From the August 2001 issue of Startups

Increasing brand recognition is always a challenge for homebased entrepreneurs, especially if you're competing with larger, more established brands. Such is the case with Minneapolis-based Natural Splash Beverages. Over the next several months, we'll track the fledgling bottled water company's progress in three installments. This is the first; check back in November for part 2.

To call Natural Splash founder Rodney Davis persistent is like calling Bea Arthur unfeminine. Definitely true, but grossly understated. "Possessed" is probably the right word for Davis. He trademarked the Natural Splash name nine years ago, but he didn't incorporate the company until 1999. During that time, he peddled Natural Splash as a lemonade, limeade, strawberry lemonade and raspberry limeade. All the ideas spoiled. Literally. "It was supposed to be refrigerated continuously, and it only had a 90-day shelf life," says Davis. "It would get to stores and sit on the floor of their cooler because it wasn't getting put on the shelf. After 90 days, it spoiled, and I lost my tail, big-time. I basically shut down the brand for a couple years."

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But Natural Splash is back, and this time Davis is sticking to something that can't go bad: bottled water. Slowly but surely, the company is gaining recognition in the Midwest through Davis' aggressive brand promotion. In late June, he sponsored a dunk booth and wet T-shirt contest in Minneapolis, where Natural Splash was the exclusive water brand at a festival with more than 160,000 attendees. Davis also just finished a "buy two cases, get one free" promotion for distributors that had him moving more cases of water than ever before. "Things are clipping along," he says. "Along with these promotions, I got a new label and added a couple package sizes this spring."

The label won a bronze medal for product branding in last year's Beverage Packaging Global Design Awards, and Davis projects sales of about $250,000 for 2001, up from $35,000 in 2000. The downside, however, is that the promotions will keep the company from turning a profit until next year. But without promotions, Natural Splash wouldn't make even a ripple in the bottled water market. "I have to do promotions," says Davis. "Without them, people aren't going to know the brand."