In the mid-’90s, seemingly everyone — Generation X’ers, sugar-lusting future millennials, and burned out ex-hippies — was clutching a glass bottle of Snapple. An iced tea and juice drink made up of (among other things) filtered water, sugar, citric acid, and fruit and/or vegetable concentrate, Snapple became more than a sum of its parts, it was something different: a sweet, refreshing drink that wasn’t as flashy as Coke, as wasteful as bottled water, or as snarky as the “Got Milk?” ads.
Rewind to 1978. Annie Hall won the Oscar, the Bee Gees were at the top of the charts, and the “childhood think-tank troika” of Leonard Marsh, Hyman Golden, and Arnold Greenberg accidentally fermented a batch of carbonated apple juice. Merging the names “snappy” and “apple” produced a name that the three men agreed on: Snapple. The brand made a name for itself through clever marketing, including the now infamous tagline that suggests Snapple-branded iced tea and juice is made from “the best stuff on Earth.”
While it would take years of trial and error to find their niche in the world of ready-to-drink beverages — which would eventually lead to an $18.7 billion deal and help make the seventh-largest food and drink company in the U.S. — Marsh, Golden, and Greenberg ultimately created a brand with wide appeal. Snapple gained traction in 1987 from the production of its ready-to-drink iced tea, but it wouldn’t be until an ad campaign starring a vivacious — albeit highly unorthodox — customer service representative named Wendy that the bottled drink would take on a life of its own.
In the late ’80s and early 1990s, the grip of Big Soda tightened its carbonated fingers across America: Pepsi had Michael Jackson, and Coke ditched New Coke and reintroduced its beloved original formula under the name “Coca-Cola Classic.” But arriving to take a bite out of that market share was author, entrepreneur, and advertising executive Jon Bond and Wendy Kaufman, who would soon become a pop culture icon better known as “Wendy the Snapple Lady.”
“I’m part of their history,” Kaufman says. For those who don’t remember the brilliant “Snapple Lady” ads that aired from the early to mid-’90s, the gist was Kaufman — who got the gig because Snapple co-founder Greenberg is the father of “one of my dearest friends in the whole wide world” — would read genuine letters from Snapple customers and answer them on air.
One such commercial featured a letter about a dog named Shane who would come running any time a Snapple bottle opened. Wendy and the Snapple team actually went to this fan’s house and recorded Shane’s reaction to a bottle opening. In another commercial, former mayor of New York City Ed Koch was sent to a fan’s house in Kentucky after a letter claimed that Snapple was “perhaps the only good thing to come out of New York” to “set him straight.”
There were 37 “Snapple Lady” commercials created over a three-year period, beginning with a run of 12 in 1993, 12 in 1994, and 13 in 1995. The ads were a dose of TV reality and everyday humor infused with Americana. And that was exactly what Snapple wanted its brand to feel like: real and sweet.
“Our ad agency’s plan was to make it look like Snapple had no ad agency,” says Bond, co-founder of Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners. “It was way ahead of its time. When we proposed Wendy as the spokesperson… [Snapple] wanted supermodels. We said, ‘Look, the average woman in America is a size 12.’ You had Roseanne Barr and Oprah as the most popular celebrities and they were overweight. It was America.”
Beginning her career with the brand in Snapple’s shipping department, Kaufman dove head-first into the beverage business and learned everything there was to know about selling drinks. A year or so later, in 1992, Kaufman began to notice the number of fan letters that would stack up in the company’s mailroom.
“I wrote one fan letter to Greg Brady — Barry Williams — when I was a kid,” recounts Kaufman. “So, when I started to get the mail at Snapple and thought back to writing a fan letter that I never got a reply to, I could sympathize. I cared about people. I was not an actress. I just loved them.”
So, Kaufman did the only thing that made sense to her at the time: She went to the founders and asked if she could write those fans back. “People were really writing personal letters, and I didn’t think it was right to be sending back form letters,” she says. “I ended up leaving the audit department because that became a full time job in itself… [not just] handling the mail to Snapple, but also dealing with customer relations, and corporate sponsorship, and community service stuff.”
At one point, Snapple had six full-time staffers reading letters and inputting the information (type, theme, location) into a massive database. When the company needed a letter to correlate with something like a new flavor launch, they would simply scan the database for the appropriate letter. Through all of this, there was never any sort of official outreach for letters — every last one came from genuine fans with genuine questions.
Kaufman speaks openly in public about her past drug addiction, and cites it as one of the reasons she took to her new job of writing back to fans, and showing empathy for their concerns. Kaufman’s affair with cocaine began in 1980 and didn’t let up until she landed her job at Snapple in 1991. “I had just come through 10 months of therapy where I really was having problems coming to terms with why I was a drug addict,” she says. “I’m intuitive in a way; people would tell me everything and share everything with me and could just easily open up. I was just real.”
It was that realness that hooked viewers and led them to believe that Snapple wasn’t like Coke or Pepsi or Gatorade — they didn’t need to hire Cindy Crawford or Michael Jackson to impress fans. “We were operating on instinct,” says Jude Hammerle, who was a senior copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather when Snapple approached the agency for help. “There are no rules for emerging brands, all we knew was that cola was the enemy and we were going to be the alternative.” Hammerle, along with Jon Bond at Kirshenbaum & Bond (which has since become Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners), leaned not only on Wendy, but on Snapple’s unique “personality” as a way to sway heavy cola drinks.
“Our target audience was everyone with a mouth,” says Hammerle, who left Ogilvy & Mather in 1992 and joined Snapple as its VP of advertising and promotion. “In 1993, there was no difference between Coke drinkers and Snapple drinkers. None. Crazy bottle, crazy label, wide mouth… Snapple was sitting right there as the alternative.” The strategy worked: Snapple’s sales jumped from $232 million in 1992 to $674 million in 1994.
To this day, Hammerle still believes in two kinds of consumer statements: conformist statements and rebel statements. “The mouse can’t kill the elephant,” says Hammerle, referring to Snapple’s fight against Cola, “but the elephant can’t kill the mouse, either.” The team leaned on Snapple’s alternative look and “natural” appeal as a way to speak to the rebels: After all, it was made from “the best stuff on earth.” That tagline stuck despite the fact that Snapple often contains just as much sugar as a regular soda — 52 grams of sugar in a 16-ounce container of Coke verses 45 grams of sugar in a 16-ounce Kiwi Strawberry Snapple. And while many drinkers may have equated tea with “healthy,” the ingredients list of Snapple’s lemon iced tea features filtered water, sugar, citric acid, and natural flavors along with tea.
“That was the one part we kept,” laughs Bond of the “best stuff” tagline. “The guys who made Snapple said it was made from the best stuff on earth and we loved that.” Bond thinks the tagline — alongside Wendy — gave Snapple a down-to-earth feel.
In 1994, Quaker Oats purchased Snapple for a whopping $1.7 billion, which some analysts considered too generous an offer. In 1997, Triarc Companies purchased the brand for $300 million, $1.4 billion less than Quaker’s investment: As the New York Times reported, that represented “a loss of $2 million for each day Quaker owned Snapple,” not to mention that “Quaker’s ill-fated plunge into the new age beverage business also cost the company a combined $160 million in operating losses in 1995 and 1996.” In 2000, Snapple was acquired by Cadbury Schweppes; it’s now part of the Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc. According to the company’s 2017 annual report, Snapple is still the “#2 premium shelf-stable ready-to-drink tea in the U.S.” (The educational facts found on the underside of each Snapple cap started in 2002, and quickly added to the brand’s buzz.)
Kaufman’s commercial reign officially ended after Quaker Oats bought the company, but her love for her fans hasn’t waned over the last two decades — and they haven’t stopped writing to her. In early 2018, when the Keurig takeover of Dr Pepper Snapple was announced, fans of the drink didn’t seem to react much — until those famous glass Snapple bottles were scrapped in lieu of plastic.
“I got an enormous amount of mail on Facebook about it,” laughs Kaufman. “I feel like all those bottles are my children. I gave birth to them in a way. So, I called up customer service, because I don’t know anybody over there any more and I said, ‘Listen, my name is Wendy and I used to be the spokesman for the company.’ I think that they thought it was a prank call. But that’s the difference between me and Snapple now. We started as a $23 million business when my campaign started and we finished at $750 million bucks. That speaks to something.”
Despite the angry letters and feelings of abandonment by plastic-hating juice lovers, Snapple survived cutting off ties with Kaufman. Today, the company is navigating through a society that reads every ingredient label, and is extra vigilant about the amount of sugar it consumes.
So, does the company still keep it real like it did in the ’90s? Between 2016 and 2017, Dr Pepper Snapple reported a 3-percent decline in sales of Snapple products.. Recently, the brand partnered with Deutsch LA and released a “Sunburn Mango Tea” commercial that borders on the type of absurdist humor that put them on the map: The main difference is that they swapped Wendy for a guy with a mango head. With companies like Mike’s Hard Lemonade releasing weird, supposedly millennial-friendly commercials like “Office Party,” it’s obvious that the kids have grown up.
Still, with ’90s nostalgia bringing back TV shows like Will and Grace and the short-lived Roseanne reboot, it’s easy to see the inherent value in Wendy Kaufman. “I could do nothing but help them,” Kaufman says of the idea of bringing back Wendy the Snapple Lady. “I’m still loyal to them and I would love to be of service. I feel in a way that it’s still my family and I have nothing bad to say about them. It’s my history and it brings up so many great things for me to me. I’m their history.”
Jeremy Glass is a Brooklyn-based human dabbling in advertising, branded content, creative strategy, and so much more.
Fact checked by Dawn Mobley
Editor: Erin DeJesus