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R.I.P. Gatorade (1965-2009): A Senseless Marketing Tragedy

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Gatorade, one of the most well known brands of our time, was inexplicably laid to rest in early 2009 after suffering from a brief yet catastrophic case of marketing malaise. It is survived by heartbroken marketers who mourn the loss of a true brand luminary and by millions of confused consumers around the globe. Without argument, there hasn't been a more untimely demise or massive misstep in recent beverage brand memory than the internment of the brand consumers know and love as Gatorade.

Marketing pundits at PepsiCo's Gatorade division, for reasons beyond thoughtful imagination, believed that changing a brand-leading household name from "Gatorade" to "G" would reverse market share loss and slumping sales. The corporate team and like-minded agencies decided that a product with consumer awareness numbers higher than most deities should be replaced with a single letter that would require hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising before it held any meaning at all.

In an industry where experts have evangelized "brand equity" since the dawn of the ad man, the loss of Gatorade falls well outside of logic. Just about everyone in the free (and many in the less than free) world know the name Gatorade. The brand's level of unaided, feel good awareness is the stuff we marketers dream about. And yet, faced with sagging sales, the choice was made to ditch the brand that was over 40 years in the perfecting. In essence, the Kleenex of sports beverages had changed its name to facial tissue.

Sadly, the experts at Gatorade failed to realize that the brand name was its biggest asset, not a problem in need of solving or its drastic change a solution to the problems it was having. Consumers knew what Gatorade was in general terms, but simply weren't given enough of the "why to buy" necessary to move a brand. You can change a name and packaging and introduce a glitzy new ad campaign, but without the why Suzie Shopper needs to put it in her cart you won't sell product.

It's true that if you're losing shelf space/market share/sales, all facets of marketing must be carefully considered. However, if you have a brand with an awareness level that rivals God, the last thing you should do is walk (or in this case wind sprint run) away from it. Instead, the Gatorade team should have figured out why they were losing at retail and invested in that solve. They didn't need a new name or a few hundred million dollars more in image advertising. Certainly, roll up your sleeves and win the sale marketing is not as glamorous or as carefree as shooting a TV spot, but it is critical to a brand's sales success and a whole lot less expensive. Having won the awareness battle, Team Gatorade needed to shift their primary focus to the wants/needs/desires of their consumers at the point of purchase impact. Further, strategies would need to be tailored depending on the product's sales environment.

In convenience stores where the majority of Gatorade pulls are typically single bottles chosen by males, center the in-store promotional and advertising campaign that delivers on the target's wants/needs/desires. In general merchandise and grocery stores where Suzie Shopper mom lives, center the effort on what she wants/needs/desires to provide for her family. Mom might not know and/or care who basketball star Kevin Garnett is, but she does want to answer the nags of her children and/or feel she's doing what's best for them and her household.

Luckily for us marketers, most of our races are marathons and not sprints. Often we can change strategies mid-race, and improve on our tale of the register tape. If your well-known brand's share is slipping, begin your solve at the point where your product can actually be purchased. Build out a marketing strategy from that arena. Consider the competitive environment, and the wants/needs/desires of the consumer (typically a woman) who is purchasing the vast majority of your products. Get a keen understanding of what your competition is doing that's hurting your sales. Form a strategy with key retailers, and give them a reason to believe that their bottom line will benefit from your brand's marketing plan. If you start where you can sell and win the battles from that point outward, invariably you will have to spend less on advertising in the long run. And what you save on advertising can be invested in winning more often at retail.

Regardless (and sometimes in spite) of our own expert musings about the industry, the primary purpose of marketing never changes. We're in business of selling products. If we don't sell, we've failed. We can say that marketing is about awareness and traffic and click through rates and eyeballs and exposure and a host of other things, but nothing really matters if we're not selling products or services. Corporations, brand managers and agencies don't own brands, consumers do. A product or service is worth nothing until it is purchased. We need to deliver a compelling promise to consumers which rings loud and clear at the register before we claim victory.

Here's hoping that G becomes Gatorade again, and Team Gatorade hones in on the battle at point of purchase. Well hydrated and filled with marketing savvy, Gatorade can once again be the undisputed sports beverage heavyweight champion. Until then, let's all take a knee and pray for a resurrection.

Sarah O'Leary is the author of BRANDWASHED: What's Wrong with Marketing and How We Can Fix it, due for publication in 2009. She is also the chief strategist of Logic Marketing for Sales (thelogicagency.com).