I’m on a call with two veterans, Brandon Friedman and Nick Palmisciano. Both men served in the infantry. Both men have stories for days about deserts and jungles and larger than life moments. When you’re in a room with two rough and tumble characters like these guys, there’s really only one thing to talk about: artisanal tea.
Brandon Friedman is the CEO of Rakkasan Tea Company. He founded the company with Terrence Kamauf, who served with Friedman in Iraq and then went on to serve as a Green Beret, four years ago. Their mission: to bring economic opportunity to post-conflict countries by importing small batch teas from recently war-stricken countries around the world.
The two men have worked tirelessly to build Rakkasan. Their logo is an homage to the Rakkasans from the 101st Airborne Division. Their website is impeccable. Their verbiage is carefully crafted. Their tea is unique and delicious. They’ve spent an inordinate amount of time getting all of the little things right to give their customers a phenomenal experience.
And it’s worked. Over four years, the two veterans have built a loyal customer base. A total of 72 percent of Rakkasan customers come back! But acquiring customers has not been easy. Nevertheless, they had an exceptional holiday in 2019, and things were moving in the right direction. Rakkasan was poised to go from a part-time business running from a 300 square foot office to what the two men imagined it could be. Then the pandemic hit.
“I’ll never forget March 11, 2020,” says Friedman. “That’s the day everything went crazy. Our sales plunged. We had just ordered thousands of dollars in tea, but our sales crawled. I thought we were done for. Everywhere there were stories of businesses failing. It was a crushing moment.”
But Friedman and Kamauf, true to their military roots, were not going to quit. They applied for an SBA loan and dove into the PPP process. “Everything was really bleak and then all at once, we were fortunate enough to receive both an SBA loan and the PPP loan. We felt like we had an opportunity. With everyone shopping from home, we knew to survive we needed to bring in new customers in a creative way. We wanted to bring in some marketing experts, but had hired agencies before to no avail,” explains Friedman.
Enter Nick Palmisciano, CEO of Diesel Jack Media, a boutique marketing agency born out of the pandemic. Palmisciano has spent the last decade and change running Ranger Up, the first military lifestyle brand, and making Hollywood films like Range 15, a zombie comedy that was the first independent film ever to hit No. 1 on Amazon. On Feb. 17, 2020, he founded Diesel Jack Media with the simple mantra, We Don’t Suck at Marketing. “I knew Brandon from Twitter and we had exchanged conversations about entrepreneurship a few times. He reached out to me and asked if we could work with a tea company. I told him absolutely, and immediately inquired as to how crazy could we go with the marketing?”
There were two really problems for Rakkasan Tea Company. The obvious one was the pandemic. The second, and more meaningful one, was tea marketing tends to be pretty damn boring. “Immediately, I wanted to do something completely different,” says Palmisciano. “I’m looking at these guys. Both of these guys led men in some pretty bad places. Brandon literally has a story of getting into a gunfight as he was trying to leave Iraq for terminal leave. He had to fight his way out of the military! And their marketing was interchangeable with any other tea company’s marketing. Beautiful pictures of tea. Images of people picking tea. Lush trees. Hands holding tea. It just didn’t fit.”
Friedman notes, “We knew tea was more than British ladies with big hats and pinkie fingers in the air. My introduction to tea in any meaningful way was drinking tea with warriors and elders while deployed. Tea is the most popular beverage in the world behind water. But in America, it has a soft reputation. We just weren’t sure how to solve that.”
“The first thing we wanted to do was to redefine what it meant to drink Rakkassan Tea,” explains Palmisciano. “I’ve been to 51 countries. In every single one, but America, the toughest men and women there are tea drinkers! So we started with a campaign highlighting warriors throughout history that drank tea – Genghis Khan, Miyamoto Musashi, the Tru’ng Sisters and so forth. We hand illustrated the ads so they were unique and married them to the phenomenal branding that Brandon and Terrence had already crafted.
After that, we wanted to attack the root cause of why Americans, and American men in particular, tend to eschew tea like The Boston Tea Party. People forget that this country of coffee drinkers loved tea until that moment. So, we created a tongue-in-cheek video (see the video at the end of the article) that had Sam Adams squirreling away some Rakkasan Tea because he couldn’t bring himself to throw it in the harbor.
Next, we took a look at which teas were selling best. The Mughal Horseman’s tea was dominating the other teas. Why? The name was cool. So, we started renaming teas to really cool names tied to that region’s history, and building video snippets around some of them to see how people reacted to the story behind each tea.”
Friedman cuts right to the chase. “They [Diesel Jack Media] tripled our best month’s sales in the first six to eight weeks,” he says. “In the last 30 days, we’ve more than quintupled our pre-pandemic average month, and we’re hunting for 6x this month. We moved from a 300 square foot facility that we shared in the back of another business to our own 2,100 square foot building with its own storefront, and we just hired our first employee – Lance, another veteran from the Rakkasans.”
Palmisciano’s reaction? There’s more to do. “Brandon and Terrence came to us in a very dark moment,” he says. “They literally used their SBA loan to hire us and run the ads we made for them. They offered us a tremendous amount of trust and we took that very seriously. I’ve been in tight spots with my own businesses. I’ve needed that ‘hail Mary’ pass to make it through. We had to come through for these guys. They’ve put in so much work. They have such a clear brand vision. We needed to elevate that vision for them. They’ve hired their first employee. I’d like to see them needing four or five by Christmas.”
Friedman chuckles while he discusses Rakkasan’s success. “We have such a unique tea company and such a cool mission – to help the tea farmers of post-conflict countries succeed, and we weren’t telling that story,” he says. “Traditional Teas can keep using traditional marketing. But traditional marketing doesn’t give people a reason to fall in love with your tea. Customers want humor. They want irreverence. They want genuine messaging, and they want self-awareness from brands. The more we were ourselves, the better we did. So, we’re going to keep doing that, in the most honest and fun manner possible.”