Lesson #4: Giving Back Can Bring Your Game Forward

“Recently, I’ve been looking at all these athlete endorsements. It’s really cool that these guys are making all this money, but is that really going to make a difference?” asked van Stolk.

For years, van Stolk has made a conscious effort to support charity work, especially efforts that support women and children in developing countries. He gives, on average, 12 to 15 talks a year, with all of the speaking fees going towards these causes. “I get a feeling, from when people pay for the speeches, it makes them feel good, too,” says van Stolk. “They know the proceeds are going to something, and it makes them feel good. It's a double whammy.”

Still, you would never know it by looking at the Jones Soda website. Van Stolk almost never talks about his charity work, and the company never issues press releases about his charitable activities. Why? “We don’t really like to talk about it, because it’s not something we’re trying to push,” says van Stolk. “It's not something we're putting in front and saying everybody should do this. From our perspective, if you just do things and do what you believe in instead of telling people, it becomes more legitimate and more real.”

More recently, however, van Stolk has become more willing to use his charitable giving to his advantage, even incorporating it into a new marketing strategy.

“I’m going to switch our marketing fund from an athlete endorsement to cause endorsements and take the same amount of money I was going to spend on an athlete and give it to an organization,” said van Stolk. “Why? Because it’s never been done. I’m going to promote them like I promoted an athlete - because I think that’s cool.”

To that end, Jones Soda started supporting organizations like Vitamin Angel Alliance, a non-profit organization that gives vitamins to kids in developing countries to help prevent blindness. “I want to be the beverage company that gets away from seeing Britney Spears on the commercial,” he said. “Who cares? Who really gives a rat’s ass? I want to say, ‘Brought to you by Vitamin Angel Alliance and Jones Soda.’ That’s sick. No one’s ever done that.”

Van Stolk says he made his decision based on what he saw as overuse of an old tactic. “When you look at the X Games right now and all those endorsements, I can’t see that people really care anymore. I talk to kids, and it’s just noise,” he says. “When it wasn’t noise, it was important. There’s a cycle in everything. And if it gets too saturated, back the bus up.”

He was not sure if his new strategy would work, but he was sure of one thing: it was at the very least something worth trying. “I want to see how it works,” said van Stolk. “If it doesn’t work, then I’ll use the same line that Steve Jobs uses: ‘Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes.’”

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