CHANGES AND CHALLENGES
It’s those active consumers that the brand will turn to as it seeks to become relevant again. Recently, O’Hagan said, Gatorade surveyed thousands of athletes about their needs, and responded to its findings by stripping the entire line of high-fructose corn syrup and adding pre- and post- workout products to flank its core thirst quencher. The pre-workout product, Gatorade Prime, packs B vitamins and 25 grams of sugar into a 4 oz. pouch. Gatorade Recover follows the athletic-trainer recommended mix of carbohydrates, electrolytes, and that ever-popular (and once verboten around Gatorade HQ) building block, protein, into a 16.9 oz bottle to help restore muscles after a hard workout.
In addition, Gatorade is shooting for the intense amateur, a performance-minded field of consumers who have turned into targets for a growing number of sports and nutrition products. In seeking those hardcore types, the company opened the door for its “elite” formulations to hit the mainstream market for the first time.
As the product of a “sports science institute,” Gatorade has long offered scientifically optimized formulations to top athletes – O’Hagan noted that 88 percent of athletes in America’s top five professional sports leagues use Gatorade. Now, it’s selling some of those innovations at places like GNC and Dick’s Sporting Goods under the name G Series Pro.
Meanwhile, Gatorade has even launched Gatorade Natural, which will only be offered through the natural channel. O’Hagan called that part of the brand’s “surgical” market strategy. (Not a bad idea, especially considering that Whole Foods has soured on vitaminwater since its acquisition by Coke.)
“You are where you sell,” she said.
And, apparently to whom you sell, as well. O’Hagan said the company specifically targeted G Series Pro at trainers, marathon runners and other serious, lifetime athletes to garner support from those who influence the purchasing patterns of young competitors across all sports. The sporting world has moved beyond those sports represented by the top five professional sports leagues, and Gatorade wants elite athletes from lacrosse, skateboarding, distance running and other physical competitions to reach for G Series Pro when they need nutritional fortification.
But the brand may face a hurdle when trying to reach those influencer consumers. Currently, serious athletes tend to view the brand with disdain, according to Mike Gibson, the lead nutrition product salesman at Sports Basement in Sunnyvale Cali.
“I have rarely, if ever, had a customer come in specifically looking for Gatorade,” he said. “On occasion it does happen, but the majority of people come in looking for just about anything but Gatorade.”
Gibson said his customers now prefer other isotonics, like Cytomax or dissolvable nuun tablets. He also doesn’t see much opportunity for the brand to reclaim those consumers. Gatorade will continue to attract the uninitiated, he said, but those searching for individualized performance will continue to look elsewhere.
But the brand’s recent efforts may change some minds. Jim Launer, owner and head trainer at the Ignite training center in Camp Hill, Pa. said he has long advised athletes to avoid Gatorade, instead encouraging them to drink water, and only allowing sports drinks – usually protein-bearing Accelerade – for some workouts. But upon hearing that Gatorade had started offering pre- and post- workout formulations (and natural sugar), he softened his outlook for the brand.
“That’s falling along the lines of what the Accelerade product is,” Launer said. “I do really like the fact that they’re eliminating the high-fructose corn syrup.”
While the brand’s repositioning may earn it a second glance from some consumers, the upheaval invited risk. Shifting the brand’s focus to the capital letter “G” and away from its lightning bolt logo drew derision from long-time consumers and skepticism from industry insiders. The brand similarly sowed confusion by relabeling its sub-lines like “Rain” and “Fierce” as “No Excuses” and “Bring It.” Its more recent overhaul triggered further confusion. Business Pundit blogger Rob May said the new array of products baffled him.
“Is this just a move to make choosing a sports drink as complicated as choosing a cell phone plan?” he wrote.
O’Hagan acknowledges that the shift stirred ire and confusion, but said it was necessary to build rapport with the next generation of consumers and pave the way for the G Series. PepsiCo asserts that the new branding resonates better with teens and pointed to the comparative ease with which one can spot the G on sideline coolers, but it offered no hard data on that idea’s effectiveness.
Meanwhile, respondents to Deutsche Bank’s 15-30 year-old “What’s Facebook Drinking” survey gave the campaign middling ratings.
But Gatorade is standing behind “G.” The company recently took a 53-foot-long “mobile locker room” to visit high schools in nine cities, promoting what it called “The G Series Experience.” On television, the National Basketball Association’s biggest stars prominently consumed the G Series before, during and after playoff games. A PepsiCo spokesman, speaking to the Wall Street Journal, called it “biggest spend for a launch in our history.”
While Gatorade focuses on practice fields, dugouts and sidelines, D’Amore says he hopes other PepsiCo products can pick up the slack that Gatorade carried for the company for nearly a decade. First and foremost, he said, he wants Aquafina to retain consumers trading down to bottled water. For those looking for enhanced water, he wants to see a move to SoBe Lifewater and Propel, both of which have gone through significant restages.
SoBe Lifewater began as a vitaminwater copycat and shipped in bottles that closely resembled those of the category leader. PepsiCo has since invested in proprietary packaging and innovation for the line. SoBe Lifewater’s swirled, fully-wrapped bottles served as an early proving ground for stevia-derived sweeteners, and the line now boasts seven naturally-sweetened, zero-calorie flavors.
Propel, meanwhile, has struggled with its identity. It appeared originally as a low-calorie Gatorade sub-brand with the tag-line “How Gatorade Does Water,” but it drifted away from its parent brand. Now, D’Amore said, fueled by the company’s recently found ability to cold-fill the product, PepsiCo will promote Propel as a value-positioned, zero-calorie enhanced water. Gatorade – and the category it founded – has matured since its early days under the hot Florida sun. Riding high on more than three decades of unchallenged category leadership, it got fat, and drifted away from its own core training purpose. Now it contends for consumers’ attention against Powerade and vitaminwater, while it has to get up and play against a wide array of nutrition shop brands. PepsiCo is gambling that returning Gatorade to its core will pay off. If it doesn’t work out, however, Gatorade might have to recast itself once again – as the official beverage of the Senior Tour.