“The intention of our hot sauce isn’t to kill you,” says Russell Ross, head of the Toronto, Canada-based hot sauce boutique. “The idea is to use it with every food. It goes with everything from cream of mushroom soup to vegetables to fish.”
Ross says contrary to the initial impressions of, well, pretty much everybody, the name originated from a metaphorical interpretation of the dynamic taste that explodes in your mouth—like a volcano, but also has a kick to it—like a donkey.
“We have a picture on the label of a donkey wearing glasses and flames coming out of his mouth. People will believe what they want to believe, there’s nothing we can do about it. Somehow, ‘Volcanic Donkey’ didn’t sound right,” he says.
Nonetheless, Ross says consumer response to the name has been overwhelmingly positive. He says people will line up at the booths he sets up at various food festivals to have their picture taken with the display featuring the volcanic donkey. There’s always somebody in the crowd who complains, though, because they think "ass" is a rude word, he explains.
“If they looked, our (brand) is very innocuous compared to some of them. It clearly has a donkey on the label,” he says.
Indeed, a quick check of the hot sauce universe reveals names such as Ass in Hell, Ass in a Tub, Ass Reaper, Baboon Ass, Super Death, Ass Blaster and Ass in Antarctica. There are also several others that are probably best left unmentioned.
Ross says if he followed conventional wisdom, his company’s target market would be the small percentage of the population that asks for 10 hot peppers in their kung pow noodle entrees and who aren’t satisfied after a meal unless their mouths are searing, they’re blinded by a river of water in their eyes, and they’ve drained every glass, can, and bottle on the table in an effort to put out the fire.
“We’re looking for people who aren’t hot sauce fanatics with the idea of weaning them off ketchup and giving them something tasty and healthier. Our sauces are mainly (made from) fruit and peppers,” he says.
Ross has five different hot sauce recipes, or “strengths,” as he calls them. From mildest to hottest, they are “Fruition,” “Moose Joose,” “Volcanic Ass #25,” “Burning Bush,” and “Global Warming.”
He says the decision was made to go with five sauces so Volcanic Ass could appeal to as wide a range of consumers as possible. “We found everybody has a different heat tolerance. One might like it mild, some like it hot. Some with a higher tolerance can drink the stuff,” he says.
Ross says he and his son fell into the business a few years ago after their own favorite hot sauce was mysteriously pulled from grocery store shelves. They had one last bottle left to use as a roadmap for their own concoction, and they kept throwing different ingredients together until they thought they had duplicated it. Then they set out to improve upon it. Their eventual recipe proved different from most hot sauces because it’s mango-based, he says.
“Mangos are much more adaptive to different foods; you can add it to anything. With a tomato base, you’re pigeon-holing yourself. Mango sauces don’t stain either. If it gets on your clothes, it washes right off,” he says.
Ross says the company is looking to expand its distribution outside of a few select Canadian markets, such as Toronto, Oshawa, and Saskatoon. The challenge he faces is the sauce is very expensive to make and it’s not part of a multi-national’s condiment line-up.
“There are some distributors who have no interest in marketing something that’s individual like this,” he says. “It’s very difficult to differentiate on the shelf unless people will demo the sauce. That’s the challenge, getting retailers to demo the sauce.”
Derrick Coupland, a partner at Blacksheep Strategy, a Winnipeg, Canada-based branding consultancy, says despite Ross’s explanation, the name “Volcanic Ass” doesn’t readily conjure up images of a donkey.
But while it might seem ridiculous compared to the many bland brands on grocery store shelves today, it’s actually quite tame in relation to hot sauce competitors, Coupland says.
“The category of hot sauce is outrageous,” he says. In fact, he says taste takes a back seat to heat in the vast majority of cases. “The primary message is that it’s hot in the extreme. Hot just isn’t the feature, it’s the entire brand. The category marketers are trying to outdo each other in the extreme. The whole category is screaming,” he says.
Coupland says being in the middle of the pack name-wise is an unenviable place for Volcanic Ass to be from a consumer-positioning standpoint.
He says some of Volcanic Ass’s saucier competitors—from a naming perspective, that is—have followed through more thoroughly on their branding, including their packaging, supporting write-ups, and websites.
“The consumer is really exposed to the whole brand experience at every touch point,” he says. “With Volcanic Ass, after the name, there’s a sharp fall off in the consistency of the brand experience.”
The good news, Coupland says, is Volcanic Ass has plenty of potential to exploit. The company has a good story to tell, including how it came to create recipes for its sauces, but those tales need to be front and center on its website.
He says the fact the company is a two-man shop isn’t an excuse for less-than-optimal branding. “With good branding, you can make the size of your company less relevant. Being a small company is never an excuse for substandard marketing. Consumers won’t sympathize with you,” he says.