Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is probably the biggest star on the planet today. He has been Hollywood’s highest-paid actor since 2018. Last year alone, his roles earned him $87.5 million. He is the third-most-followed person on Instagram, with over 221 million fans on the social media platform. His upbringing is now the subject of “Young Rock,” a well-received sitcom that debuted on Feb. 16 on NBC.
Whether you know him as a professional wrestler, action hero, or future presidential candidate, the point is, you know him. Johnson, for his part, seems determined to be known as something else: an entrepreneur. On the heels of investing in the bankrupt XFL football league and joining the celebrity-laden rush to bottled water and spirits (his Teremana tequila debuted in 2020), he entered the energy drink market this week with Zoa.
It is a booming sector characterized by highly caffeinated beverages with added vitamins designed to enhance physical performance. According to Euromonitor International, the overall value of the category was $50.8 billion in 2020. At a compound annual growth rate forecast of 5.3%, that figure is expected to reach $65.7 billion by 2025.
But how does one square a personal brand that’s closely tied to personal fitness and well-being with a category often derided for its chemical-laden sugar bombs? Johnson explains in an exclusive interview with Bloomberg Pursuits.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You could put your money into anything. Why do you keep gravitating toward the beverage sector?
When it comes to our bodies, we only get one. And I’ve always been very particular and keen about what I’ve ingested. For many, many years—this goes back to when I was a teenager just dipping my toes into the water of health and fitness—hydration was always important. So this idea of weaving my way through these verticals and categories, it was always top-of-mind for me.
The energy space was one that I had thought about for quite some time—I mean 20-plus years. When I started to get a little meat on the bones in terms of a career, as a professional wrestler, it felt like I had a little bit of juice behind me where I could put together my own energy drink.
About five years ago, I started creating these daily drinks for myself in my water bottles that would consist of certain ingredients—antioxidants, electrolytes, my vitamins, my energy, my powdered caffeine—I would shake that up and that would be my daily.
And this became the basis for the commercial product?
Yes, exactly. Basically, it’s all the ingredients that kept my own daily ballast in line. That’s how we reverse-engineered this process: What if we start with healthy first? What would that look like? 100% vitamin C, B, D daily allowance, camu camu, acerolo—a lot of different ingredients that you’re not finding in today’s energy drinks at this level. Then we come in with a nice kick of caffeine.
One of our founding partners is a dear friend, John Shulman—he’s the founder of Juggernaut Capital. And we initially met through my investment in Voss [in 2019]. Everything is timing. When we started getting all of the information in terms of who the kings are [in the category], it started happening. By 2020 we were up and running; we started to gear up at an accelerated rate. And by that point, Covid had not hit our shores.
How significantly did Covid-19 affect the rollout?
We were myopic with the strategy—we were going to have a 2021 launch—and we wanted to make sure we were anticipating where the consumers were going to be when we came out on the other end. But no one really knew what the other end of Covid looked like, or how long we’d be on lockdown. We started to ramp up a little more. We started to have our conversations with potential distribution partners, and landed with Molson Coors.
Then I got hit with Covid [in August]—my entire family and everyone around us. When that happened, that’s when we came to a complete pause.
How did contracting Covid affect you?
It hits everybody differently. My symptoms were very mild. My wife had some stronger symptoms—she was bedridden for about a day, she had a little bit of a fever. That thing is so fast and so insidious.
Once I got out of Covid, I was speaking to my doctor every day, because he wanted every explicit detail of what my symptoms were. I asked him if we had [contracted] a weaker strain. And he said, “No, it’s a stronger strain that we’re all trying to figure out. But without a doubt, it was your commitment to wellness—to build your body as much as you can muscle-wise, and in terms of immunity, health, vitamins, all of the things we try and do on a daily basis. So keep it up.”
That was the shift-and-click moment. OK, great, what can we create in a can that might help make your immune system just a little bit stronger. Why don’t we go back in the lab and see what we can add now in terms of ingredients. Can we add more vitamin C, more vitamin D, which we did. What else can we add?
Immunity is now listed as the first benefit on the packaging. Is this because you think people are taking it into greater consideration than ever before?
I think 100%—it’s exactly what people want. They are so conscious now, it’s at the forefront of their mind. If you went through Covid, you understand. Even if you didn’t, you still understand. You had family members and friends who went through it; hopefully they’re still with us. A lot of my friends lost family members through this. Immunity is at the top of everybody’s minds. Of course, we can’t make any claims, but can we make it better.
But there also tends to be a strong sugar component to most energy drinks on the market today. How do you balance that against health and wellness?
I’m a proponent of a little bit of sugar, I think it’s important. It’s always been a part of my daily [regimen]. There are times for me throughout the day when I need a little bit of sugar.
Is that before or after a workout?
It all depends on where I’m at in my prep. Right now, I’m prepping for a [superhero] film called Black Adam. And it’s been about an 18-week diet that continues to ebb and flow and shift and change. So in the immediate—tomorrow morning, I’ll wake up and have the [original flavor], with 100 calories. It gives me a nice boost, and I’m ready to go train. Throughout the day and at night, when I want to be careful about my sugar intake, I’ll have the zero-sugar one.
So you’re filming movies, producing TV shows, launching businesses. How do you find enough time in the day?
Being prepared and trying to get as much done as I can ahead of time. I like to do multiple things at once. But I don’t micromanage anymore—that equates to checking your ego at the door. Bringing people in who are smarter than you at what they do that you need to get done. So now there’s a nice flow and chi to what I have going on. I don’t give a s—- where the idea comes from, as long as it’s a good idea.
So the team continues to expand and take different shapes, like an amoeba. I’ve had a helluva career. I’ve been a lucky son of a b—— over the years, so I enjoy flying the spaceship, but I gotta bring in everybody else to build this sucker, ’cause I couldn’t tell you how to build it.
You’ve already been posting about Zoa to your 221 million Instagram followers. How important is social media to your overall marketing strategy?
As you go into a venture like Zoa, social media will become the No. 1 asset and driver across the board. We could bring in the best and biggest agencies, we could put together [advertising] that’s produced and polished and deliver them to the audience. [But] nothing compares to social media and this platform that I’ve been so lucky to have over the years—and really create this equity of trust and connection.
But how do you make sure you’re not over-saturating your feed?
You raise a good point. In the beverage category, and in terms of [consumer packaged goods] in this world that I enjoy and I’m passionate about, you have to find a balance of what you’re delivering to the people on social media.
The key is: Speak directly to the people. Here’s what I have, here’s why I’m excited about it. I’m going to take you on this journey, starting now, I’m going to take you through the process with me. I’m going to pull back the curtain so that you can see early on what this looks like—and not just show up on day one and say, “OK, tomorrow you can get this brand new thing you’ve never heard of called Zoa.”
It’s going to be months and months of seeding and bringing people along. So the social media will always be our No. 1 asset. There’s nothing like a direct connection with the people through these platforms. We’re creating it as we go.
Where do you want to take this?
Case sales and margins are always important. We have a responsibility to our partners and our investors and a responsibility to the people. If we do our job right, the sales will be there.
The bigger goal though—and I feel confident that I can speak for our partners in this—Zoa is a lifestyle brand. In that, the Zoa Energy line is the first expression of hopefully—fingers crossed—many. You can start to see the expansion of what it can be, into a lot of different categories. So that would be the goal. But this is a marathon.
You spent part of your early life growing up in Hawaii. I understand you’re finally getting to enjoy a little downtime there?
We’ve been out here since right after Christmas. I’ve never been over here and not worked since childhood. I’ve filmed, I think, six movies here. I love to bring as much production here as I can. And I’ve reached a nice point in my career where I can strongly recommend that we go to Hawaii [laughs].
I’m a big evangelist when it comes to talking about “Aloha Spirit” and what that means. There is no place like these islands. And they are alive, and the mana is real and it is powerful. We’ve got a pretty strong protocol, too. Hawaii has been exceptional in how they’ve handled Covid. Of course, we’re still dealing with it, but there’s a lot of pride for the locals here in how they’ve done. [Oahu] is such a proud island.
And is the mask protocol helping you at least achieve some much-needed anonymity?
When we got locked down with the pandemic, all throughout 2020, I was just looking around, trying to find our silver linings with this thing, spending more time at home with family, etc., etc.
Then I realized: Oh s—-, I can put a hat on and a mask and the glasses, slump my shoulders, and go out. We take walks; it is the best! Anonymity is usually impossible in Hawaii. We just went to the mall [laughs], and I hadn’t been to a mall since I was 26 years old! It was good.