Why you should care

It’s possible to challenge the big brands on their home turf and succeed. Fritz-Kola proves that.

In a world of blue-sky thinking and turnkey solutions, it’s heartening to know that one of Germany’s hippest brands was born on a train, on a scrap of paper.

In 1999, Mirco Wolf was a student backpacking across Europe with his friend Lorenz Hampl. They’d been friends for years, having met at Boy Scouts in their native Hamburg. As the train rattled along, they vowed to create something real, something they could touch — and not to end up as desk jockeys. A coffee shop and a hostel both made it onto the paper scrap. They settled on making a cola drink.

Even now it seems madness: Develop a drink with no experience and no recipe in a market dominated by two of the most powerful corporations on Earth, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. If you wanted to stay sober in Hamburg, it was pretty much water or Coke. Wolf was sure they’d stumbled on gold.

Making a logo would have cost up to 20,000 euros [$25,000]. And we definitely own the rights to our own faces.

— Mirco Wolf

Spoiler alert: They had. If you’ve been to Germany, or a handful of other European cities, chances are you’ve seen Wolf and Hampl. In fact you may have seen them everywhere, on signs attached to bars and restaurants. In Berlin and Hamburg, especially, the men’s goofily smiling mugs are plastered over coolers, bike racks and ashtrays.

It might seem a touch egotistical to market a product in your own image. For Wolf and Hampl, the reason was a simple lack of cash. “Making a logo would have cost up to 20,000 euros [$25,000],” Wolf says. “And we definitely own the rights to our own faces.” Fritz-Kola’s now-iconic black-and-white labels were also an accident of thrift, as it being cheaper to print than color.

Call it guerrilla marketing. It worked.

Few friends thought Wolf and Hampl could crack Coke in their backyard, let alone Hamburg.

Wolf today is small, slender, with a voice that’s chary to match. He is 38, but you could easily place him a decade younger with his skinny, mop-top looks and impish smile. No comment on his marital status. He’s steady when recalling Fritz-Kola’s early days, effusing none of the madness they brought.

Few friends thought Wolf and Hampl could crack Coke in their backyard, let alone Hamburg, a northern port city of almost 2 million. But somehow they pooled 7,000 euros ($9,000) and got to work. “My parents thought competing with them was mad,” says Wolf. “A friend of mine told me he bought a crate of Fritz-Kola bottles because he felt so sorry for us, these two kids running about.”

Truth is, neither Wolf nor Hampl had a clue as to how to make cola. At first they tried searching “cola ingredients” on Google. That didn’t help. Eventually they found a local brewer that did. “It wasn’t that complicated,” says Wolf.

But money was still scant. Basements, gardens and laundry rooms were stockrooms. An office was anywhere with electricity. One night Wolf was driving their beat-up Volkswagen when a wheel came off, stranding him in Berlin. With no money to fix it or buy a new one, he bought another tattered chassis. In went the salvaged engine.

The duo’s first taste test came courtesy of a house party. They drove up in their tattered old VW van and sold it out of the trunk. People loved it. Soon they were driving all over town, delivering bottles to bars in Hamburg’s red-light district. Most nights they slept in the van. Some bars got pissed off at the guerrilla salesmanship. “But they were only selling Coca-Cola,” says Wolf. “And that’s boring. So they listened.”

photo of a young caucasian man sitting on a stool in front of a building

Mirco Wolf.

Wolf and Hampl didn’t want to replicate Coke, though. They wanted something different. The key would be caffeine, lots of it. Each Fritz-Kola contains 25 milligrams of caffeine per 100 grams. Regular Coca-Cola has 10 milligrams. Red Bull, the energy drink, contains 32 milligrams (the average brewed coffee still tops out at 55 to 85 milligrams, however). Fritz-Kola’s motto is “Vielviel Koffein,” meaning “Lots and lots of caffeine.” It tastes stronger and thicker than the competition.

And Fritz-Kola can only be bought by the bottle, none of which exceeds half a liter. “Fritz-Kola was only ever for bars,” says Wolf. “No one-liter bottles or any of this. Once you enjoy a Fritz-Kola, you should notice it.” In Berlin, a city of 3.5 million people and 900 bars — one for every 3,900 people — there’s no shortage of customers (New York City shades ahead with 2,657 bars for its 8.5 million people, or one in 3,200).

Fritz-Kola wasn’t 2 years old and it had already bloodied Coca-Cola’s nose in its backyard.

Slowly, Fritz-Kola took off. From the first 170 bottles in January 2003, orders came flying in from all over St. Pauli, and soon, all of Hamburg. By the beginning of 2004, Wolf and Hampl were able to store their bottles at a nearby depot. Locals, enamored with the brand and its contents, started demanding more flavors. Fritz-Kola wasn’t 2 years old and it had already bloodied Coca-Cola’s nose in its backyard.

While Germany still consumes more beer than almost every other country on the planet — only Austria and the Czech Republic drink more — the amount is decreasing as the economy stutters and health concerns grow.

Combined with Germany’s reputation for all-night clubbing and hard drugs, more people than ever are turning to nonalcoholic drinks: In a brief survey of the dozen bars surrounding this reporter’s home, every one said that Fritz-Kola was its biggest nonbeer seller.

The company has pounced with a series of irreverent commercials and billboards that tap into Europe’s liberal, urban youth. Most combine the erotic with the strange. One ad features a bare-ass-hugging downpour of coffee beans. Another herds red-Spandex-clad women through a Fritz-Kola-fueled forest.

When Coca-Cola last year brought out Coke Life, sweetened with stevia, Fritz-Kola congratulated Coke for its “groundbreaking innovation.” It added that there had been a Fritz-Kola stevia drink since 2011. There are now 10 Fritz-Kola flavors. Later this year wineberry and rhubarb will be added.

It’s the underdog’s game. Coca-Cola employs 130,600 people worldwide. PepsiCo, which is king across huge swaths of South Asia, employs 274,000. Fritz-Kola has a staff of 30, if you believe Wolf. “We tell people but it’s just a number,” he says. “It’ll do.” Business figures are closely guarded. In 2010 the company reported revenue of 2.7 million euros ($3.4 million). Today, Wolf says, it’s a lot higher.

Plenty of reasons for Mirco Wolf to be happy. Not only does he get to travel Europe selling Fritz-Kola and see his monochrome grin everywhere (“It used to be strange, but now I’m used to it”), but he’s proved that a pair of students really can take on the big guns. And he hides his love for partying pretty badly: “Now we are a bit quieter, but I still try to go out as much as possible.”

Since Fritz-Kola’s rise another small, local brand, Afri-Cola, has gained in popularity. Initially appearing in the 1930s, it shares Fritz-Kola’s simple branding, and was even the cola of choice at 2007’s G-8 Summit at Heiligendamm, which is near Hamburg.

But Fritz-Kola is easily the more popular. And buoyed by their domestic success, Wolf and Hampl have begun selling in Poland, Denmark and the U.K. Next up, according to Wolf, are Spain and France. But not America: The big players are still far too big.

Are Coca-Cola and Pepsi shaking in their boots? Probably not. Wolf will probably not be Europe’s next billionaire. But he and Hampl are proof that even with cola, you can occasionally take on the giants and win.

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