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Has Jamba Juice's Controversial Ad Just Pureed Its Billion-Dollar Dreams? [UPDATE]

Smoothie operator Jamba Juice finds itself in the social-media whirl for an ad that reputedly rips off a popular comic strip. Exclusive interviews with Jamba CEO James White and cartoonist David Rees.

james white jamba juiceWhen James White, the still new CEO of Jamba Juice, stopped by our offices a few weeks ago, we'll admit we were excited. Who hasn't been occasionally seduced by the charms of its Pomegranate Pick-Me-Up (Jamba's signature blend of strawberries, blueberries, pomegranate juice, and raspberry sorbet)? White came by to explain to Fast Company his strategy to turn Jamba Juice into the next billion-dollar brand and potential Starbucks slayer.

Given the whirl of controversy online about Jamba's new ad campaign being a ripoff of the work of cult cartoonist David Rees' Get Your War On series, White appears to have forgotten the first rule of holes: When you're in one, stop digging. Since going public in 2006, Jamba expanded too rapidly and in the wrong locations. It had pulled back on local marketing when its competitors—such as Starbucks and Smoothie King—were growing. And last year, for the first time in the chain's history, same-store sales were down 8.1%. Its stock price, which closed yesterday at $1.10, is so anemic that it could use an immunity boost. White was brought in from Safeway to turn around the $343 million smoothie maven.

jamba juice ad comparison

"People know us and people like us," White explained during his visit. "But in this day and age," when customers can buy sandwiches at Starbucks and smoothies at Whole Foods, "they want more than frozen-fruit drinks." Like authenticity.

White's strategy hinges on attracting more college-age and tech-savvy customers. His store-expansion plans include opening more Jamba stores inside malls ("where it's 70 degrees all year round") and on college campuses ("College kids like us"). He cited Jamba doubling the number of its Facebook fans on the group it runs—it now stands at more than 200,000 strong. Maybe White could tweak his plans to target customers who don't use the Internet?

jamba juice storeThe controversy first began bubbling up last Thursday when Rees read a fan letter alerting him to the ad, confused because the style so clearly evinced his GYWO strips."I like to think of it in terms of hip-hop," Rees said when we reached him this afternoon. "Jamba Juice bit my style, with no credit, and it's kind of disrespectful."

Rees responded, satirically calling for a "National Day of Prayer." Fans such as The Daily Show resident expert John Hodgman picked up the cause over the weekend, tweeting about the suspected appropriation—"ACTUAL NON JOKE RT ABOUT SOMETHING THAT ENRAGES ME @JamesUrbaniak Blog post on l'affaire Jamba: http://tinyurl.com/ldpo9t #jambajuicefail"—and having some fun with Jamba's ad agency Neighbor whose marketing materials express "We are all neighbors. It's time for us to be the best neighbor we can be. Let's do unto others. Let's clean up after ourselves." If you're scoring at home, Neighbor would be 0 for 4 in its mission statement. Rees would like to feel neighborly about this, but he can't deny the potential harm to his reputation. "I don't want to sound like a grumpy, old egomaniac," he says. "But I don't want people to think I was commissioned by Jamba Juice to make a lame Internet ad about their lame juice. That makes me sound like a sellout, and I'm not."

Thus far, Jamba hasn't responded to the controversy on its Web site or Facebook page (a few individual stores have Twitter accounts, but there is no national Jamba tweetstream), which has now been picked up by Consumerist, BoingBoing, and others. UPDATE: Kim Larson, Jamba's VP of marketing, just sent us a statement, calling the indicent a "misunderstanding." Full text following this article.

Jamba juice fruit and cupIt's hard to see how Jamba is going to execute its strategy to become more a part of its customers' lives when it can't handle an online viral ad. Jamba wants to use its new locations and loyal fans to transform Jamba into a breakfast and lunch destination. Earlier this year, White launched oatmeal for breakfast, and just last month, he started testing lunch—salads, sandwiches, and pizza-type "California Flatbreads." "Previously, Jamba food was more of a hobby," White says of the soft pretzels and baked goods that made up the menu before his makeover. "We want people to have a passion for it."

White has also struck deals with several manufacturers, such as Think WOW Toys and Oregon Ice Cream Co., to start producing Jamba yogurt, Jamba sorbet, Jamba frozen smoothie bars, Jamba breakfast and snack bars, Jamba blenders, and Jamba packaged boosts that will be sold in higher-end retailers, such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. "We see this as a billion-dollar opportunity," White says. Hey, what could go wrong?

Here's the thing, Mr. White: It's easy to talk about passion and dream of turning a simple juiceteria into a player with the likes of Dunkin Donuts, Panera Bread, and Starbucks. It's another thing to live it. David Rees is not likely to topple your company and its grand plans, as he joked on his blog: "All I care about is destroying Jamba Juice and their overpriced dumb-ass juices. EAT A PIECE OF FRUIT, you morons, you're missing most of the fiber." But the Internet and Web 2.0 are very much about who gets it and who doesn't. And billion-dollar brands don't seemingly go out of their way to alienate the very audience they're targeting.

Jamba's response, via Kim Larson, VP of marketing:

"In the spirit of promoting Jamba's message of summer bliss we specifically chose Tom Tierney-created clip art images to illustrate the state of office bliss-less-ness we were hoping to alleviate through our products. The Summer Bliss campaign has been running since May 25th using these stylized images to promote a light-hearted message of summer fun."

"We understand there has been misunderstanding about the Summer Bliss campaign artwork and the comic strip created by David Rees due to the use of these clip art images. Jamba Juice would like to expressly communicate that the Summer Bliss promotion was not intended to imply any affiliation with Mr. Rees, Mr. Rees' endorsement of Jamba Juice and its products, or Jamba Juice's endorsement of Mr. Rees' work."

[Jamba Juice Store Photo: Lee Brimelow | CC BY 2.0]

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