Democratizing What It Means To Be An Athlete

By Angela Craig, Pick of the Litter Winner 2009
Agency: TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles
Client: Gatorade
Category: 2009


This paper will show how planning pushed the limits of consumer research by training for a triathlon with the target audience. This intense immersion provided deep insights that led to an emotionally inspiring campaign and got our audience to reconsider their definition of an athlete.

Context: Just a Sports Drink for Hard-Core Jocks

For over 40 years, Gatorade’s soul had been rooted in hard-core sports. As the inventor of the sports drink category, Gatorade enjoyed decades as the undisputed champ. Grimacing faces of the world’s best athletes convinced generations they needed to drink Gatorade to win in the fourth quarter. But success spawned competition and their reign was now being challenged: A myriad of beverage choices resulted in Gatorade no longer being the default sports drink choice. (see enclosed: Beverage Timeline) Most consumers did not think of themselves as athletes or necessarily see themselves in the sweat-drenched faces of the brand. * Increasingly calorie-conscience consumers were looking for a beverage that would re-hydrate without negating their progress.

On the defensive, in 2008 Gatorade launched low-calorie G2 and positioned it as an “off the field hydrator.” Unfortunately, featuring super-stars like Derek Jeter, Maria Sharapova and Dwayne Wade reinforced that Gatorade was only for elite athletes. Worse yet, from a business standpoint G2 wasn’t helping the team. During its first season, G2 cannibalized the existing product line and fell short of overall incremental sales goals.

Task: Use G2 to Re-define Gatorade’s Relevance

In 2009, we needed to make some major half-time adjustments. The agency was tasked with a complete overhaul of the Gatorade brand, of which G2 was only a small element in the overall portfolio, as was clearly reflected in the resources and budget dedicated to the project. Our task for G2 was monumental given a mere print budget.

Understanding the Consumer: “I’m Athletic but I’m Not an Athlete”

I couldn’t understand why in several “athlete on the street interviews” a recurring theme came to life. People I chatted with at the gym, running stairs or biking said, “Gatorade’s not for me, I’m athletic but I’m not an athlete.” As a former NCAA Division 1 soccer player, I’ve always defined myself as an “athlete.” Why didn’t they think of themselves in the same way?

To gain a deeper understanding, I decided to train for my first triathlon with Team In Training, a charity program that prepares first-time athletes for a race in exchange for fundraising for cancer research. With a group of 42 first-time athletes as my new teammates, I trained for my first triathlon. Fully immersed in their world, I didn’t just chronicle their journey; I lived it and gathered some key observations: My teammates thought of themselves as athletic, but not as athletes because being an athlete, they thought, was all about the win. They didn’t see themselves in the Gatorade brand, (and in fact weren’t even using it as part of our training) because athletes, as portrayed by Gatorade, were all about the “4th quarter”, “time running out”, “intense winning moment.” Hard core jocks asking them the Gatorade tag “Is it in You?” wasn’t what they were about.

I continued to listen to my teammates talk about what kept them coming back to our training and pushing themselves. They were motivated by each others’ stories of how they had overcome challenges. Some were there for health reasons, some to raise money in honor of a loved one, and others just to prove to themselves they could make it. Whatever their motivation, they were in it for more than just crossing the finish line. * What initially brought them there was not nearly as important as the individual and collective journey that changed each of their lives.

To them, being an athlete had nothing to do with winning, it was about the journey.

Athlete Insight: It’s the Journey, Not the Destination

As part of a post-Olympics celebration, our Gatorade clients invited us to interview Misty May-Treanor, Kerri Walsh, Candace Parker and Dwayne Wade. We took this rare opportunity to ask them about the best moments of their athletic career. Surprisingly, the stories they told were not about magical moments when they won, but their journey to get there. To them, what they had overcome was more significant than their Gold medals.

The importance of the journey was a powerful connection between the two groups. With the insights from our research, we developed a new game plan on how to engage with our audience.

Strategy: Democratize “Athlete”

Gatorade had always been about championing champions. Now G2 needed to be about championing everyone else as well. Highlighting the “journey,” we needed to shift the spotlight to a new definition of “athlete” by being an advocate for everybody who pushes each day to be fit and healthy. As a low-calorie beverage, G2 was the perfect Gatorade product for this role. By democratizing what it means to be an athlete, our goal was to get our audience to think of themselves as an athlete, reconnect with the Gatorade brand, and fuel their journey with G2.

The Creative Idea: Elevate the Everyday Athlete

Our culture has always put competitive athletes on a pedestal. In the spirit of democratization, we elevated the everyday athlete to an equal place of importance. Since we believed they were athletes, they should be celebrated in a similar way. Armed with our insight about honoring the journey, we recruited everyday athletes to tell their stories and juxtaposed them against the trials of our professional athletes. Instead of focusing on their different accomplishments, the journey of two seemingly disparate types of athletes served to highlight their similarities and redefine the idea of an athlete.

Results: A New Definition of “Athlete”

We knew that we were onto something amazing when a couple clients started to tear-up during the creative presentation. They loved our print comps and felt that our insight into the importance of the journey was so powerful that it should be amplified in TV and online. This honesty connected with our audience, too, and convinced “everyday athletes” to see themselves as true athletes.

  1. We elevated the “everyday athlete”
  2. One of the print ads sparked a competition to find the everyday “Serena” to star alongside Serena Williams to give further credibility to our efforts to elevate the everyday athlete.
  3. Over 100 real-life “Serenas” submitted their stories
  4. Generated over 58.5 million impressions through major hits like: USA Today, ESPN, The Huffington Post, Access Hollywood, Shape magazine and more.
  5. Of the buzz generated, 92% was about who we wanted to emphasize: the “everyday athlete”

  6. The planning insight was at the heart of the new brand relevance of the media impressions of the G2 story highlighted the concept of “everyday athletes” and noted that G2 was redefining the meaning of “athlete.” (Source: Fleishman Brand Metrics)

  7. The emotional connection to their journey brought new athletes to the brand

  8. Athlete blogs exploded with positive, emotional connections to the stories and the brand
  9. The dancing community responded with positive praise as more “athletic” people began to see themselves as athletes and, more importantly, as a part of the Gatorade family.

  10. Strengthened G2 brand rating and credibility (Source: MilwardBrown tracking study)

  11. “Enjoyment” of brand increased by 78%
  12. 28% increase in “Credibility”
  13. 13% increase in overall positive brand rating