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In a classic TV spot, David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox and Brian Urlacher of the Chicago Bears play a badminton game that ends with a shuttlecock lodged in an opponent’s leg. Tagline: “Vitaminwater! Try it!” Sure, they looked silly — as did Shaquille O’Neal, in the same campaign, clowning as a Kentucky Derby jockey — but the jocks, recruited by Vitaminwater’s then-marketing head Rohan Oza, were in on the joke as equity partners when parent company Glaceau sold the brand to Coca-Cola for $4.1 billion. Oza also added Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and 50 Cent (who, before filing for bankruptcy protection July 13, reportedly made some $100 million on the deal).
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ James, who backed Vitaminwater.
“Most of the time when you sign with companies, you don’t have a say in how you do things,” says Urlacher. “With this, you have creative input.” Adds Ortiz: “Now, I only do deals with products I love, people I like and always look to be an owner or investor if possible.
Ortiz, of the Boston Red Sox, another Vitaminwater investor.
Oza, 42 and running his own venture firm, Idea Merchants Capital, specializes in turning A-list athletes and actors into equity players — who net seven- to- eight-figure paydays if and when the investments succeed — for what he terms the “better-for-you brands.” That includes, he tells THR, a new deal that makes Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers an investor for Chef’s Cut Real Jerky. In an era when stars and their management teams ceaselessly talk of building personal brands, the behind-the-scenes Oza mints fortunes by aligning commodities with them.
Green Bay’s Rodgers, who recently got behind Chef’s Cut Real Jerky.
“He’s a wildly creative brand-builder,” says CAA commercial endorsement agent Christian Carino, who has worked on several projects with Oza — their latest effort is WTRMLN WTR.
While at Coke as a top marketing executive (he worked with Bryant and Tim Duncan at Sprite), Oza made his name when he was shifted to lagging energy drink Powerade, where he targeted prominent athletes in different fields, from James to tennis player Andy Roddick to controversial quarterback Michael Vick (“Before the dogs!” notes Oza). Despite surpassing growth targets, Oza says he butted heads with superiors. “I would have probably gotten fired from Coke if I had stayed,” says the single, Zambian-born son of Indian descent who was educated at the posh British prep school Harrow (other alums include Churchill, Nehru and Cumberbatch).
Oza’s formula may seem simple, pairing celebrity names and deep brand pockets. (He says the deal he orchestrated between Smartwater and Jennifer Aniston worked out so well in part “because she ended up using it as a paparazzi shield: One liter was perfect for that.”) But it’s easy to whiff. Case in point: PureBrands‘ (Oza-unaffiliated) $10 million marketing campaign in 2011 that launched James’ line of caffeinated energy tongue strips called Sheets. Doesn’t ring a bell? Exactly.
Oza, who doesn’t maintain a formal office and has only five dedicated staffers, seems to have a gift for finding that “perfect fit” between a celebrity and a product. “Madonna already drank coconut water at the gym, and she looks half her age,” he says of the pop star, who latched onto Vita Coco. (Other investors include Rihanna and surfer Kelly Slater; he declines to say how much they make but shares in general terms that deals range from half a point to 10 percent.) “A lot of what I look for is if the celebrity is or could be a fan of the product.”
Oza, who frequently holds court at Soho House, also seeks stars with an entrepreneurial streak — and a huge social media following. He’s eager to court Taylor Swift and Kylie Jenner. “Ashton [Kutcher] was a fantastic partnership,” says Keith Belling, co-founder of PopChips, whose Oza-abetted celebrity equity partners have ranged from Katy Perry to TV trainer Jillian Michaels. “At one meeting, he jumped up and said, ‘What if we announced I was PopChips‘ president of pop culture and held a contest to be my vice president?’ “
Oza, who’s unabashed to call PopChips a “truly disruptive” force or anoint a colleague as the “brandfather” of his growing antioxidant infusion drink investment Bai 5, is riding a big enough winning streak that he can afford to tell a “fun story” about a bungled investment opportunity in Uber, in which he lost “probably $60 million” because he transposed digits of Sherpa Ventures’ Shervin Pishevar‘s cell number (Kutcher had hooked them up) and didn’t process the buy order in time. “Things have worked out well in life with my main thing,” he says with a wide smile from inside his $12.5 million Beverly Hills mansion (the front door is flanked by marble elephants), where he rolls calls when not at his other homes in Tribeca or the Hamptons. “So I can’t complain.”
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