This entry was first posted on December 5, 2005 at the old Brandstory Blog (link available for a limited time).
Sometime between the turkey and the five day James Bond-a-thon on Spike TV, I took some time during the Thanksgiving Holiday to read Darren Rovell’s new book, First in Thirst, about Gatorade. It’s a great business story. Gatorade dominates its category, with more than 80% of the market, and 546 million cases sold every year. So what did it take Gatorade to get there?
1. A great story. Gatorade was developed on the playing field. It was tested on athletes in real game situations. And it (probably) made a difference to the Florida Gators’ endurance. During the 1965 season, the Gators outscored their opponents by 158 points in the second half. Since then, athletes have depended on Gatorade to help them hydrate before, during, and after games. It’s a killer story. And Gatorade has stayed true to it for more than 30 years. The story is so engaging, that fans often embellish it to make it better than it really is.
Other sports drinks were invented in boardrooms to fill holes in a product line, not to meet the need of athletes. Even though some of these drinks may actually have more effective formulas, they simply don’t have the story, history, and cultural influence that Gatorade has today, and so they don’t break through.
2. Engaged Consumers. The Gatorade dunk is the single most visible use of Gatorade in sports every week. And it wasn’t invented by the company, but by a (high-profile) consumer. And rather than stepping in to encourage the dunk every week, or in new situations, Gatorade simply let this phenomena grow on its own. If it had been a “marketing event,” the dunk would have been phony and would have within a few weeks. But because it was a spontaneous activity every week, it grew until today you can see hundreds of gallons of Gatorade dumped on dozens of coaches almost every week. TV cameras still look for it twenty years after the first dunk as if it were the first time it ever happened.
3. Natural Product Placements. Before Michael Jordan, Gatorade focused on making its product available on the sidelines of major sports. It was where you would expect to see Gatorade in use. Sideline shots of athletes off the field naturally showed them drinking from their Gatorade cups and water bottles. Anyone watching the show would naturally assume that Gatorade was the athlete’s choice for an endurance drink. Note: this is very different from writing the product into the plot of a sit-com or providing a cooler of the product on a reality TV show (yes, I know Gatorade has done both appearing on The Contender and Two and a Half Men, but the important placements are on the field).
4. Serendipity. The break-through campaign featuring Michael Jordan almost never happened. A series of high-light reel spots was planned when Bernie Pitzel, the creative responsible for the first Jordan campaign, went home to watch a movie with his son. When he heard “I Wan’na Be Like You” from the animated Disney film Jungle Book, he knew he had to use it. But when Disney wanted $350,000 for a 5 week run, Pitzel penned his own version, “Be Like Mike.” Paired with kids trying to be like Mike, the ads were a hit. And they humanized Jordan in a way that made Gatorade appealing not just to athletes, but people (and kids) who wanted to do something athletic.
5. Authenticity and Relevance. Everything about Gatorade is authentic, from the product’s heritage to its placement at sporting events. You expect to see it on the sidelines of games from the NFL to little league, from college basketball to youth soccer. And Gatorade management hasn’t tried (very seriously) to take the product beyond that market, despite the huge temptation to grow into the much larger soda market. Because of this, Gatorade has stayed relevant to its core market—athletes and others who want to hydrate, whether they are playing in an important game, or just watching one of TV.
First in Thirst is a fun, well-written profile of an interesting company. There are a lot more ideas in the book. Get your copy, here.