Tropical Tempest: A-Rod Endorsement Confuses Coconut Category

So who, exactly, does #13 work for?

On the baseball diamond, it’s obviously the New York Yankees, for whom

Current Squeeze: Rodriguez and Vita Coco

Alex Rodriguez wears the number on his uniform and plays third base.

But in the beverage aisle, it’s a bit more confusing, especially following revelations that Rodriguez is an investor in ZICO as well as a paid endorser – and possibly shareholder – of Vita Coco, the answer appears to be both companies.

It’s even more confusing, however, because not only is Rodriguez financially connected to both companies, he’s also promoted sales for both of them.

While Rodriguez was introduced as one of the new faces of Vita Coco last week in consumer-facing campaigns, BevNET has learned the Yankee slugger was also featured in videos designed to motivate the sales force for distributors selling ZICO. Such motivational vehicles are by no means uncommon – they are part of the broad spectrum of tools used to get sales representatives to focus on the performance of a particular brand — but the irony is clear: Rodriguez hyped ZICO, and now he is hyping its rival.

The two coconut water brands are fighting it out – along with PepsiCo-owned O.N.E. – for dominance in the fast-emerging category, particularly in the Northeast. The endorsement by “A-Rod” and another baseball star, Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, that they were backing Vita Coco for its hydrating, functional properties was intended as a strong lateral move to extend the brand directly into the field of athletic performance. To date, ZICO – partially owned by Coca-Cola — has positioned itself as most directly aligned with that use occasion, although O.N.E. has also released varieties geared toward sports and active usage. Vita Coco has been more closely identified with celebrity singers and actors as investors. Some of them, like Rodriguez’s former girlfriend, Madonna, have been used to grab headlines for the company.

Following news of the Rodriguez endorsement of Vita Coco, ZICO founder Mark Rampolla revealed that the Yankee star had been an investor in his company for several years – and had even invested more money in the company than Rampolla himself.

Investing broadly across a sector is by no means illegal – funds run by the investment firm Partnership Capital Growth, for example, has made investments in acai-based juice companies Sambazon and Mona Vie. And the fast growth of coconut water has turned it into a product clamored for by distributors, retailers, consumers and investors alike.

But investing and endorsing are two different things. Claims by Rodriguez that he was introduced to Vita Coco by his athletic trainer may have followed what Rampolla claimed were years of shipments of ZICO to the slugger.  Rampolla said last week that ZICO continued to ship product to Rodriguez even after the company added a bottled formula made with concentrated coconut water – an assertion made to counter statements from the slugger’s camp that the switch had been made due to the release of the concentrated product.

Regardless, Rampolla – who has been fairly quiet about his brand’s own celebrity backers – revealed some of them in the midst of the controversy. In addition to Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett, who has equity and is endorsing the brand as a spokesman, he also has New York Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire.

He also offered to buy the shares back from Rodriguez.

According to Kirban, the impact of any potential publicity concerning Rodriguez’s investment in or support for ZICO is outweighed by the amount of attention Vita Coco has received from the announcement and subsequent coverage. He likened it to the effects of the publicity surrounding a video produced by pop star Rihanna — who will be the face of a national Vita Coco campaign this summer — that has been criticized in some circles for violent imagery.

“It wasn’t great for [Rodriguez] personally, but for the brand, I don’t think it was horribly negative press,” Kirban said. “Look at Rihanna – she’s getting so much bad press for the music video. We were in that video and we were in it in a big way – but it’s getting so much video and so much attention, people are going to see it, and they see the brand.”