Sports Marketing

Why Gatorade is expanding its marketing beyond superstar athletes

There’s a “broader opportunity” in working with lesser-known athletes, Mark Kirkham, CMO of international beverages at PepsiCo, told us.
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· 5 min read

There’s an obvious demographic associated with Gatorade: people with hangovers.

Also athletes. The PepsiCo brand has seemingly worked with all of the greats: Michael Jordan, Mia Hamm, Usain Bolt, Abby Wambach, Leo Messi, Serena Williams. The list goes on.

But despite its ongoing push to associate with the highest-profile athletes across sports, Gatorade has taken some fairly dramatic steps in recent years to shift its sports marketing spend toward the “grassroots level,” according to Mark Kirkham, SVP and CMO of international beverages at PepsiCo.

For instance, the brand’s parent company, PepsiCo, recently ended its partnership with the Super Bowl halftime show, and Gatorade did the same with the NHL, instead choosing to focus on investing in younger and more diverse athletes. Last year, Gatorade committed $10 million over five years to help improve access to sports.

“We want to be partnering with the best, and we want to be seen as someone that’s innovating and also elevating the story of athletes around the world,” Kirkham told Marketing Brew. “But at the same time, we also need to think of the broader opportunity in the broader consumer base.”

Started from the bottom

It’s not only the GOATs you’ll see in Gatorade content these days. In 2020, for instance, Colombian pro soccer player Gisela Robledo Gil appeared in a commercial alongside several superstars. The brand has made some NIL investments as well, including UConn’s Paige Bueckers, Anthony Richardson when he was at the University of Florida, and Shedeur Sanders when he played for Jackson State.

Gatorade also started the youth soccer tournament Gatorade 5v5 in 2015 that began in Latin America, Kirkham said, but has expanded to include other countries like Korea, the United Arab Emirates, Thailand, and the US. Last year brought the first all-girls tournament, and this year’s tournament, which is tied to the brand’s partnership with the UEFA, has a sustainability component.

“The whole platform becomes more purposeful, more impactful, and ultimately, it puts the brand in a different light, because we’re helping overcome barriers and create new experiences,” he said.

Gatorade made a docuseries about the tournament that debuted during the 2019 Tribeca TV Festival. It featured five athletes from that year, including Robledo. “Authentic storytelling” like that is a valuable—if not integral—part of PepsiCo’s broader sports sponsorship strategy, Kirkham said, whether that’s partnerships with the biggest leagues in the world or relatively unknown athletes.

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“Our strategy, I don’t think, fundamentally changes in terms of what our ultimate goal is,” he said. “We want to leverage the power of sport. We want to leverage the power of athletes to help build our brands and build authentic stories. But because we’ve been…elevating different athletes in different sports, and even less competitive athletes, I think it gives us the ability to tell a much broader narrative, a more authentic story.”

Show me the money

In Q1, Gatorade posted “high-single-digit net revenue growth” in North America, according to the company. Over the past year, the brand has expanded its product line to include everything from gummies to energy drinks.

Though the brand seems to be experiencing momentum, tracking the value of sports sponsorships—like stadium names or logos on a jersey—can be tricky. It’s “even more challenging” at the grassroots level, Kirkham said, but Gatorade applies the same strategy for measurement no matter the size of the partnership.

The brand works with research partners to track brand association with the specific sports it’s investing in, as well as whether or not brand sentiment is changing as a result of its partnerships, according to Kirkham. For initiatives like Gatorade 5v5, participation is a key metric, especially the diversity of participants, including gender and country representation.

Still, grassroots investments like that aren’t as measurable as something like in-game advertisements or major league sponsorships, so Kirkham said he tries to tie those types of  activations to bigger plays. For instance, the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, an educational initiative from the brand, is associated with Gatorade’s Manchester City partnership, and athletes like Messi and Liga F’s Lucy Bronze appear in some of the brand’s educational content, which “will add even more traceable value…to the overall measurement equation,” he said.

“You then can show the overall halo approach where the sponsorship value and the grassroots activation value are actually coming together,” he said. “It’s still not the easiest way to always measure every activation you do, but…[if you take something] like Champions League or the NFL, and then you associate grassroots activities to it, what you’re doing is really elevating the role that grassroots can play.”

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