Before the dawn of New Age beverages, the blended juice brand began serving up sophisticated flavors like White Grape Raspberry in oversize aseptic packages to adults.
But what was most memorable was probably the brand's commercials, showcasing angst-filled comedian Richard Lewis.
Now the forgotten brand is back. The new audience is teens, and BoKu is relaunching with a new approach to marketing. Though he has only been with the Oak Brook, Ill., company for a year, CEO-President Peter Reijula knows all too well why BoKu bombed after flirting with popularity at the turn of the decade.
"Ultimately, the market we were accessing with BoKu has become a great market," he said. "The idea was good but it wasn't executed in the right format. If we had introduced it differently, it would have been a forerunner to what Snapple is today."
BoKu began by crafting a unique niche for itself, as an adult-targeted beverage that also fit into the kid-dominated aseptic fruit drink boxes segment, now estimated at $220.7 million in supermarket sales by Nielsen North America. But BoKu is also a New Age beverage, a segment that today accounts for $14.2 million in sales.
BoKu Fruit Juice Coolers bowed in November 1989 in a 12-ounce size. Until then, McCain Citrus was a private-label frozen concentrate manufacturer whose parent company, McCain USA, had a high profile in Canada as a maker of french fries and pizza.
The brand name sprang from a few sessions with first agency of record Noble & Associates, Springfield, Mass. The company is mum on why it chose that moniker, a cutesy spelling of the French word for "very much."
"The name `BoKu' didn't have total support because it didn't say `McCain,"' said Bret Jenkin, product manager. "BoKu broke the mold."
Originally launched in the Midwest, BoKu's seven flavors eventually made their way to Eastern supermarkets, residing among aseptic, shelf-stable juices from Ocean Spray Cranberries and Coca-Cola Co.'s Minute Maid and Hi-C brands. BoKu has never been distributed in more than 40% of the country.
What made BoKu stand out was its positioning toward adults. But as BoKu would learn, appropriating a fixture of the elementary school set for adults was a mistake.
"The rationale was that as kids would grow older, they would require a bigger package. At the same time, they were already accustomed to aseptic packaging," Mr. Jenkin said.
"Aseptic packaging has all kinds of kid connotations. A beverage like that has to have a more convenient package, like the wide-mouth bottle," said John Clevenger, senior consultant at Meridian Consulting Group, Westport, Conn.
McCain Citrus, then headed by President-CEO Michael McCain, wasn't happy with initial sales figures. MTV-style TV spots were blamed and scrapped.
Enter Richard Lewis, then at the height of his celebrity. Noble started producing spots featuring Mr. Lewis in 1991, with a tagline of "Flavors just slightly over the edge." Sales surged to $14 million, up 90% from the year before while consumer awareness reached 90%.
Looking to capitalize on the brand's boost, McCain signed Mr. Lewis to a three-year contract and began rolling out a 46-ounce multiserve version of BoKu in 1992, this time in glass bottles.
Volume continued to rise until mid-1993, when BoKu's share of the aseptic market was suddenly reduced to almost nothing in the wake of an agency change and new flavors and line extensions that floundered.
When McCain wanted Noble to start work on new-product development, the agency resigned. Arian, Lowe, Travis & Gusick, Chicago, was brought in to create more spots featuring Mr. Lewis, but McCain felt BoKu had hit a creative wall with the comedian.
Mr. Lewis and BoKu parted ways in mid-1993.
Four out of the seven flavors in the line had already been practically discontinued. A new line extension of two ice teas and two lemonades called Anytime Coolers replaced them in early '93, but they faded away fast, too.
BoKu Melonge, a premium, lightly carbonated watermelon flavor developed to meet the burgeoning New Age market, was the pits; the 11-ounce glass bottle cost the same as a regular 16-ounce BoKu. Melonge malfunctioned in test markets. When the $3 million campaign backing the launch stalled, Arian Lowe was let go in late 1993, leaving BoKu without an agency for some time.
In the supermarkets, the 16-ounce juice was being ground to a pulp by competition from adult-targeted Ocean Spray's Refresher and Tropicana Products' Tropicana Twister. Prices started dropping and trade dollars went up, and BoKu couldn't keep pace.
McCain Citrus, then under the direction of President-CEO Richard Lan, regrouped to investigate what had gone wrong. One-on-one interviews with consumers were conducted. McCain didn't like what it found out. While the company was unleashing Mr. Lewis in frenetic commercials, consumers preferred to think of BoKu as a more relaxing drink. The packaging also didn't jibe with marketing of the product.
So McCain did its homework and now BoKu is back, in what the company is touting as a new and improved version. The packaging was redesigned, enlarging the name and flavor on a black background, including a "pour and peel" message to let consumers know it's all right to drink right out of the box. The flavor lineup is now at 10, with four watermelon variations added.
In September 1994, the company assigned the account to Lois/USA, Chicago. The current $2 million "Mouth voodoo" campaign is smaller in scale than previous efforts; billings with Mr. Lewis hit $15 million. McCain wants to capture the exotic and tropical nature of the brand, not to mention a different audience: teens.
"BoKu is improving now that we have repositioned the brand to a younger audience," said Mr. Reijula, citing a 4% boost in volume from last year.