Putting the message on the bottle

Jones Soda has always been a bit of an unusual company. After all, how many soft drink companies can offer you a blue bubble gum soda with unusual photographs on the label? And now, that photograph can be of you.

Using a new Web site, myjones.com, juiced by Lotus Domino, the company has developed an interactive environment where customers can send in their electronic photographs and comments, and order a case of customized bottles for a special occasion.

First a little history. Jones Soda is an ex-Vancouver now Seattle-based soft drink maker which created a niche for itself by making unusual flavoured sodas with bottle labels featuring photographs sent in by its customers. Out of the tens of thousands of photographs submitted each year, the company chose around a thousand to be put on the labels.

According to Peter van Stolk, president of Jones, the company wanted to offer an alternative for those whose photos weren’t chosen.

“What [the thousands of photographs received] showed us was people wanting to personalize the product for themselves,” he said. Thus the idea to create myjones.com.

The problem was the immense challenge of putting a classical brick and mortar site on-line. “If you think of it, there probably isn’t a worse business model for the Internet than beverages,” van Stolk said. The beverage industry requires a complex distribution chain, the product is heavy and shipped in extremely breakable containers.

In order to solve these problems, Jones Soda contacted Pacific Coast Information Systems, a Vancouver-based solutions provider. For van Stolk, one of the parameters was for the entire solution to be Web-based.

“If we are going to play on the Internet we better play well, we can’t just be half-assed at it,” he said.

Vaclav Vincalek, president of Pacific Coast, said “[The problem] was unique because nobody ever asked about this stuff before.”

Claudine Simard, national technology manager for Lotus Domino in Toronto, agreed. She said a site like myjones.com was a little more complex than usual. Multiple databases – customer, product and distribution – had to be linked.

Simard also added that workflow collaboration between consumers, Jones Soda, the cyber-stores and UPS was also necessary.

Given the demands of the myjones site, Vincalek said Domino was the only solution to fit the bill. “There isn’t [another] product out there on the market which, in one package, would do this for you. Also, a very important advantage for us is that Domino can run all the Java infrastructure, because the whole back end for myjones.com is written in Java.”

Another goal of van Stolk’s was a highly scaleable system, according to Vincalek. He said that if today Jones can handle 1,000 requests then tomorrow it should be able to handle 10,000. This all fits in perfectly with Domino, according to Simard. “[Domino] can be a one-server solution or a 10,000 server solution, it is incredibly scalable.”

She also added Domino is Web-enabled. “It uses native Web protocol instead of being Web compatible,” she said, adding Domino uses pure HTML instead of HTML conversion, and the messaging platform is native SMTP as opposed to using an acquired SMTP gateway.

Last year Lotus released version R5, which is what Jones Soda is using on its site.

Getting everything up and running took about a year. Last September the process got down to the nitty gritty and Jones had a pre-launch in January. A lot of the issues were not just technological but also logistical, according to Vincalek.

van Stolk said the solution is basically divided into two business models. Everything up to and including the filling of the pop bottles follows a traditional brick and mortar business model. At this point it moves to an e-commerce model. Stolk added that traditional soft drink companies choose locations based on populations but for e-business companies it is easier to be near transportation hubs like UPS.

After bottling, the personalized shipment is moved to a fulfilment centre, the printed labels are brought in and put on the bottles and “UPS takes if from there,” Stolk said.

In the future, the plan is to put printers in each of the five bottling plants to make the process more streamlined and to get the last five per cent of the system onto the main server, according to Vincalek. As it stands now the label template is in QuarkXpress running on a Macintosh.

Though Jones Soda is using the Internet to bridge the gap between the brick and click world, it is still a soft drink-maker at heart. “This is not about a dot-com company. This is about a brick company using the technology that is available to dot-coms and marrying it to a system that works for the consumer,” Stolk said.