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KC beverage brand Tohi signs NBA, SKC players as ambassadors; CEO talks navigating pandemic

KC beverage brand Tohi signs NBA, SKC players as ambassadors; CEO talks navigating pandemic

Kansas City startup Tohi Ventures LLC leveraged its local roots to land its newest athlete ambassador: Landry Shamet, shooting guard for the Los Angeles Clippers. 

Tohi Ventures, which developed a line of wellness beverages using antioxidant-packed aronia berries, was looking for an athlete who embraces a healthy lifestyle on and off the court. And it didn't hurt that Kansas City native Shamet has an affinity for his hometown. (He's also been drinking Tohi for two years.) 

Tohi co-founder and CEO Shari Coulter Ford started conversations with Shamet in October. Shamet, who played basketball at Wichita State University, was a first-round NBA draft pick. He's an emerging athlete who's grounded, Ford said. 

Athletes like Shamet have a diverse fanbase - from children to adults, she said. That widespread appeal could help Tohi reach a new audience. 

Earlier this year, Tohi recruited another athlete ambassador, Sporting Kansas City's Gianluca Busio. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, created a wrinkle in Tohi's plans, delaying a photo shoot and promotion of the new relationship. 

Covid-19 challenges 

For small businesses in the consumer products space, the pandemic has been particularly tough. The trade shows and other events that give entrepreneurs access to buyers from major retailers were cancelled this year.

"Usually you have an opportunity to get a face-to-face meeting with buyers. None of that happened," she said. "Basically, as a young brand, if you're not already on shelves, the path to get to the shelf has just totally been disrupted...That has been devastating." 

Tohi lucked out in some ways because it started conversations with some retailers before the pandemic hit, and those partnerships are still coming to fruition. Starting in August, for example, Tohi will be carried in roughly 200 Kum & Go stores. Other new retailers for Tohi include Fareway Meat & Grocery and Dierbergs, which has 25 stores. The new additions bring Tohi's footprint to more than 500 locations in the Midwest, including the states where Tohi's partner farmers grow the aronia berries. Having a presence in those states creates an advantage, because there's a greater awareness of aronia berry, and the farmers will want to tell family and friends about a product made with their berries. They're brand ambassadors, Ford said. 

Covid-19 has also made Tohi rethink its marketing strategy and put a heavier focus on e-commerce and business-to-business marketplace sites that target smaller or specialty retailers. Tohi already is receiving orders from places such as art galleries, salons and spas. 

The startup also signed up for Google Shopping, is now sold on the Walmart Marketplace, as is creating an Alibaba website to target International opportunities. Previously, Amazon was Tohi's primary e-commerce platform. Tohi also recently made its drinks available for purchase on its website, creating an opportunity to engage with new consumers in a meaningful way and tell the brand's story, she said. 

Tohi is starting tor find success with companies that ship health and wellness boxes, in which Tohi can include samples of its product and a call-to-action offer. Its first shipment of samples went out in late July, which has resulted in new orders which Ford hopes to transform into loyal customers. 

The pandemic does have a silver lining for Tohi - more consumers are focused on healthier eating and understand the connection between nutrition and a healthy immune system. It's put the spotlight on how deficiencies in someone's diet can lead to chronic diseases and make people more susceptible to complications from viruses like coronavirus, Ford said. 

"I think the tailwinds are in our favor," she said. 

Gaining traction 

"We've come such a long way in a very short period of time, not only in getting traction with our first product in the market, which is the beverages, but also in building the foundation for the real vision of the company, which is to be a platform for aronia-based products."

Ford likened the potential to CBD, which didn't have widespread awareness just a few years ago. Since then, CBD has become ubiquitous, she said, and can now be in found in goods such as beverages, chocolate and body lotion. 

"Aronia has the same potential," she said. 

Tohi wants to expand beyond its beverage line and currently is developing other products, such as body and face scrubs and a lotion. 


Written by: Leslie Collins, Staff Writer, Kansas City Business Journal