Memo: How Sanzo Won Marvel

A generation of young consumers deserve the credit for its role in how brands think about partnerships and messaging.

For today’s retailers, authentic engagement and depth can matter as much as reach when it comes to partnerships. This has become common practice in the world of modern brands and niche media outlets. But something bigger is taking shape. If there ever was a “trickle up” effect, this essay will serve as an example. One of the largest and most powerful media conglomerates in the world chose sincerity over cash, reach, and distribution.

Long gone are the days of no-brainer deals with Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Nike. Today’s public figures are setting aside their reliance on major brands in favor of partnerships that are more true to themselves. Authenticity is at the center of this shift, and it’s opening wide doors for nascent brands to compete against their elder statesmen. In a recent essay on OLIPOP’s partnership with Olympian Gabrielle Thomas, 2PM highlighted this changing sentiment around brand partnership:

In speaking with the agency for this report, they emphasized how important Thomas’s ideals were to her product sponsorship selections. The partnership between OLIPOP and Thomas was a natural fit as it is reported that she was already an organic fan of the brand. [1]

Now, that’s trickling up to film studios, sports leagues, streaming networks, and music festivals, which all seem to be following the same wave of authenticity. Over the previous year, digitally native retailers have done a remarkable job of positioning themselves for these opportunities.

In the past year, Rowing Blazers partnered with dormant English retailer Warm & Wonderful to produce the Princess Diana jumpers as Netflix’s The Crown wowed viewers with an inspired depiction of the late humanitarian. Kim Kardashian’s influence and business acumen helped land Skims as the official underwear partner to the U.S. Olympic Commission’s athletes. Madhappy partnered with Lebron James’s remake of Space Jam, producing hoodies and crew neck sweaters that are now sold on the secondary market for $450 or more. And hot sauce CPG brand Truff’s partnership with one Taco Bell location in Southern California has permeated social media conversations well beyond the border.

While each of these are notable, none accomplished what Sanzo has so early in the company’s lifespan. A recent report by BEVNET began: “Though it may not be a household name, when it comes to marketing partnerships Sanzo is punching above its weight.” The praise was deserved. Founded in 2019 by Sandro Roco, a Queens-born Filipino American, the brand is one of the latest entrants into the white-hot “fizzy water” market. The cap table includes the likes of Away’s Jen Rubio, Adobe’s Scott Belsky, and as of recently Simu Liu, the star of Marvel’s Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings. More on that last investor in a moment.

The Sanzo brand is emerging during a dynamic period for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Its two years in existence have been wrought with senseless and indiscriminate violence towards Americans of Asian descent. The angry rhetoric and exclusion birthed such hashtags as #StopAsianHate, a tag that you will find spread by a handful of the most powerful investors and businesspeople including Jeremy Liew, Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners.

The former executive at Bombfell and J.P. Morgan trader, Sandro Roco took a grassroots and hard-nosed approach to building Sanzo. In the beginning, you would find him hauling cases down the street, hoping to sample his way to omnichannel adoption by today’s most important retailers. It worked. While Asian Americans were being indiscriminately targeted in some of America’s biggest cities, Roco was positive and hopeful in his persistence to break through in an intensifying market. That often meant him doing the work at the street level with a dolly and cases of product. Take a moment to empathize with Roco’s cognitive load as scores of citizen-captured videos flooded social media by the day. He really wanted Sanzo to breakthrough the noise. And he found a way to do just that.

At the same time that indiscriminate violence was on the rise, the ‘easternizing’ of American culture accelerated. More commercial opportunities, once afforded almost exclusively to guys named Brad, were now afforded to actors, actresses, musicians, artists, and entrepreneurs of AAPI descent. This Roco quote from a recent Forbes article announcing Sanzo’s latest funding does a solid job of summarizing Sanzo’s appeal and the wave that may help it compete against larger, well-funded, and better equipped CPG conglomerates.

Back in mid-2018, we started to see what I describe as ‘easternizing’ of American culture with Crazy Rich Asians becoming the number-one film in the box office and K-pop getting a fever pitch. [2]

One of the national efforts to combat implicit and explicit bias towards AAPI citizens was the launch of Gold House. Founded in 2019, it was built to help Asian founders “overcome societal stereotypes” while elevating their work beyond what was customarily deemed their target market. Sandro credits Gold House for helping the Sanzo brand forge a relationship with Walt Disney Corporation, one that would later manifest into the Marvel Studios project. In a May 2021 NBC News report on the organization:

The nonprofit Gold House is best known for elevating films like Parasite and Crazy Rich Asians into epic blockbusters. But true representation of Asians isn’t just necessary in Hollywood; the organization is determined to see it in every industry, in every C-suite. [3]

The next big opportunity for Gold House was March 2021’s Raya and The Last Dragon, an animated feature by Disney Studios featuring Kelly Marie Tran, Sandra Oh, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, and Awkwafina. The film grossed $122.7 million in the box office while simultaneously released on Disney+. Roco’s Sanzo brand was used as cross-promotion for the Disney picture and according to Roco, it was a profitable venture. He noted Disney’s positive role in partnering with an “unknown” for the project. Roco told 2PM:

It’s impossible to do anything in eight weeks with Disney. But they recognized that we are not Coca-Cola or General Mills. Together, we made it work.

He applauded his team’s hard work and diligence to make the latest partnership come alive. After the completion of the Raya partnership, Roco “shot his shot” and pitched a Shang-Chi collaboration. The green light came almost immediately. In the Sanzo founder’s conversation with BEVNET’s Martin Caballero, he added:

We’ve seen firsthand that both the Marvel and the Disney executive team have taken a more intentional approach to partner with brands that more authentically represent the messages of the films they are putting out there. They noted to us that the strength of our brand and the community that we bring in gives a certain level of authenticity.

In August, that green light became green money. Shang-Chi is one of Marvel Studios’ most highly-anticipated films as of late. Analysts predict that it has the potential to outperform Black Widow, despite the latter film’s star power of actress Scarlett Johansson in the starring role. Shang-Chi features rising stars Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, and Fala Chen. The well-reviewed film pairs a relevant theme with a new slate of heroes and action formats that are new to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The commentary around the film is not entirely new.

While smart merchandising partnerships like Sanzo’s deal are a highlight for the film, some argue that Marvel is not properly promoting the film due to the age-old idea that it may not resonate with a larger audience – a euphemism for white audiences. Though Disney was proven wrong by the global reception ($1.3 billion grossed) to Black Panther, this burden remains for AAPI actors to retread the same territory. In my many conversations with Sandro Roco, he cites the hidden market opportunity for products like Sanzo. He notes that Asians and their taste preferences represent over 60% of the world’s population. What Disney and Marvel Studios view as niche isn’t at all. In this way, Sanzo and Shang-Chi are running in parallel.

When the founder and his film-customized cans showed up for the red carpet debut of the film, he was welcomed with open arms by Shang-Chi‘s slate of stars. Gold House was right: there seemed to be an authentic appreciation for Sanzo’s story of resilience and comeuppance (the brand is now in Central Market, Whole Foods, Erewhon, and other retailers). There waiting for Sandro on the red carpet was Simu Liu, who became an investor in the brand after the deal was negotiated in April of 2021. The stuntman and movie star recently dominated social media conversations with Marvel’s release of one of the film’s fight scenes, an homage to Jackie Chan’s inventive use of his surroundings as weaponry.

Over just two years, Sandro Roco and his team have worked tirelessly to gain approval from an industry that is cold to outsiders. Now that the founder has momentum, a few key partnerships, and a superhero on his team, his fight to the top may be a little easier.

Sanzo has reported a sixfold increase in daily DTC sales and conversations that will surely lead to greater omnichannel opportunities. But before Sanzo won over merchandisers and national distribution, the brand won over Disney and Marvel. Other digitally-native retailers should take note of this momentous year in extraordinary partnerships.

By Web Smith | Editor: Hilary Milnes | Art by Alex Remy  

Disclosure: Sanzo and Rowing Blazers are 2PM investments. Sadly, Madhappy isn’t. 

2 thoughts on “Memo: How Sanzo Won Marvel

  1. Thanks for the deep-dive, Web! So gratifying speaking to someone with true empathy for the founder/operator journey and just “gets it”. Appreciate the conversation!!!

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