Interview with Carlos Sosa: Air.Global / Al-Fakher / Shisha Kartel / OOKA

Let me introduce you Carlos Sosa – Director of Branding & Partnerships of one of the largest shisha company in the world – Air.Global (Al-Fakher, Shisha Kartel, OOKA, HookahShisha.com, shisha.com and more). Carlos got decades of experience in Marketing tobacco products around the world (literally!) and is the creative mind  behind Shisha Kartel.

Hello Carlos, can you please tell a few words about yourself and your professional background? How long have you worked in the hookah industry and where did you work before?

Born in Mexico but I have spent the last 20+ years living and working in different parts of the world.I have experience leading teams in creative agencies and branding studios in Europe, Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Middle East, and Mexico. My expertise is in concept & campaign development, creative direction, brand activation, art direction, and creative and brand strategy for global brands.

My connection with tobacco goes back to my time in Japan, where I was part of the creative team working on the first prototypes of what we now know as Iqos. 

I have worked in full on projects for 3 of the top tobacco companies in the world, including Philip Morris, British American Tobacco, and Japan Tobacco.

I started working for AIR since 2021, leading all branding projects for our brands Al Fakher, Shisha Kartel , Zodiac and OOKA.

Who’s the author of the Kartel brand name?

I believe the original idea was created in a disclosed area inside a bunker, by a secret society from elite members from Sinaloa, Medellin and Miami.

But the final touches were done by my team at AIR’s headquarters in Dubai.

We collaborated with Argentinian artist Agus @aguspizzaromaire to create all the characters, SK logo and the overall look and feel.

At which date the brand was born / first introduced to the public?

The idea was presented in November of 2021 to our stakeholders and launched in Germany during ShishaMesse 2022. It was very well received and to date, the Kartel has taken root in different markets around the world thanks to its criminally awesome flavors. The best is yet to come!

Can I ask you, how did you get into the tobacco industry? Is there some specific story behind it?

I started working on the entire portfolio of brands Philip Morris had in Japan at the time: Philip Morris, Parliament, Lark and the crown jewel Marlboro.As you may know, Japan smoking culture is very different from the rest of the world, and back in the early 2000’s relaxed regulations made creative work still fun and cool. I just started surfing and working in Lark, a brand usually associated with surfing culture in Japan was a great motivation for me!

  You mentioned that you had a background in Japan. At the moment we see that Japan is a really growing market for the hookah industry. (Please check my latest interview with Gaba from Japan). How do hookah brands related to Air Global feel in Japan at the moment? I’ve seen that Al-Fakher (via local distributor I guess) supports some local shisha sports activities. Any plans for the Kartel brand to enter the Japanese market?

As Gaba explained in his interview with you, Japan is a complex environment from a Regulatory stand-point, so it is not in our short term plans to enter the brand there in a meaningful way. You also ask about Brazil. Our priority for now is to really delight consumers in Europe and keep working with them to co-develop the best possible flavors. We’re actively and constantly tweaking our formula to deliver the best possible experience.

Really nice story about the international background of the creation of the Kartel brand concept. Do you have plans to enter the Brazilian hookah market with this brand?

The Brazil Legend of HookahBattle Fabiano Ramos

In my personal opinion the visual concept of Kartel (modern gangsters) suits good for the EU markets where young people romanticize gangster life. Don’t you think that you might face any kind of problems launching this brand in Central and South America? Not sure about Mexico, but when our Hookah Battle team travelled to Brazil, we have seen that people face some problems coming from criminal gangs (even had some personal bad cases in Rio about it).

Obviously, the origin of the story is more simple and not as fantastic as it sounds…. We are not trying to make an apology of violence. We are inspired by contemporary Latin street culture, in specific reggaeton music and all the movement around it. Currently Latin Street style is super-hot, with singers like Bad Bunny or J Balvin on the top of the charts. Shisha Kartel is not about violence but homage to the dynamic, confident and strong Latin youth.When we create a brand, we work on the core narrative of it, but we know that each market is different and our brands should be flexible enough to attract and inspire our consumers in each individual market  but keeping the visual power of the brand.

Are you more of a hookah smoker or cigars / iqos / smoker? If you are a hookah smoker, what are your favorite flavors?

Obviously, I have to say all Al Fakher flavours are great, but currently my favourite is Plata o Plomo from SK. When it comes to devices my current obsession is AIR’s latest innovation, OOKA, a pod based device, currently just available in the UAE. To learn more please visit www.ooka.com


 

How many flavors of the Kartel brand are available at the moment? Do you have a concept of ready mix (like “tropicana mix’) or solo-flavors? (orange, pineapple, double apple e.t.c.).

We have different number of flavours depending on the market:

Germany -Hidden Hacker, Sexy Sheba, Plata O Plomo, Guilty Gang

Spain Capo Dei Capi, Krazee Kombo, Blood Bath, Sexy Sheba, Hidden Hacker

USA  is launching soon and UAE – currently 2 flavours for our new device OOKA.

Which tobacco raw base you use for the manufacturing of Kartel brand (like virginia, burley e.t.c.) What is the country of origin of tobacco raw material?

The Kartel’s top sicarios would come and pay me a visit if I tell you this.

  We have many followers from the Russian market. Not long ago a study was published regarding the dynamics of most popular hookah brands on the Russian market You can see the dramatic fall of the Al-Fakher brand.starting from 2018 ending in 2020:  

  

Why do you think it happens? What is your current policy regarding the Russian hookah market? Do you have any plans to recover Al-Fakher market share there + launch Kartel brand?

Currently we are focusing mainly on markets where we have strong presence

One more question about Al-Fakher. I remember the time when we organized the very first HookahBattle competition event for hookah masters in 2011. 90% of teams have used Al-Fakher tobacco with some amazing combination of flavors – hookah mixes:

Do you have any vision to support hookah professionals and enthusiasts of making hookah mixes with Al-Fakher?

Yes we do. In Spain we partnered up with 3 of the top Hookah personalities of the country to work on the mix , the intensity and even the packing of a new line of products for the Spanish market. 

  Not long ago we finished our annual show related to hookah mixing – Mix’n’Story 2023 (you can watch the show here 8 languages available)  where 13 teams from 8 countries (shops/lounges/bloggers) have created a hookah mix with video-presentation about the region where they live. During the show we had a long talk about Al-Fakher flavors mixing.  

  What do you think about this project? Some of our community members say that it will be nice if Al-Fakher can review an option to integrate some motivation program so contestants will use Al-Fakher in their mixes.  

The program looks great – we are however focusing our resources on the many exciting initiatives we have in the pipeline and cannot take on new projects at this stage

  Let’s talk about your new project of OOKA. Not long ago I watched this video (which is really nice): 

How do you assess the level of market competition of EHMD in 2023 (Electronic Heat Management Devices)?  Do you think it’s a lot of competitors in this segment? As I understand your business model is to make an affordable device (electronic hookah) and sell tobacco cartridges which can contain only the tobacco brands related to AirGlobal?  

There is nothing like OOKA in the market. By this we mean there is not a single device that has been designed as carefully as OOKA. We have a top class engineering team in-house, led by a former Dyson engineer. We have spent over $50M and more than 4 years developing the device. But then on the molasses side, the pods we have carefully crafted are developed by our top flavors, with the backing of Al Fakher, the number 1 shisha brand in the world. So it’s not just the device, the pods are perfectly tuned to work with it. Consumers will find the best Al Fakher flavors, but also great Shisha Kartel fantasy flavors, as well as the new addition, Zodiac, tea-based, nicotine free pods.

We know from our consumer research what people in the category want. They want a solution without charcoal, a product that saves them time to set-up, that makes the clean-up simpler and that is ultimately healthier. Our tests on OOKA show that there are no measurable levels of carbon monoxide and overall 99% less of the “bad stuff” that one could find in popular heat-not-burn products.

  Talking about EHMD and its investments. What do you think about Medad Technology said its Nesta pipe delivers a nicotine hit via ultrasonic vibrations, which could cut cancer risk from inhaling toxic fumes.The technology has been four years in the making, at a cost of more than $50 million.  

We have not seen this device in the market yet so it’s hard to have an informed point of view. From the articles posted it is clear that this is more of a vape so would compete in a different category versus OOKA. OOKA Pods contain authentic shisha molasses, not liquid, and our ambition is to give the shisha lovers the flavors they are passionate about, in a convenient system that requires no charcoal, reducing carbon monoxide to almost 0.

  You mentioned ” Al Fakher, the number 1 shisha brand in the world”. Can you back up this thesis with some facts for our readers? Like what kind of points / numbers / awards / studies makes Al-Fakher the number 1 shisha brand in the world?

We have plenty and extensive internal historical data, which coupled with external reports, information from tax authorities around the world, etc, confirm that we are comfortably the biggest shisha brand in the world. We are still not satisfied and want to keep growing and delighting consumers to deliver the best possible products

I’ve been an old customer (since 2009) of Hookah-Shisha Central – online hookah shop based in US (actually one of the first online hookah shops in the hookah industry operating more than 23 years)

  

Not long ago Air Global bought this business from the previous owner Sami Romman. And I’ve get an interesting customer newsletter:

  Where online shop offer me to join the Shisha Community App. What is shisha.com ?

  Shisha.com is a community APP where Shisha lovers can connect, explore and learn about the category. They can find out about new lounges, new brand and flavor launches from around the world, share their tips and thoughts about what’s happening in the world of Shisha.

Please look at the words from one of our hookah battle contestants Taku from Baan Shisha Lounge from Japan with a reply to the question 

What inspires you to work in the hookah industry? (Mix and Story Show 2023)

Freedom – that’s the inspiration I get from smoking hookah. Hookah represents freedom to me, as I can mix any flavor I want in the bowl and use any juice in the bottle. I can even turn a hose into an ice hose. This freedom inspires my creativity.

Which way Air Global will choose for the future:

– move towards simplification in the hope of attracting new participants in the hookah market (like you do with OOKA – its simplifies all the rituals related to hookah preparation)

or

– give active market participants products that will allow them to unleash their own creativity and freedom?  

The amazing social component.

Hookah is by nature a ritual to best enjoyed with others and i like to think first as a consumer before than a professional when creating engaging content and products- that myself , would like to engage with. The team I lead is very young and dynamic, very passionate to everything Hookah related, We like to work hard and play harder!

Which way Air Global will choose for the future:

At AIR we will continue to cater for every consumer needs. We are a consumer-driven company, we give people what they want. There are a significant number of people worldwide that want to enjoy shisha but found the process cumbersome, for those OOKA is the solution. There are growing number of consumers wanting high-quality Fantasy Flavors, and for them Shisha Kartel is the solution. When there is a large, global consumer need, we will do our best to fulfil that.

  Last week, at ShishaMesse Frankfurt we were given a golden medal for the most interesting product of the expo – Aeon EHMD. It costs around 250 euro and works with different types of hookah bowls, allowing you to use any type of tobacco with an electronic heat device . What do you think about it?  

We have not tried it, but we are big fans of any attempt to make the shisha category healthier, and clearly the removal of charcoal helps a lot.

Not long ago the most famous US hookah blogger, who every year organizes a hookah expo in Las-Vegas (HEW) – Hookah John cancelled planned for 2023 HEW event due to the number of exhibitors.

Kedric from the US team of Al-Fakher has been several times a Jury member of Hookah Battle USA Cup. I know that Al-Fakher has been one of the key partners of HEW events but its participation has been cancelled for the 2023 event. There are not so many people in the world who are trying to organize events for hookah lovers and professionals. Do you think it’s important to support such an organizators or the hookah industry does not need expos and events anymore? Can Air Global also review some options to invest into the companies who organize shisha events and expos?

Of course it is very important to support the community. There is no doubt that at a global level no company supports this category like we do. Whether it’s store owners through investment in educational point of sale materials, collaborating with lounges to deliver the best mixes, working with Industry experts or liaising with regulators to protect our category across countries, we are constantly engaged with the community. We invest heavily also in the science of shisha, studying the toxicology of the products to make sure we deliver the best solutions for consumers. All of this means we need to put our funds and resources behind the opportunities that are most pressing at particular points in time. We will continue to evaluate all opportunities as they come and allocate our funds accordingly

Thank you for the interview! 

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