Commentary

Snapple Co-Founder And Taste Arbiter, Dies At 80

If the secret sauce in Snapple’s decades-long overnight success story was “quirky marketing and bold flavors,” as the Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Miller puts it, its saucier was Leonard Marsh, who died Tuesday at 80. Marsh teamed with Hyman Golden, his brother-in-law and partner in an office-cleaning business, and with a childhood friend, Arnold Greenberg, who operated a health food store in the Manhattan’s East Village, to form what became Snapple in 1972. 

Marsh apparently had Everyman’s tastebuds and a flair for sticky names. He “was the company's most prescient taster of new products and he favored goofy names like Mango Madness and Guava Mania,” Miller writes. “Lenny would say, ‘If we like it, they'll like it,’” Wendy Kaufman, the “Snapple Lady” who starred in commercials for the company in the ’90s, tells Miller. “We don't need a focus group. We are a focus group.’”

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“They used to sit in their office with chemists, and they would have concentrates all over the table as they did taste tests,” Golden’s daughter, Sharon, told the New York Times’ Anahad O’Connor for his obit in 2008. “It wasn’t even work to them. It was total enjoyment and they just loved what they were doing. They had a ball with it.”

The company was sold to Quaker Oats for $1.7 billion in 1993, then resold to Triarc 27 months later for a measly $300 million.

“The swiftness with which Quaker's Snapple investment eroded will make this deal a special case study of mismanagement for a generation of business students,” the Los Angeles Times’ James F. Peltz wrote at the time. Triarc sold it to Cadbury Schweppes for $1.45 billion in September 2000; it was spun off to Dr Pepper Snapple Group in May 2008, according to Wikipedia.

Marsh was born and raised in Brooklyn, where his father was a cobbler, and graduated from Samuel J. Tilden High School. He later washed windows and sold chickens and eggs. Writes the New York Times’ Margalit Fox: “When it came to his start-up venture, as he told Crain’s New York Business in 1989, he knew “as much about juice as about making an atom bomb.”

Even after starting the Unadulterated Food Products in 1972, the three partners continued their day jobs until the company proved viable. Its big bang was an early-’80s concoction made from carbonated apple juice that the partners dubbed Snapple -– a jaunty name that was later appropriated by the company itself, along with the famous “Made from the best stuff on Earth” tagline.

“When it first came out,” Greenberg told The New York Times in July 1994 in a story quoted by Fox in his obit last year, “we sold 500 cases. The next month we sold 500 more cases and got some calls from distributors. ‘You’ve changed your formula,’ they said. ‘This Snapple’s tasting better and better.’ Then one day in our warehouse the tops of the bottles started shooting off. Bang! Pop! We found out it was fermenting. We’d made Champagne.”

The brash ad executives behind the breakthrough ads for the brand, Richard Kirshenbaum and Jonathan Bond, launched a $30-million national campaign in April 1993 in which Wendy, a real Snapple employee, read “real mail from real people.”

“In one ad, one of these ‘real people’ was strapped to a lie detector and queried, ‘Were you lying when you wrote to Snapple?’ A retired Kentucky colonel who wrote that Snapple was the ‘only good thing’ to come out of New York was paired with former Mayor Edward Koch, who tried vainly to convince him there were other good things about the city,” recounts a history of Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners on Funding Universe.

“How Leonard Marsh and his partners created Snapple will be studied in business schools for generations, and we’re fortunate to benefit from his wealth of knowledge in growing a national company,” Steven M. Fassberg, president and CEO of The Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co. said in announcing that Marsh had joined its advisory board in 2011. “The parallels between what Marsh accomplished and our goals include a focus on offering great-tasting, innovative products and service that’s unique in the marketplace at a price people can afford.”

And for all intensive purposes, as they say in Brooklyn, with a panache and Horatio Alger chutzpah that everyone can relate to.

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