Despite a long career in advertising and marketing, Tom Talbott's real passion is killing zombies, and it could be his chance to break into the $1 billion energy 'shot' market.
But the Gorham-based founder of Talbott Marketing isn't setting his sights on the leprous, groaning zombies seen stalking through pop culture touchstones like AMC's "The Walking Dead" or the "Resident Evil" movies, but rather, the zombie inside all of us.
"We are talking about those dead-tired, eyes-glazed-over, head-on-the-desk times when you feel like a zombie," says Talbott of his new energy drink, Zombie Blast. "My idea of the zombie we're 'blasting' is the one that's just slumped out on the couch, not the ones out there stalking their neighbors."
But to be sure, all this focus on the undead begs the question: Does it taste like brains?
"No," says Talbott, "it's wild berry flavored."
Talbott and the Zombie Blast LLC team, which includes business partner Reggie Groff and California-based nutraceuticals entrepreneur Herrie Tanton, will officially launch the brand this week at the National Association of Convenience Stores trade show in Las Vegas, a trip that follows the company signing a national distribution deal with Building Better Brands, a new division of Pine State Trading Co. out of Augusta.
Shaped like a shotgun shell, the 2-ounce energy shot produced in Cerritos, Calif. combines caffeine, herbal supplements, amino acids and vitamins. It's a concoction that Talbott hopes will break into a market dominated by the 5-Hour Energy brand, which has an 88% market share and saw 35% growth in 2011, according to market analysts SymphonyIRI.
"5-Hour Energy has a very successful model, but they have taken a conservative approach to things ... in selling it to adults as an alternative to a cup of coffee," Talbott says. "What we are trying to do is bring more of a fun approach to it with both the packaging and the name."
The marketing for the $2.99 energy shot aims to capture the 18-to-35-year-old market, Groff says.
To set the product apart from its competition, Talbot says he drew from his background in sales and marketing.
"I came up through the radio business, where you create marketing ideas and messages but you're not showing the product, so you have to be very creative and find ways to motivate people with words," he says.
When veteran film producer Groff approached Talbott with the idea to market a zombie-centric energy shot, Talbott's interest was piqued.
"I can't say that I knew a lot about zombies right off the bat, but when I started looking around, I was amazed at just what international interest there is in zombies," he says.
That interest struck Talbott one day as he sat watching a back-to-school ad for Kmart, featuring headless students "walking around campus like zombies, but wearing the 'coolest back-to-school fashions,'" Talbott says.
"I called up [Groff] and said 'it's officially a hit when the big-time national companies are using zombies in their ads,'" he says. "Now, every company has a zombie commercial somewhere in their libraries."
Zombie Blast is Talbott's first foray into launching his own product, where he says he can tailor the product to a marketing campaign, and not the other way around.
"In traditional marketing, you are taking an existing product and figuring out how you can position it in the market and show its unique selling points to the consumer," says Talbott, who has worked with large Maine companies like Bangor Savings Bank and beverage distributor Seltzer & Rydholm. "Now I am going 10 steps backwards in the process and can focus on marketability earlier on."
From his past work at Seltzer & Rydholm, Talbott says already knew a thing or two about marketing drinks.
"Packaging and the initial impression you make on people is king," he says.
The Zombie Blast team knew they needed a package that would pop amid the litany of energy shots crowding convenience store shelves, Talbott says.
"This is a very product-rich environment. If we put it in the same bottle as 5-Hour Energy and called it Zombie Blast, people would say 'ho-hum.' You have to stand out on the shelf, you have to have that grab-ability factor where people pick it up and say 'this is very cool'," he says.
Settling on the idea of a shotgun shell — "nothing else can kill a zombie," he says — the team designed its own bottle, but lost an entire batch of the beverage when they discovered that the containers leaked.
Following the setback, Talbott remained committed to the idea of unique packaging that would cut a distinct profile and strengthen the brand.
"I was thinking of the old Kodak film canisters that people would save and put little knick-knacks in," Talbott says, "they were handy. So I said, let's make the mouth of the bottle wide enough so people can actually reuse it."
So far, the team has spent some $150,000 on product development between the formula and bottle design, producing about 100,000 units for local beta testing and early orders. The product was featured during a Pine State Trading trade show in 2010, where the company received order commitments for nearly 200 cases, despite having not produced any units.
"We were just testing to see what the reaction would be from people and it was very positive," says Talbott.
While this week's Las Vegas trade show holds the greatest promise for signing a major distribution deal, the product has seen some early success when Internet retailer Thinkgeek.com recently approached the company about selling a three-pack of the shot through its website.
"They thought it would be a real hit with their customer base and wanted to make it a featured back-to-school item," he says.
While some might see the zombie-craze as a passing fad, Talbott is bullish about the staying power of the undead.
"It seems like an evergreen to me," Talbott says. "Zombies are always going to be there because, let's face it, you can't kill them."