By Alyssa Stahr
Photos courtesy of Black Reserve Vapors
Jason Winkler is an entrepreneur who started in concert promotions at the age of 19, working with artists such as Snoop Dogg, Big Sean, DJ AM, Travis Barker, Paul Oakenfold, Wiz Khalifa and many more. From there he took his experience in the music business and marketing to help brands such as Uber build recognition in Southern California. He was able to pair brands with certain events and trend setting musicians to help create a buzz. Winkler brings a creative outlook on how to launch brands and is able to bring influential strategic partnerships to the table that gives companies the upper hand. At age 24 he helped launch a tech company called Liquipel. In one year the company won numerous awards such as Best Of Show at CES and The Edison Award. Once Liquipel had the respect from the tech world, Winkler wanted to spread the brand to the masses. In the next six months he set out to bring influential partnerships to the company. He wanted to make Liquipel a lifestyle brand, not just another tech company, so he signed partnerships with Pharrell Williams, WME and Steve Aoki. Most recently, Winkler and his business partner saw an industry that had no cool factor or lifestyle to it, so they brought that with one-of-a-kind packaging, clean flavors and creative content creation to Black Reserve. Winkler and his team have paired Black Reserve with some of the most recognizable names in music and sports, from throwing a launch party with performances from Rick Ross and Wiz Khalifa, to having Rampage Jackson do a signing at their booth at ECC.
Graftan Darnall has a background in product development, business architecture and design. Starting with the sale of a successful entertainment equipment rental company, he has worked on many product development, application development and branding projects. He holds patents for inventions in both consumer and commercial product space and considers product design his passion. Since 2012, he has been featured in major publications for his inventions and ventures. Darnall heads and co-heads all product development and brand strategy for Black Reserve, and manages business operations for Brand One Corp and client partners.
Cody Soto, an Orange County and Los Angeles resident, found his place in the world of marketing at a very young age. With his entrepreneurial mindset and the drive to succeed, he knew he would find great success in all business endeavors he explored. His first success was his position as brand ambassador for Orange County-based tech company Liquipel. As brand ambassador for Black Reserve, Soto has successfully signed professional skateboarder Nyjah Huston. Alongside celebrity endorsements, Soto has a successful past in the promotional space sponsoring events, campaigning with celebrity partners, and maintaining client relationships. Currently Soto also oversees brand strategy as marketing officer/partner for Brand One Corp.
While three may be a crowd in some cases, it’s not in the case of the three creators of Black Reserve: Jason Winkler, Graftan Darnall and Cody Soto. One of the first to discover lifestyle branding in the e-liquid industry, the three entrepreneurs always are working to find new ways to innovate and market their products differently than the all rest.
VAPE: You’ve all three been entrepreneurs in other businesses. How did this translate into getting into the e-liquid business?
Jason: We’ve all come from building lifestyle brands, and Cody and myself have been working on different products for the last several years. We started in a tech business that we helped to start called Liquipel, and what we did with that was kind of take that from a standardized tech business to more of a lifestyle brand by getting people like Pharrell Williams involved and Steve Aoki and making them partners, so that company was more looked at as something that you could bring music and fashion and function into a technology like waterproofing cell phones. So, that’s our key to do with any products that we get involved with is trying to find that ‘cool’ factor and to relate to our market. Graftan had been working with Cody on other products as well and he connected me and Graftan together, and from there we formed Black Reserve about a year and a half ago. We’ve been partners ever since, all three of us.
Graftan: We were getting into mods and hardware, and we started realizing that there was this big opportunity in the e-liquid … and really coming out with an e-liquid that’s known for its quality and cleanliness. So, we took our knowledge of
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creating a brand and our passion for the vape community and the vape market. We really wanted to make a quality product in the market. We saw that there wasn’t a lot of classic bottle e-juice at the time, and a lot of things weren’t standardized. So, we wanted to bring that standard to the e-juice market and really create something different.
Jason: We really saw in the beginning of this industry that brands were kind of taking that approach of ‘hey, let’s print our name on a bottle make a good flavor and see what happens.’ No one really took the approach of ‘Hey, let’s try to build a brand,’ like a lifestyle brand and we feel like we were the first ones to kind of pioneer that. Even though our juice didn’t really launch right away, we got out there and we got the designs out there and we got the vibe of Black Reserve kind of in the market before we launched. And now we’re seeing a lot of companies kind of take that same approach and we’ve had a lot of companies tell us, ‘You guys inspired us to go a different route with our bottling and our content that we create and the way that people get involved.’ The key thing for us is to have the influential photographers that Cody brings to the table, and a really strong community in the vape scene, and taking the new kind of vibe to our brand. Now we’re starting to see that throughout the board and we’re proud of being kind of the first to do that.
VAPE: How do you view the lifestyle and celebrity aspect of a brand? I feel like a couple of years ago celebrities did not want to be seen vaping, and I feel like that’s kind of changed over the years. Do you feel that way too?
Jason: I really do feel that way. About two years ago, at that ECC, we were the first company to bring celebrity to ECC, so we had French Montana and Rampage, we [had a DJ] in our booth the whole time, so we really brought UFC, celebrity and music to an industry that celebrities were really kind of fearing. We used our relationship to kind of let them know, ‘Hey, this is a new industry, this is a growing industry and you should be a part of this industry before everyone jumps on board.’ That resonated with them early on, and I think by leveraging our relationships from working with them in the past and being involved in the music scene kind of helped us open the door for that. I do feel like there was kind of a convincing phase that we had to go through with a lot of these people. Cody’s really a strong point on that as well; really tight in with the content creators with the rap side and the DJ side is really what we’re focusing on right now.
VAPE: They say three’s a crowd. But it’s not with you. Why do you think the three of you work so well together?
Graftan: We’re all three are absolutely very different. We bring different skill sets to the table; we don’t overlap; we complement each other on everything. While Cody’s working on one thing, Jason’s working on another and I am too. Luckily we’ve been able to work together in a way where we don’t step on each other’s toes and we help each other with everything.
Jason: A lot of times too Graftan has to wrangle us all in, and he’s kind of the guy that makes sure everything executes on time. Cody and myself are all over the place trying to build new relationships, trying to find different avenues for the brand, and Graftan kind of pulls it all together and makes sure that we point it in the right direction.
VAPE: Take me back to the beginnings of Black Reserve. How did that idea come about and what was your inspiration?
Jason: We didn’t see a package or a high-quality brand out there, and our idea for it was let’s make the, and it’s kind of corny to say, ‘ace of spades’ of the vape industry. Or let’s make something that everybody wants to have and be a part of and not just a flavor that we make, but a brand that we recognize and feel that we want to be a part of. So, kind of building that cult following in a high-end fashion kind of way. That was our concept for Black Reserve from the beginning. We were sitting in a bar drinking and talking and that’s how it came about.
From there we thought up different packaging concepts and like I said content creation that would make sense for the brand, kind of built the whole entire story and the image before we even created the juice. We had an idea for flavors, but we know that if we created such a high-end package and brand that our juice would have to stand up to that. We created the brand, the packaging and we were like, ‘Hey we want to make sure that our juice is perfect.’ We don’t want to be that product that has great packaging and they buy it once and they don’t want to buy it again. We spent a lot of time after that testing. The reason we took so long to release our product is that we spent a lot of time sending out different flavors throughout the market to over 100 stores and having blind testing on our flavors. We tested hundreds of flavors to make sure we found the best flavors to launch with. That’s what really been able
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to ensure our success, and that’s why we’re one of the top selling brands in every single store we’re in right now.
VAPE: Can you talk about the trial and error process that went into choosing the three flavors?
Jason: We used a starring system. We did internal testing; we whittled down from about 100 flavors to about 20 flavors we really liked and then we sent those out to partnering stores, people who are really supportive of our brand, and we did a lot of consumer testing in-store with people who were looking for new juice to buy. We got the feedback a few different ways. We asked them some questions about the juice, if they would refer it to a friend, if it was an all-day vape, and then we had a star rating on how good it was. From there we were able to look at what the highest rated ones were and use that as our educated guess as to what the market wanted.
VAPE: Do you look at it as an all-day vape then? Is that your consumer focus?
Jason: We do, but we like to mix it up. We have a couple of flavors that are really rich and are very tasty and they won’t necessarily be an all-day vape, but they’re that flavor that you can sit back and really enjoy.
Graftan: I think one of them is an all-day vape and the rest are more of an enjoyable, savory vape.
VAPE: Do you have plans for expansion of the line?
Jason: Our fourth and fifth flavors that are coming out very soon, we’re actually very excited about. We can’t tell you yet what they’re going to be. One is definitely going to be an all day vape. We’re going to be focusing on seasonal flavors for 2016.
VAPE: How did the idea of tinted black glass, chrome colored top dropper filler system, and raised metal embossed labels come about?
Jason: We came out with all these designs and packaging that there when really there was nothing out there like that on the market. We wanted to create something different and raise the bar in terms of packaging and the branding and the look of something that would be on the shelf. We found an all-new system for dripping with the dropper and then we went about using metal labels to really give that bottle the pop. You can actually feel the labels, and it’s something when you hold in your hand it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s really cool and it’s nothing like what I have had before.’” That was really important to us not only to recreate something from our vision, but something that was different and to raise the standard on what was on the market.
Graftan: In the middle of our process we had those silver caps, but then the law passed where they had to be childproof, so we switched to our black caps. The cool thing is by February you’ll be seeing that we’ve developed our own childproof silver dropper caps that will be coming with the bottle, and the look will be revised to what it was.
Jason: It was important to us to care about the safety of the consumers and children and be compliant.
VAPE: How do you feel you’re prepared for upcoming regulations?
Jason: We’ve really positioned ourselves with our manufacturing, our testing, even recreating all of our own flavors to position ourselves in the market and in the eyes of the government, as a leader. It’s taken a long time, a lot of R&D. We’re planning for the worst and hoping for the best.
Graftan: We also have a really strong partnership involved that is really on the forefront of lobbying for this and being more involved on that side of things. We’re prepared with the people that we work with to make sure that we’re able to handle whatever regulations happen in the future.
Jason: A lot of people are in this business for a quick buck, and we’re trying to build a brand that lasts. It’s kind of a ballsy statement, but when there’s five or 10 companies left, we hope we’re one of them.
Graftan: We want to build a staple brand that you’ll know.
VAPE: Anything else to add?
Jason: We want to get the point across that we are a brand that is really involved in the music scene, the arts scene and photography. We are talking that culture and helping spread vape into the mainstream market through our avenues that we’re really tied into.
Cody: Our goal is to educate non-vapers. When we do these lifestyle shots, and it’s new to people and they don’t know what it is. We want to grab an audience—if you don’t know anything about vaping, come in to vaping. We just want to get all aspects of different industries and bring them into vaping. Like you know how Monster Energy sponsors a skateboarder, sponsors a professional snowboarder, it’s getting to that thing now where companies are sponsoring the best trick guy in the world, sponsoring athletes. It’s going to turn into that industry. Black Reserve is taking the first steps with it and kind of leading the way for that time to come. There’s going to be a lot of cool things that are coming up.
Jason: The reason for that is we want the community to know that we’re trying to spread the word in a unique way where it reaches the masses, and that’s the purpose that Black Reserve is doing this for. We want to grow this industry into something that is helping people quit smoking and using our outlets to do so.
For more information, visit http://www.blackreservevapors.com/.