retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

The folks at Death Wish Coffee can thank its die-hard fans for catapulting the small upstate New York start-up onto the world’s biggest stage – a 30-second commercial on Sunday’s Super Bowl telecast.

“WE WON! WE WON!” trumpeted the announcement that Death Wish had annihilated 15,000 other small business challengers in a competition hosted by the software maker Intuit.

For Mike Brown, who created the ultra-caffeinated coffee with the black skull-and-bones label in 2012, winning the free commercial valued at a cool $5 million “is beyond our wildest dreams.”

Death Wish currently sells about 1,000 pounds a day of “the world’s strongest coffee” at $20 per pound through its website, Amazon and in grocers near its headquarters in Round Lake, NY. The business plan calls for it to expand nationally through major retailers, and is already reportedly in talks with Target.

Starbucks need not be worried; Death Wish coffee shops are not on the agenda.

Brown and his team of 12 are anticipating a huge jump in sales once the Super Bowl’s 100-million plus viewers see the “Storm’s a-Brewin’ “ ad, which, as you can see above, opens with a fierce Viking ship captain exhorting his men to row through a raging storm. (You can watch the commercial above.)

Intuit, sensing an opportunity, debuted the QuickBooks Small Business Big Game challenge last year. Goldieblox, a toymaker for girls, won the coveted 2015 free ad slot, and saw traffic to its website increase within seconds and sales skyrocket after the exposure.

This year's contest drew 15,000 small biz entrants, and an Intuit panel narrowed the field to 10 based on the owners' passion, authenticity, and other "entrepreneurial benchmarks.”

Enter Mike Brown, whose dawn patrol Saratoga Coffee Shop customers urged him to create a high-octane java to get them through their day. He tested a variety of beans and roasting methods, and with customer approval, began bagging Death Wish Coffee beans in his mother’s basement. Using robusta beans, instead of the arabica beans found in most coffee, Death Wish says its brew contains 200% more caffeine than the average cup of joe. (The Content Guy and I tried Death Wish yesterday. We found it to be a smooth, dark roast that perhaps was stronger than Starbucks ... but it wasn't like it gave us the shakes or had a discernible impact.)

Informed that Death Wish had made the contest’s Top Ten in October, Brown turned to his cult-like followers on Twitter and Facebook for support and they rallied thousands of winning votes. This post from this Death Wish aficionado is typical:


The lesson here is clear – Death Wish Coffee’s success transcends its coffee bean/roasting formula. With its edgy humor, clever and packaging and merchandise and killer social media savvy, Mike Brown and his team have fomented a fervent fan base. Some have even posted Instagram photos of their Death Wish Coffee tattoos.

And here’s where the Amazon effect allows small businesses and startups such as Death Wish become disrupters through an international online presence and next day delivery, as well as availability through Amazon's Subscribe-and-Save service.

Appropriately, Mike Brown had creative input into the commercial, which he thinks will be rated as “epic” in real-time online reviews and around the nation’s water-coolers on Monday morning. He and a few of his co-workers will be watching the telecast in San Francisco with the team from Intuit and its creative agency.

And the operation in Round Lake is primed for Monday. “We’re already getting a taste of what’s to come and ramping up inventory,” spokeswoman Thea Teriele said yesterday. “We’re ready. It’s chaos, but organized chaos here.”

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