Kevin Liles, KWL Enterprises CEO

Kevin Liles, KWL Enterprises' CEO

Kevin Liles, the former CEO of Def Jam Records, now heads up his own multi-industry firm, KWL Enterprises. This includes working as a consultant to stars such as Jay-Z and Mariah Carey, with whom he has just released a line of tea-blend soft drinks. Yesterday (18 June), he spoke to just-drinks about the celebrity tie-ups, how to make the most of new technology and Jay-Z and Carey's love for the beverage industry. 

just-drinks: You have a lot of business interests. Why have you moved into the beverage industry with the Jay-Z-branded 40/40 and Mariah Carey's Butterfly?

Kevin Liles: One thing we've always prided ourselves on is being innovators. We were talking with (US drug retail chain) Walgreen's about helping them to reach a more diverse audience, a younger audience, while still sticking to their values of "happy and healthy". They wanted to find a way to cater to females that go to their stores. So I asked them what category lends itself to a lot of consumption, and they said the beverage business.

I said I'd find two icons that would go into the beverage business with us and would create blends that would rival the best-tasting drinks. So I said to my good friend Jay-Z, Jay, how about we make your 40/40 the new half n half (iced tea and lemonade)? And I said to Mariah, how about we cater to your female audience with Butterfly?

So Walgreen's loved it and we struck a deal. I call it a two-for-one - I'm going to give you exquisite taste and exclusive content.

But I also wanted to give an unparalleled experience around the technology we have. That technology is augmented reality. If you download the Go N'Syde app, you can take your PDA device and point it to any of the bottles. The bottle then comes to life with pictures, video and all sorts of content. And all of it is curated by each brand.

j-d: Was the technology something you brought in from your other interests?

KL: It was something I thought about a lot - how do we disrupt the consumer packaged goods business? What if the bottle was interactive, an interactive experience that even when you leave the store you can take that experience home with you. It means the consumer has a constant reminder that they can go inside the lives of their favourite experience. At home, in the car, or the park you can continually entertain yourself through the network as we continue to programme the content.

j-d: The technology is obviously very important to you, but how important is the taste?

KL: Very important. We wanted to make, first, a great tasting product and, second, an innovative product. Out of all the tea blends out there, I'd say we have the most refreshing taste for the summer.

j-d: Is this different to a typical celebrity endorsement?

KL: I don't consider this an endorsement, I consider this an ownership. (Jay-Z and Carey) are the brand. It's an amazing opportunity for both of them to have another vertical that they both love. They both love being in the beverage business. And they have a trusted curator - I've been with both of these guys for 20 years.

j-d: There's a lot of talk in the beverage industry about the health effects of soft drinks. How much thought have you put into that?

KL: Like any beverage we want to offer a range of options, so we will have a Butterfly light (version) coming out. We wanted to go for a great taste, and we want to have different verticals coming out of the brand, whether it's a hint of one flavour or a hint of another.

j-d: Can a smaller producer like yourself take advantage of the health issue to tackle the big soft drinks makers?

KL: Like any business that is transforming or going through pressures, there will be low-hanging fruit. We're in this to build great brands and different verticals from those brands, and to make sure we serve the consumer. We're not just providing taste, we're also providing content. So this is bigger to me than just a drink.

There will be other brands, starting in September. We're actually thinking of blends right now for them.

j-d: What do you have lined up for the future?

KL: When we were making these drinks we thought, what would go well with them? Jay-Z has a (Cognac) brand called D'usse, so we took some of that, mixed it with amaretto and some 40/40. Now not only do we have tea blends, but we also have cocktails. Mariah Carey has said why can't Butterfly be the new Bellini or the new mimosa.

So people can enjoy not only the beverage individually, but also mix it as their favourite cocktail. We'll be doing a lot of promotion around the mimosa or whatever blends we can come up with.

j-d: Any other singers lined up?

KL: Oh, yes. Absolutely. But some of these things I have to keep under wraps.