Sitting in a cafe in Saudi Arabia, Azri Zahier came to a realisation. All around him, people were guzzling fizzy drinks. These, he noticed, were not local beverages, or even ones made elsewhere in the Gulf. They were from Thailand.
“It made me think: Malaysia is the world’s halal hub but none of the drinks come from here.” he told BeverageDaily. “So why was there nothing to drink from Malaysia in a Muslim country like Saudi?”
On returning home, he set out to do something about this. The 30-year-old had studied quantity surveying at university and since then had worked in a number of different jobs, though none of them had been in the beverage industry.
With the support of friends he founded The Boom Beverage in Petaling Jaya, in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, with a dream of one day exporting his sparkling fruit beverages to Saudi.
Hausboom: a lifestyle brand
Starting out with very little capital, he would mix the drinks himself by hand. As the business grew he was then able to purchase bottling machinery from China.
Now, four years later, with a plant in the eastern state of Terengganu with a capacity of 2.5m bottles a month, Azri exports the Hausboom brand to countries in Asia and Europe, with further 22 markets pending registration.
The name Hausboom comes from the Bahasa word “haus”, meaning thirst. Available in six flavours, it is marketed primarily to 16- to 25-year-old urban dwellers and young executives as a lifestyle brand.
The flavours — mango, strawberry, guava, blackcurrant, lychee and Lemonade, made from real and concentrated juices — were designed to be acceptable in all regions where Hausboom is sold. There are plans to introduce region-specific flavours as new markets open, such as pomegranate for Gulf countries and pineapple in new Southeast Asian territories.
“That’s the advantage of running a beverage company on a small scale,” he said. “We are flexible, we are nimble and we can produce whatever the market demands.”
Influencer marketing and becoming a cult brand
Due to a lack of capital Azri began by marketing only through influencers—an approach he continues with today.
“In this era you don’t need to rely on traditional marketing tools,” he said. “Using influencers is a better option because the consumer trusts people they know more than they trust a conventional approach to marketing.
“We use macro-influencers, who are celebrities like actresses, actors, musicians. And we have micro-influencers whose audience is smaller, like those who have 2,000 followers on Facebook.”
Malaysia isn’t the first country one thinks about in the sphere of soft drinks, though it does have a past. In 1883, John Fraser and David Chalmers Neave founded the Singapore and Straits Aerated Water Company in a Southeast Asian peninsula that had yet to become Malaya. Now owned by ThaiBev and headquartered in Singapore, F&N is a global beverage company that left the country behind.
Yet, there are still some good Malaysian drinks manufacturers, Azri believes, though most of these are let down by a lack of marketing nous.
“In this era, the brand comes first, before the product. Other companies may have a high-quality product but they fail to take the brand to a high level, whereas we promote Hausboom as a cult brand,” he said.
2019… and beyond
2019 is set to be a big one for Azmi and The Boom Beverage. There are plans to scale up production, not least to stock the shelves of 7-Eleven convenience stores in Malaysia under a deal that has just been signed.
As one of the few locally produced beverages sold at the chain, this comes after a two-year wait for Hausboom. Azmi had first to convince 7-Eleven executives of the brand’s potential and stability, after it had mainly been available in supermarkets and petrol stations in the country.
The move is part of a new charge into the domestic market, which he had deliberately kept on the back foot while focusing on building the business overseas. Malaysians, he believes, have little trust in local products, even though most of these are made to high standards. Instead, they prefer imported brands.
“We have the expertise, we use the same machines as those used by the giants, and we have all the certificates, but Malaysians still don’t have confidence in local drinks,” Azmi said.
“That’s why I exported my products first. Our customers don’t know Housboom is a Malaysian product until they read the label, and only now am I promoting it in Malaysia. I want people here to know that being locally produced is as good as imports,” he added.
Another big move in 2019 may come in the form of an outside company investing in The Boom Beverage. Realising the need to find more capital to scale up production, Azmi may soon entertain some of the overtures made by other beverage firms.
Some of these are very large players, he says, which have started to see his business as a threat on the landscape. They also now see it as a potential partner, after having tried hard to enter Hausboom’s market segment with their own products.
“A lot of commercial brands have been trying to penetrate our segment, but they’ve failed. They thought they could spend millions of ringgit on sponsorship, television slots and billboards to capture my market, but that was wrong,” he said.
“I know we need more capital to scale. Nobody will usually invest in local manufacturers because they don’t have good branding and marketing, but that his something we have focused on right from the start.”
Though the idea to establish The Boom Beverage came from a cafe in Saudi, that market is still off the radar, especially since the country now charges a 50% tax on sweetened drinks. But Azmi still harbours hopes that the right distributor will come along to ship his halal-certified beverages into the Gulf.
Currently, however, he has his sights on selling Hausboom across the whole of Southeast Asia, with its population of around 340m. Combined with China and Korea, where the brand is already present, that could form a huge potential market for the brand. It’s not a bad effort after just four years for a small country that isn’t well known for exporting sparkling drinks.