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Behind the Bottle: OKAMI Uncut

by Rebecca Hislop on August 17, 2020

A Note from the Editor: Recently we released Not Just a Vape Company: The OKAMI Lifestyle Brand and took a deep dive into what makes the OKAMI lifestyle brand unique. After such a positive experience interviewing owner Dre Liang, we did our best to incorporate as much information from the interview as possible. That being said, after releasing the original article, we at eJuice Direct felt there was still so much more to share! Below, you will find the original transcription of our interview with Liang in its entirety, edited for clarity, for your own perusal. If you found yourself loving the previous article but wanting to know more about how OKAMI has become the powerhouse lifestyle brand it is today, then you’re in luck! Enjoy this exclusive peek behind the curtain of what it takes to bring a brand, an article, and an overall vape experience to life!

EJD: So the first question I have to ask is probably the first question that’s on everybody’s minds all the time: what the fuck is Okami?

DRE LIANG: It’s “wolf” in Japanese.

EJD: Can you tell me a little bit more about that? Tell me about the logo.

DL: Well the logo, we actually had it developed a while ago. My creative director was messing around with some logos with wolves, and then there are those three eyes. He created a logo where it kind of messes with your eye, so it shows like there’s three. We literally just said, ‘hey, how do you translate this? What if we did this? Why don’t we try this since we have a different language, people would love that!” And then we put it in Japanese, it’s Okami, and it’s perfect.

EJD: Is there any specific significance to the triple eyes?

DL: Pretty much that, and then there are multiple partners, that’s also why.

EJD: Does the logo have any significant meaning to you?

DL: If you look at any business or any industry, you want to be the strongest guy. You’re a lion, a wolf, a bear, so you wanna be the top in the animal kingdom, right?

EJD: Top of the food chain! I know we’ve asked a lot about the logo, but your logo has a really gritty, urban feel to it. How did you incorporate that feel into your overall brand development, including your other products like streetwear and lifestyle?

DL: We are actually all really into streetwear and designer fashion, that’s why we thought it was pretty much easier to do it. Back in the day, you had early Marc Echo, you had the early 2000’s phase, you had the early 90’s phase. We were really deep into streetwear culture, so it kinda came hand-in-hand. We all like high-end designer stuff too, so we just tied our entire corporate element together.

EJD: Still speaking to the same point, can you describe the process of how you developed your overall brand presence and awareness?

DL: The vape industry is a little bit harder because we’re pretty much handicapped when you look at it. Tobacco products and e-cigarettes, we can’t market on social media, we can’t market on Google. We went to influencers mainly, and then just local friends, and then friends of friends. One of my creative directors was the art director for GS, so we had a lot of contacts in that industry. We market locally, and we honestly didn’t think we would be able to go and get as big as we became. We just said, ‘oh, you know what, let’s just try a couple and see how it does,’ and start going statewide, then nationwide, then worldwide.

EJD: When you were going from nationwide to worldwide, was there anything in particular that you had to adapt to or change?

DL: For the UK and EU markets, we had to do some different labels and work on TBD-type stuff when that came into effect. That was short-lived, and everybody figured out a loophole to do it there. Then we had to change up some of our bottles. Each country had to put different warning labels, sometimes different languages, but that’s pretty much it. And then, of course, the price point is different for currency exchanges, like some countries you have to give a lower price to help out because, you know, some countries’ currency is a little bit lower than ours.

EJD: In addition to making delicious OMNI disposables and awesome e-juice, what else does Okami do?

DL: We do actually some branding and like, literally creative art for a few companies here , and we do it for a few nightclubs- a lot of people don’t know that. We help the Hard Rock and some of the night clubs, we do some other creative work for nightlife, other artwork, and we develop brands for some people. They just come and approach us like ‘hey, we love your brand, like can you help us out’ and we’re like ‘sure we can.’ We have packages, but we don’t really advertise that though.

EJD: That’s really cool, I didn’t know that either. Do you have an in-house artist that does all this designing, do you do it yourself?

DL: My creative partner does a majority of it, and we have Jose too that helps us out.

EJD: In addition to the branding and e-juice, you guys do apparel. You said it’s a little more your partner that handles that, but can you tell me a little bit about the apparel business and how that came to be?

DL: Well in high school, everyone wants to have their own clothing line, right? So, we started looking at how to distribute marketing material as apparel, and we started doing it. We didn’t really just do simple cuts or plain t-shirts with the logo on them for marketing. We did the more advanced, different designs, stuff that you can wear that doesn’t really promote the vape part. Do you see what I’m saying?

EJD: Totally.

DL: That’s why we kinda stayed away. When we made the brand, we didn’t put like ‘vape’ or ‘e-juice’ or anything like that. We wanted to be universal, where we can actually take the brand and the logo and transition it to apparel. And at first, with the apparel as marketing, we started getting online orders (a lot of online orders). People loved our hoodies, people loved our shirts, all our accessories, so we started selling a line. Now, we actually have multiple accounts, like streetwear stores that carry our brand.

EJD: How has the response been for your in-store apparel?

DL: It’s been really good. It’s just that we’ve been so focused on vaping, so we haven’t really fully tapped into the apparel side. Especially what’s going on with the PMTAs, and all the regulations every year, it’s an emotional roller coaster.

EJD: If vape were to shut down tomorrow, would Okami just focus all of your attention then on the brand development and the apparel?

DL: Of course, one-hundred percent. We can just transition right over.

EJD: So speaking to the diversity of your product offerings, can you tell me about some similarities and differences between marketing your vape products and marketing the other products that your brand produces?

DL: Similarities? I mean, there’s not much. You can’t really market it, the only thing you can do for vape is literally give the product to influencers on social media to make brand awareness in each city you go to, hopefully at least.

EJD: Would you say that it’s just your brand’s look that makes Okami stand out from other companies in the industry?

DL: I would think so too. When we developed juice, I’m like ‘hey, you know what, this is working already from another company, let’s try this.’ But, my creative partner, he’s not about that. If you look at every single brand we’ve dropped, every juice line, every logo, he doesn't copy or follow anybody’s footsteps, he just does it himself. If you notice, a lot of people in the industry, it’s literally a clone of something else, it’s a knockoff of something else.

EJD: Tell me about your day-to-day as the owner of Okami.

DL: It’s a lot of emails, a lot of phone calls, pretty much all day. Mainly phone calls, I’m probably on phone calls about 80% of the day. It’s pretty rough. Then go home, relax, then wake up, repeat. But you know I take that back-- go home, wait four or five hours, and talk to international clients.

EJD: That sounds really hectic, how do you manage that?

DL: I have one of my reps helping on accounts now, so that eases off the stress. This industry kinda drains you sometimes because you’re always on the phone, always checking up on your distributors, always making sure what’s selling, what’s not, how can you benefit or help them push the product more and market it better.

EJD: Does being the owner of Okami require a lot of local or international travel?

DL: It requires a lot of travel. How many years has it been, six years, six, seven years now? I was literally complaining about traveling a lot to back to back shows, being out the country for three weeks, or being out of town for a month, every weekend going to a convention. Now, since we’re all locked down in quarantine, it’s been almost four months, we kinda miss it. I just wanna go somewhere, and luckily in our industry, I’ll be able to go to exotic places, nice places. I think I had Dubai and another Colombia trip, then the EU, another UK trip for this year, but everything got canceled so I guess we have to wait for next year and see what happens.

EJD: Tell me about your professional background before you founded Okami.

DL: Before, I did about five years of wholesale operations. I did all things, like front desk, wholesale ops, stuff like that. And then one of our friends jumped into the industry, and I was a smoker then. I tried the product, I believed in it, I looked into it, started researching more, and then boom, it happened.

EJD: It can’t have been that easy.

DL: I mean, it wasn’t that hard to see a product from, you know, China, and then look into it.

EJD: You also just answered my next question, what got you into vaping, or what attracted you to vaping in the first place?

DL: I quit smoking after a year of being in the industry. The transition was hard, I’d been smoking since I was very young, so transitioning to that pretty rough. I mean, the CE4 and all those things helped a little bit when you’re home, but when you’re out you still wanted to smoke a cigarette. After they started developing things like sub-ohm coils, that’s when I really got off smoking, and I haven’t smoked since.

EJD: What inspires you when you’re developing a new product? DL: That’s really hard to say. The rush of being able to see your product in all different places, that’s probably what inspires me. When you drop a new flavor, a new shirt, you see all the different orders come in from different places in the states, and then you see it all from internationally- Canada, Australia, all types of places. Then you start seeing the reactions and the reviews on something, and sometimes you get emails of customer appreciation, it’s great. It’s a great feeling. EJD: What was it like for you the first time you walked into a store and your product was on the shelf? DL: I was low-key very happy. EJD: How could you not be? That’s got to be a really rewarding experience. DL: Yeah, stateside you see it often, right? When you go to a different country, that’s a whole different feeling. You go to Hong Kong, you see your juice there. You go to Russia, you see your juice there. You go to somewhere in France, all of a sudden you see your brand, and you just feel like ‘wow.’ It’s a great feeling. EJD: That’s got to be an amazing feeling of accomplishment. In order to get those juices into these other countries, walk me through the process of how you take an idea for a juice and turn it into a marketable product that’s in people’s hands. DL: In the beginning, it was actually a lot easier because you can see what flavors that aren’t done, see what you liked as a child, see what you would like to vape. Then, as the industry grew, almost everything’s been done. So, we started looking up complex flavors and seeing, for example, like China. If you want to sell to China, you want to cater to their market, you see profiles like Green Bean, Mung Bean, Red Bean, and Lemon Tea. You want to cater to the flavors to that market. Same thing with France. We noticed that France likes savory and likes sweet dessert flavors, and you have to make like a cake, strawberry cheesecake, or lemon cheesecake, or something to cater to that market. Russia, for example, they love our fruit flavors, they love fruit and ice. Then you have Malaysia, which loves ice, and sweets too. The U.S.’s demographic is all over the place, so that’s why I like the U.S. market better; you don’t have to cater anything, they buy everything.
EJD: Out of all the flavors that you’ve created, what are the flavors that you’re most proud of? DL: My most favorite flavor I’m proud of is probably Lychee Lauren, that’s one of our top sellers. When we built that brand and all the flavors, we did a play on high-end designer companies. Lychee Lauren is a play off of YSL, we did Dolce Guava which is Dolce Gabbana, and it worked. Lychee Lauren is probably the top flavor that we’re proud of, that was a number one hit everywhere. EJD: Do you like it? DL: I used to, now I vape my disposable Passion Fruit. That and Grape Ice, Grape Ice does pretty well too. EJD: On the flip side of that, what do you think is one of your most slept-on flavors right now, that isn’t getting the attention that you think it should? DL: Haute Mocha. It’s very odd. That’s our number one seller online, but our lowest seller for like distributors and shops, it’s really weird. We look at our numbers on e-commerce, and Haute Mocha is still our number one seller online. When people buy it, they’ll buy like ten, fifteen bottles at a time, which is odd, but then we don’t really sell it in stores and we don’t really sell it with distributors. Maybe because it’s a mocha coffee flavor, I don’t know, it’s really weird. I see our numbers and I’m like ‘hey we did good this month’ and they’re like ‘oh, Haute Mocha again’ and I’m like ‘oh, okay, odd.’
EJD: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned about owning and operating a company? DL: That’s probably a tough one. Lesson-wise, we took a lot of L’s through this whole industry. You just have to be prepared to take losses. Sometimes with regulations, for example, packaging, ‘we need 30%, we need this bigger, we need this, regulations. We lost probably hundreds of thousands of dollars on packaging for marketing materials to switch up to progress as the market changes and regulations change. EJD: How have you found you’ve overcome that? DL: Order smarter. Don’t go all the way, don’t go gung-ho on things. EJD: Do you have any advice for other young entrepreneurs looking to start their own business? DL: Stay focused. Just stay focused, be 100% about your company, 100% about your business, no distractions, and just focus on it and you’ll get there. I didn’t think we’d be this big at first when we started. I had very little expectations. I was accepting moving X amount of bottles every month, or just doing it in Nevada and California. I didn’t think we’d go this big and now we’re worldwide, so just focus on it and you’ll get there.
EJD: What has your greatest challenge been at Okami and how did you overcome it? DL: Greatest challenge? I would say just how the regulations are going because one day you could be selling a lot of juice and everything’s fine, then in two weeks, there’s a regulation about some state-wide flavor ban, nation-wide flavor ban, or some regulations in a different country. Like I said earlier, it’s an emotional roller coaster for everything. You’re doing good one week then boom, flavor ban, everybody’s stressing out. The industry is like that. I mean, it’s the industry we chose, and it’s always up and down. Everybody thought the industry was going to be done, what like two years ago? Years ago, and then boom boom, it keeps getting extended, and now everybody’s getting flavor bans. On September 11th, 2019, that was our doomsday with all the lung issues, saying vaping is bad, all that stuff, and three months later it all went away somehow. That was actually some of the biggest issues we ever had in the industry that day. It was worse than finding out the news about all the regulations because that literally killed almost everybody’s business. Nobody’s going to vape stores, nobody’s buying products, all these companies quit after that, like thirty days after that they start quitting. EJD: So, you’re a pretty young company owner, right? Have you ever had any challenges in the industry because of your age? DL: No, I didn’t think so at all, because a lot of guys that got into this industry are all in the same age group. We had a lot of friends that jumped in the same time we did, or probably like a little bit after us. When you go to a show you see a lot of your friends, which is funny. Everybody had a juice store, everybody had a vape store, everybody had this, so it wasn’t really that bad. As the industry grew, certain companies got a lot more corporate, like two, three years after. EJD: Did you notice anything about working with individual company owners versus corporate company owners, in terms of how you were able to conduct business with them? DL: Of course. If you’re going through a corporate company, they do everything properly and in the right way of doing it, you know? For example, when we deal with certain distributors, everything’s through email, everything’s properly done, reply back, invoice it, get it all set up, sent payment, everything’s good. Everything’s proper, everything’s documented. Then I have others, like if you’re a personal friend, or when you develop a relationship with the store owner or website, they’ll literally just text you the order saying, ‘hey, I need this.’
EJD: What other brands in the industry do you look up to and why? DL: Brands in the industry? Naked 100, they’re doing really well, the number one juice brand in the world. EJD: Why do you look up to them? DL: He is in every single store and distributor, his product is everywhere. I can’t say another brand that did that anywhere, worldwide. If you look at it like bigger brands that did have a big footprint in this industry, let’s say Cuttwood for example, they were big for I think almost three years, and they kinda fell off. Every other brand that had a big name and a big footprint in the industry, they ended up developing and falling off, literally. And now, you still look at it, Naked 100 is still strong. He gives back to the community, gives back to the industry, he’s always involved, and he’s still dominating. EJD: Tell me a little bit about what you would consider as your top personal milestones and successes? DL: I would say when we first cracked a million in sales. Then, seeing we were doing really really well in Russia. We did really well in that region, and people just loved our brand, and when we did conventions over there, we met our main distributor. Everybody knew the brand, every single place we went to had our brand, so that was a good feeling. EJD: Tell me about your most memorable customer interaction? DL: I would say Russia again. We had these young adults coming up to us saying, ‘oh we love your brand,‘ some people speaking in broken English, some speaking in Russian to us about it, and then some speaking Russian to our translator telling us this. The love was amazing over there for us, so I think that would be it. EJD: Knowing what you know about the vape industry today, if you could go back in time, would you still choose the vape industry? DL: Of course, 100%. I would just do it a little bit differently. EJD: What would you do differently? DL: The industry is like the cell phone market. It went from 10 mL bottles when everybody first started, then 15mL bottles, then 30s, then 60s, then dropped to 20s, then went back, and back again, and then back. So what I would do is, I would have spent more money on marketing materials and busted it out, did a whole different marketing campaign, I would have gone bigger if I knew what I knew now. EJD: That makes total sense, like how cell phone companies from the late 90’s until the early 2010s kept changing phone sizes, operating software, etc. with every release. Great analogy! So, where do you think the future of the vape industry is headed? DL: That is still a question mark because the regulations have been pushed back so many times, and 2020 has been trash with back-to-back issues with everything around the world, so we really don’t know. Especially since last year, September 11th, that three months, it was a pretty bad time for everybody in the vape industry. Now we have PMTA’s coming out, it’s still a grey area, a question mark, the unknown. I couldn’t really answer that question because we think ‘where’s it headed?’ We don’t know.
EJD: So I’ve got a couple of e-juices here, and I am going to ask you to give me your honest review about them. Number one, Lychee Lauren. DL: Fire. Straight fire. EJD: What do you like about it? DL: The flavor is light. You know there’s not too much sweetener in there, it’s a good all-day vape. Our lychee actually tastes like lychee, instead of plastic, like a lot of people’s flavoring. EJD: Number two, Bubble Gang Grape Ape. DL: Straight fire too, that’s one of our number one sellers in that line- that and the OG Bubba. But the grape is proper, proper. EJD: Why is it proper? DL: I’m not really a grape person, but when I started vaping that, I was like ‘wow, this is actually really good.’ It’s super flavorful, that’s why it’s probably our number one top seller next to OG Bubba. Those two always compete head-to-head in that line, then comes Apple and Blue Razz. EJD: Alright are you ready for number three? Bubble Gang Mystery. DL: It’s a mystery. Personally, I’m not really a fan of that flavor, that’s just me though. But it does okay. The thing about that flavor is, I’m not really a strawberry type of person. EJD: Ok. Berry Go Round? DL: That one we made as yogurt, and my guys like it. Me personally, I’m not really a yogurt guy. I don’t like strawberry, I don’t like creams, I only like straight fruit. But it sells! It does decently. We did that as a play on words of the brand Go-Gurt, that’s what we put on there. EJD: Last one, Rockt Punch Blue Rza Thunderbomb? DL: Oh, fire. Blue Icee 100. I would vape that. The best top seller for me in that flavor line is Rainbow Riot because I’m more a candy guy than a blue razz. EJD: What makes the Rainbow Riot better? DL: Just taste the rainbow!
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