men and women…what you want to wear to work” The clothes are versatile, contemporary classics in styles that are both modern and (reasonably) timeless. Their aim is to “dress men and women who see every day as full of possibilities and seek to make the most of every moment and opportunity. We see life a little differently. We take it all in. We add to it. We make it our own and we live with style.”

BR croppedThe second store is a little different. Life-size model giraffes and elephants stand amid old leather suitcases and wooden-crate racks piled with khaki “safari” clothing—Ghurkha shorts, pith helmets and chamois shirts with deep cargo pockets. A World War II Army Jeep balances on top some boulders in the front window and above the sales floor; an old bush plane hangs from the ceiling that has been painted to resemble a blue Zimbabwean sky. Safari and travel clothes include surplus military clothing customized with civilian touches like suede elbow patches, belts and wood buttons.

safari-coverLaying around were distinctive catalogues. They contained no photos of the clothes, no models posing attractively; instead, they featured beautiful illustrations of the clothing, printed in soft duotone, alongside stories of far away places and the romance of travel.
The twist in the tale is that these two stores are in fact the same store, and if you haven’t guessed the brand, they are both Banana Republic.
The second store is in fact the original store. It was set up by Mel and Patricia Ziegler and opened its doors in 1978 in Mill Valley, California.
Mel and Patricia met when both worked at the San Francisco Chronicle (he as a photojournalist, she an illustrator). The couple both quit on the same day and went travelling, but it was Mel’s search for a replacement for his well-worn and well-loved military surplus jacket that was to lead to the creation of the store. Ziegler finally found a British Burma jacket in a Sydney “disposal” store, which his wife altered to downplay the garment’s military look and according to Banana Republic’s archives; “to play up its sensibility as a comfortable, utilitarian, everyday garment.”
Family and friends admired the jacket’s look and this prompted the Zieglers to set up what was to become the Banana Republic Travel and Safari Clothing Company. While many Americans thought “surplus” meant only camouflage U.S. Army T-shirts, they seemed to fall in love with the exotic military leftovers the Zieglers scrounged on their international buying trips.

“In England, we found Melton wool overcoats made for the British army selling for 25 bucks,” Ziegler recalls. Banana Republic marketed the clothing as rare and marked it up. It made good business sense “We weren’t losing money.”

By 1983, Banana Republic had five stores in California, a handful in other locations, and was bringing in $10 million a year. Don Fisher, who co-founded the Gap made them an offer. It was an offer to buy them out, fund expansion but leave them in creative control. It was an offer that was simply too good to refuse so they didn’t

For the next few years, things went well, riding on the back of films like Out of Africa, Romancing the Stone and the Indiana Jones series, the brand grew and grew. The Zieglers switched from selling adapted surplus clothing to using it as a template for manufacturing their own clothing.

However when the stock market crashed in 1987 and sales wobbled – the brand made a loss in 1988 – Fisher worried about the future of Gap and indeed whether the safari fad had run its course, brought in Mickey Drexler. Drexler, who would go on to help revive Gap, wasn’t a fan of pith helmets and wanted to take Banana Republic in a more mainstream direction. He and the Zieglers clashed, and Mel and Patricia left citing the classic “fundamental creative and cultural differences”.
Banana-Republic frontGap brought in a new management team and slowly at first and then with more momentum the brand shifted its focus away from khaki to one that included brighter-coloured casual wear and cruise line apparel. In 1989, the catalogue was discontinued. Stores were refurbished to reflect a more sophisticated, modern, urban style.
The early nineties saw a positive turn-around for Banana Republic when it further diversified its product lines, adding a variety of looks suitable for the office and new advertising campaigns were adopted to sell the company’s new relaxed, urban lifestyle image.
Nowadays it remains highly successful with over 600 stores around the world and has a loyal young clientele many of whom are too young even to remember the original concept.
The brand however believes that life is still a journey and plays to the notion of safari only now it’s the urban safari it focuses on. “Today Banana Republic continues to outfit those on the modern journey of life. From harnessing the urban safari to getting a promotion to living out one’s dreams, our customers will be perfectly dressed for every step of the way.”

And the moral is that brand needs to decide what is an enduring theme and what is a fad, so they can adapt accordingly. Is your brand relying on a fad or a long-term theme?
Footnote: The only question remaining is whether given time could the Zieglers have turned it around and indeed speaking a few years ago Mel Zielger said he ran into Fisher at a cocktail party and recalls that the Gap founder was repentant. “He came up to me and said he really regretted what he had done [to Banana Republic].” He went on to wonder what might have been “If we could wind back the clock, the challenge would have been for us to keep it fresh year after year. But they felt that we had taken a metaphor and gotten as much as we were going to get out of it.”




Barbie oldAt the beginning of 2015, there were a number of jokes going around about a new Barbie – Retirement Barbie.
Mattel had just announced that sales had fallen by 14 % in 2014, the third year running where sales had dropped by more than 10%. Barbie, who had been unveiled during the New York Toy Fair on March 9, 1959, and who had regularly brought in over $1 billion a year in global sales, now looked like she might be on her last legs.
Indeed it was those anatomically inaccurate legs, waist and neck that many thought were the problem. The International Journal of Eating Disorders had reported that the odds of being born with a Barbie-like body are less than 100,000 to 1. It had been estimated that a Barbie-style waist would accommodate just half a liver and a few inches of intestine. Experts said her neck would crumple under the weight of her disproportionately huge head.
In contrast, a doll with an average woman’s proportions had gained viral success; full-bodied models were being increasingly integrated into high-fashion campaigns; the single “All about that bass,” by Meghan Trainor, which celebrates curvy bodies had become an international mega-hit. Queens of Africa, a range of dolls launched originally in Nigeria and modelled on three of that country’s biggest tribes, was outselling Barbie in its home market and was gaining increased demand from Europe, Brazil and America.

Something had to change and in the end it was Barbie and the senior team at Mattel who did. CEO Bryan Stockton resigned and Mattel brought back Richard Dickson as Chief Brands Officer, President and COO. He had helped lift Barbie out of a previous slump in the 1990s.

barbie ad college  barbies-new-ad girl

In October 2015 a new communication idea, ‘Imagine the possibilities’ was launched. It was a radical departure from previous campaigns and featured a two-minute spot of young girls doing things their way – Veterinarian, Football Coach and College Professor. Young girls taking on adult roles to the initial surprise of the adults they encounter. It’s a powerful idea, part of the “ongoing brand evolution that is designed to encourage parents to reappraise the role Barbie can play in [a] child’s life,” according to Evelyn Mazzocco, global SVP and general manager of Barbie.
The aim, Mazzocco explains is to “remind today’s parents that through the power of imagination, Barbie allows girls to explore their limitless potential. Founded by a female entrepreneur and mother in 1959, the Barbie brand has always represented the fact that women have choices.”

barbie-body-typesHowever, changing communication was never likely to be enough and on January 28th 2016 Mattel announced an even bigger change. It released three new body types: Petite, Tall and Curvy. They were available in 7 skin tones, 22 eye colours, 24 hairstyles, and even had a flat foot option.
“Barbie reflects the world girls see around them,” Dickson explains. “Her ability to evolve and grow with the times, while staying true to her spirit, is central to why Barbie is the number one fashion doll in the world.”
Indeed looking back to the brand’s origins, it would appear that Ruth Handler, Barbie’s original creator, really did want girls to have more choices. “My whole philosophy of Barbie was that, through the doll, the girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices. ”

New Barbie is clearly a modern re- expression of that philosophy and, while not everyone is completely convinced, the general feeling seems to be that many more girls can now play with a doll that more closely resembles them, rather than something they’ll never be.
All eyes are no longer on Barbie’s figure but on the new sales figures.

And the moral is as the world changes so brands need to stimulate change while preserving the core.

If you want to create a better cup of coffee, do your homework

If you want to create a better cup of coffee, do your homework

cup of coffeeBy the beginning of the twentieth century, coffee drinking was no longer a luxury. Melitta Bentz and her husband, Hugo, were among the many people who had recently started to drink it daily, with their breakfast or with cakes and while chatting in the afternoon.

However, Melitta’s enjoyment was marred by the trials and tribulations of brewing a cup. The percolators were prone to over-brew the coffee, espresso-type machines at the time tended to leave grounds in the drink, and linen  filter bags were tiresome to clean.

ink_blotShe was sure that there must be a better way. She started experimenting and, in the end, her homework paid off – or perhaps that should be her son’s homework paid off!

Her solution involved using a nail to poke holes in the bottom of a brass cup and lining it, not with a linen bag but with a sheet of blotting paper from her eldest son’s school notebook.

The results were outstanding. Not only did the coffee taste significantly more aromatic, there were no more grounds in the bottom of the cup, and preparation was fast and simple. There was no bag to wash as you simply threw the used ‘blotting’ paper away.

early prototypeMelitta decided to set up a business and, on 20 June 1908, The Kaiserliche Patentamt (Imperial Patent Office) granted her a patent . On 15 December 1908, she registered her own company “M. Bentz”, for the sale of coffee filters with the trade office in Dresden. Her starting capital was 72 Reichsmark cents. The company headquarters was a room in her apartment.

After contracting a tinsmith to manufacture the devices, they sold 1,200 coffee filters at the 1909 Leipzig fair.

Her husband Hugo and their sons Horst and Willi were the first employees of the emerging company.

melitta1In the 1930s, Melitta revised the original filter, tapering it into the shape of a cone and adding ribs. This created a larger filtration area, allowing for improved extraction of the ground coffee.

In 1936, the widely recognised cone-shaped filter paper that fits inside the tapered filter top was introduced and the brand continued to grow.

And the moral is innovation comes from seeing things differently. What could you use in a different way to create something completely new?

Stepping sinuously and gracefully from shipyard to playground and on to Hollywood

Stepping sinuously and gracefully from shipyard to playground and on to Hollywood


During World War Two, Richard James worked as a naval mechanical engineer at the William Cramp & Sons shipyards in Philadelphia. In 1943, he was working on a design for a special meter to monitor the horsepower output on naval battleships. One of the challenges he faced was to ensure that this sensitive instrument was supported and could be stabilised even in the roughest seas.
James was looking at how a variety of springs could be used to help when he accidentally knocked one of them off a shelf. He watched as the spring “stepped” in a series of arcs to a stack of books, to a tabletop, and then to the floor, where it re-coiled itself and stood upright. James felt a sense of slight disbelief but also had the inkling of an idea.
James’ wife, Betty, later recalled, “He came home and said, ‘I think if I got the right property of steel and the right tension, I could make it walk.'”
James started experimenting with different types of steel wire, and after about a year finally found a spring that he felt could “walk”.
Betty, who was dubious at first, changed her mind after this version was given to some neighbourhood children who loved their new toy. She decided it needed a name and after a few hours with her trusty dictionary came upon “Slinky”, meaning sinuous and graceful, which she felt described the sound and movement of the metal spring as it expanded and compressed.
The couple decided to take out a US$500 loan and formed James Industries (originally James Spring & Wire Company). They had 400 Slinky units made by a local machine shop, hand wrapping each in yellow paper, and pricing them at $1 apiece. Each was 2 ½ ” tall, and included 98 coils of high-grade blue-black Swedish steel.
Initially, toy stores were sceptical but, in November 1945, James was given permission to set up an inclined plane in the toy section of Gimbels department store in Philadelphia to demonstrate the toy.
Those first 400 units were sold within ninety minutes.
In 1946, Slinky was introduced at the American Toy Fair. Between then and 2005 over 300 million Slinkys have been sold, and the original Slinky is still a bestseller.

In 1952, the Slinky Dog debuted. Other Slinky toys introduced in the 1950s included the Slinky train Loco, the Slinky worm Suzie, and the Slinky Crazy Eyes, a pair of glasses that uses Slinkys over the eyeholes attached to plastic eyeballs. Of these, it is perhaps the Slinky Dog that is the most famous, having appeared in all The Toy Story movies.

And the moral is that the difference between seeing something and seeing what it could be is the difference between an experience and a brand opportunity. What have you seen recently that could be the basis for a brand?

Go on, annoy your customers, it’s good for business, it’s good for the world

Go on, annoy your customers, it’s good for business, it’s good for the world

Tony’s Chocolonely goes out of its way to annoy some of its customers.

Most chocolate bars are divisible into equal parts. People like the uniformity. It is easy to break off equal parts for yourself or to ensure everyone get the same sized piece when you’re sharing a bar with friends. Some people like the fact that they know how much an individual piece of chocolate will weigh.

Yet in 2012 Tony’s Chocolonely, a Dutch based chocolate company, deliberately introduced their unequally divided bar.

Not surprisingly they got comments and complaints but the unequally divided bar continues. Tony’s isn’t being different just for the sake of being different, they are doing it for a reason. A reason linked to the very heart of their brand.

Tony’s is a brand with a mission. 

As their website explains they are “crazy about chocolate, serious about people – A 100% slave-free chocolate industry – that’s our goal. It’s the reason we created Tony’s Chocolonely. And it’s our mission to make other people as passionate about 100% slave-free chocolate as we are.”

Set up by Maurice Dekker, a TV producer and originally fronted by journalist Teun van de Keuken, it was the brand that arose out of their campaigning programmes. Programmes that highlighted the continuing child exploitation and even slavery in the chocolate industry in West Africa.


The first bars were part of a programme storyline with van de Keuken following the whole supply chain from bean to bar to demonstrate that a slave free chocolate bar could be made. The first batch sold out within an hour of coming onto the market so Dekker decided to start a company.

The brand name combines the Anglicised version of “Tuen” – Tony and his “lonely” search for slave free chocolate.

Another difference is their use of colour. Dekker recalls “How was I to know that red is the code for pure chocolate and blue is for milk? I was ignorant of the whole industry and red to me is a colour to raise awareness, a signal. And that’s what the first Tony’s Chocolonely’s milk chocolate bar was about. Raising the signal, the red flag” 

The unequally divided bar comes from the same sort of thinking. It is unequally divided as it represents the unequally divided chocolate industry. In fact if you look closely at the design you can see the outlines of the chocolate producing nations of West Africa – Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo and Benin, Nigeria and Cameroon.

Tony’s aim was to make its customers stop and think about the chocolate they were eating and to remember the unequal distribution on the chocolate making supply chain.

They are still getting complaints but rather than change they are just happy that they have a valid excuse to tell their story again.

And the moral is that you can build your brand right into your products. How can your product or service tell your story for you?


Napoleon, two Scottish Ministers and the birth of the Insurance Funds industry.

Napoleon, two Scottish Ministers and the birth of the Insurance Funds industry.

Napoleon is credited with many achievements, but most lists don’t include his contribution to the foundation of one of Britain’s most famous financial brands. 

On their website, Scottish Widows traces its origins back to March 1812, when a number of prominent Scotsmen gathered in the Royal Exchange Coffee Rooms in Edinburgh. It was a turbulent time for the UK with not only the Napoleonic wars but with war against the USA looming on the horizon.

The historic meeting was held to discuss the setting up of ‘a general fund for securing provisions to widows, sisters and other female relatives’ so that they would not be plunged into poverty on the death of the fund holders during and after the Napoleonic Wars. 

The discussions and planning took some time and it wasn’t until 1815, the year of Napoleon’s ultimate defeat at Waterloo, that the Scottish Widows Fund and Life Assurance Society opened its doors as Scotland’s first mutual life office.

There is however a story behind the story and how in fact the origins of the brand, and indeed the industry, can be traced even further back in history to two Church of Scotland ministers, who actually deserve the credit for inventing the first true insurance fund way back in 1744.


Robert Wallace and his friend Alexander Webster were not only ministers  but also men of vision.

The two ministers were unhappy at the way the women and children of their fellow clergymen were often treated when the men of their households died. They were generally left at the mercy of the fellow ministers, and despite relying on Christian benefactors, were often left homeless and without any income.

Wallace and Webster came up with an ingenious plan to curtail this problem, now recognised as the first true insurance fund in history. They proposed that each of their church’s ministers would pay a small portion of his income into a fund, which would then invest the money. Then, if a minister died, his widow would receive dividends from the fund’s profits. This would allow her to live comfortably for the rest of her life.

The key question was how much each minister would have to pay in so that the fund would have enough money to deliver on its obligations. Webster and Wallace realised that they had to be able to predict how many ministers would die every year, how many widows and orphans would be left behind, and how many years the widows would live on for.

Recognising their own limitations, they contacted Colin Maclaurin who was a professor of mathematics from the University of Edinburgh.

The three of them collected data on the ages at which ministers had died and used it to calculate how many  were likely to pass away in any given year.

The calculations they made concluded that there would be 930 living Scottish Presbyterian ministers at any given time and that an average of twenty-seven ministers would die each year, eighteen of whom would leave widows. Five of those who did not leave widows would however leave orphaned children and two of those survived by widows would also be out-lived by children from previous marriages who had not yet reached the age of sixteen. 

They then further calculated how long there would be before those widows either died or remarried, as both eventualities caused payments to cease.

The final calculations suggested that by contributing £2. 12s. 2d. a year they would guarantee widows would receive £10 a year (a living income in those days). With additional contributions, a minister could guarantee his widow would receive a greater sum each year.

The bottom line on all their calculations was that by 1765 the Fund for a Provision for the Widows and Children of the Ministers of the Church of Scotland should have capital totalling £58,348.  

Records show that actually the capital in 1765 was £58,347, just £1 out.

Footnote: The famous caped Scottish Widow didn’t appear as the brand’s icon until 1986 when she made her debut in a television advert directed by David Bailey. The ‘living logo’ was created to be an icon that confronted all the negative values associated with the word ‘widow’ and presented the positive values – strength, reliability, integrity, innovation and heritage. Her impact was immediate, Scottish Widows became a household name and ‘awareness’ increased from 34% to 92%


No ordinary whisky, no ordinary name

No ordinary whisky, no ordinary name

Monkey Shoulder is not your ordinary whisky.

It is described as having a taste like “riding bareback on the wild moors of Scotland with a flame haired maiden on Christmas morning” or “007 wearing a tuxedo wetsuit”. (I must admit the first description had me desperately wanting to try it while the second nearly put me off) 

Launched in 2005, it was the idea of the then malt master, David Stewart, who wanted to create the first ‘triple’ malt whisky. He combined three different Speyside Single Malts – Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Kininvie to delicious effect.

The name which, at first sounds extraordinary, has roots thath are actually a bit more ordinary.


Monkey shoulder is a slang term for a physical condition that afflicted a number of maltmen who used to work long shifts, turning the barley by hand using large wooden shovels. The long and arduous work had a tendency to cause their lead arm to hang down a bit like a monkey’s and people would refer to it as monkey shoulder.

William Grant who own and produce the brand are proud to say that their maltmen are among the few who still turn the barley manually but not surprisingly are equally quick to say that working conditions have changed and shifts are shorter and less ardous so monkey shoulder is no longer a problem.

The name is meant as an affectionate tribute “to honour the hard graft of all maltmen past and present’ 


What do consumers know anyway?

What do consumers know anyway?

Kerstin Robinson and Julia Kessler are friends, founders and have fire in their bellies…well chilli, at least.

Their brand of soft drinks, NIX&KIX promises “A little heat & a lot of happiness” and the special ingredient in each one is a little cayenne chilli.

They tell their tale of the origins of NIX&KIX on their web-site.

“The NIX&KIX story began 12 years ago after a chance encounter on a flight to London, when we made the decision to relocate to the UK. Following this fortuitous meeting, we enjoyed a long stint in the corporate world, all while experiencing the London nightlife to the fullest.

The pivotal moment came when we both realised that we had reached a point at which nights out fuelled by Vodka Red Bulls would no longer do. Instead, we wanted to enjoy ourselves without necessarily drinking alcohol every time. Along with this realisation, we also noticed a change in our taste buds, as we started to find the soft drinks available either too sugary or bland. This led us to set up a lab at the back of a small shop in Shoreditch, where we began experimenting with different drink combinations, involving customers to the shop, as well as the owners and their extended families.

Our product range is centered around chilli, and with good reason. Chilli was the one ingredient that just about everyone gets incredibly excited about. Additionally, we managed to develop the drinks such that the flavour from the fruit comes through first, with the kick from the cayenne chilli only setting in after a couple of seconds. The end product is a one-of-a-kind flavour experience that you are quite unlikely to find elsewhere.”

I recently had the pleasure of sharing a stage with Kerstin when she was a panellist at The Value Engineers’ “Think Small” conference and I was MC. Asking her about the challenges of being a small brand, she told us about their early struggles and just how important it was that they stuck to their original aims.

 “If we’d asked consumers at the very start of the business ‘what do you want’, we would have probably ended up with another J2O or something like that just because the consumer only knows what they know. They cannot think beyond that. If they aren’t used to it, it doesn’t make sense for them. 

So at the beginning we had a lot of people saying ‘oh, these drinks, they are not sweet enough, we want them sweeter’ and had we done that we would have ended up with a completely different product and a completely different proposition. 

That’s exactly why it was so important to just go with our vision, and our vision was to create a product that was not as sweet and then add something else to make it exciting and let people try it. People would then understand what the product is and yes, it’s not for everyone but now we have a lot of people that love it and that’s what we are, that’s why we are doing it”

Whether she meant to or not what struck me was how closely what Kerstin said mirrored the famous Steve Jobs’ quote –“People don’t know what they want till you give it to them”.

Now it just remains to be seen if the pair can turn their vision into a really successful brand and prove once again that not all brands are consumer-led but can instead start with a vision or an idea.

Footnote : The drinks are pretty damn good too and I’m glad to say the fiery, founding friends haven’t given up on alcohol completely yet as they say on their website “While the drinks are best enjoyed cooled on their own with a wedge of lime, they are also very versatile and lend themselves easily as mixers with alcohol. Our favourite combinations include our Mango & Ginger with dark rum, Cucumber & Mint with gin and Peach & Vanilla with Bourbon.”


How a standard lamp inspired one of the fastest growing on-line fashion brands.

How a standard lamp inspired one of the fastest growing on-line fashion brands.

Inspiration, like fashion, comes in all shapes and sizes.

The inspiration for the hugely successful on-line fashion brand, ASOS, came from a standard lamp, or more specifically from the statistics about a particular standard lamp. Co-founder Nick Robertson remembers that he and his partner Quentin Griffiths “read a stat back in 1999 that when the programme Friends aired, NBC got 4,000 calls about some standard lamp in one of their apartments asking where it could be purchased. So that was the real idea behind the business”.

The reasoning behind the brand was a logical development from this; “Anything that gets exposure in a film or TV programme creates desire among the public, so we based the shop around that.” 

Their choice of brand name for their launch in June 2000 followed naturally – As Seen On Screen.

Initially the focus wasn’t just on fashion but that changed with one of their earliest hires, Lorri Penn, whom they headhunted from Arcadia – Sir Philip Green’s retail group, which includes Topshop and Dorothy Perkins. 


“It wasn’t until our first buyer came in, who was a fashion buyer, that we were pushed in that direction”, Nick says. “Fashion is where we got the most returns for the business. Rather than saying ‘here’s a standard top’, we could say ‘here’s a top that Jennifer Aniston wore in Friends’.”Penn argued that fashion was the way forward.

The founders agreed to back her judgement and focused in on fashion, moving As Seen On Screen from a website for all celebrity-linked products to fashion only.

Sales have grown from £250,000 to over £200m. From a handful of employees it now has over 1,000  and the range of products on its site, though all fashion related, still runs to over 35,000.

 Another change is that where once ASOS followed, now it leads. From merely replicating celebrity fashion, it has come so far that it is now helping set celebrity fashion trends. ASOS own-label creations are now worn by celebrities from Rihanna to Kate Hudson.