Business Blog Book Tour #10: Darren Rovell’s “First In Thirst”

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I’ve been reading a lot of biographies lately of fascinating, dramatic figures, like George WashingtonAlexander HamiltonTE Lawrence and have really loved being transported into their time and their story. Well, I just had a fascinating telephone conversation with Darren Rovell, author another such an interesting, dramatic and compelling biography, but this time it’s about, get this, a beverage – Gatorade. The book is called FIRST INTHIRST: How Gatorade Turned the Science of Sweat into a Cultural Phenomenon. But before I go into the discussion we had – which serves as stop number three in the Business Blog Book Tour #10 – let me say a few words about the book.

First, I was incredibly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I am not much of an athlete or a sports fan (don’t chuckle too much, given that we wrote our own book heavily laden with sports metaphors) and the most I have used Gatorade for is to avoid dehydration after getting a parasite traveling in Asia, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I wasn’t kidding when I called this book a biography, and a damn good one at that. The story of the inventors, the sports teams, and the business people behind this amazing branding and cultural phenomenon had all the drama, characters and movement of a great biography, all the more compelling because it is so unconventional and unexpected. It is also very readable, you can tell that Mr. Rovell has had a lot of practice in his role at ESPN, capturing the action in punchy words that keep the reader turning the pages.

So go out and get a copy – click here or here. Also check out his blog.

Here’s is a quick summary of our conversation:

Marketing Playbook (MPB):
Darren, you know I really liked your book a lot but you have to admit is a bit unusual. What possessed you to write it in the first place?

Darren Rovell (DR):
You know I’m a brand history junky. I really love learning about how these things that we see and experience everyday in our loves came to be there in the first place. I am especially fascinated by what enters kids’ psyches, why and how. The battle for Kid’s heads fascinates me. And if you think about long term brands that have really hit kids’ radar and have stuck there successfully in this battle, three come to mind:

  • McDonalds
  • Nike
  • And Gatorade.

Sure there is Coke and tons of books have been written about Coke and Nike and McDonalds, but I just could not figure out why no one had ever done this for Gatorade before.
And the more I dug into it the more I fell in love with the story. These guys are interesting. If they were boring it would have been harder, but they are actually true “characters” so it was fun. And they deserved to have their story out there as well.

MPB: Who did you write this book for?

Of course I wrote it for athletes who would like the story, love Gatorade and will like the story of the teams and players. And of course I wrote it for the business person who would love to deconstruct how such a powerful brand was built in such an obscure category. But I also wrote the book for regular folks who might just plain wonder how the heck their four year old kid knows about and asks for a strange colored, salty sports drink.

You know my six year old is always demanding those little six packs of purple Gatorade. He thinks they’re cool.

It’s funny, I got an email recently from a 45 year old mom who picked up the book. She is not a business person, not a sports fan, but she was just plain wondering why every male member of her family is drinking the stuff. I love that.

As we discussed on of the things we are hung up on over here is what kind of play a company is running and how well they are doing at it. What would you say is, or has been, the Gatorade play?

In some ways this is a hard play to call. Internally, one of the things I admire is how much the Gatorade team acts like they are always in a life or death dragrace. They worry all the time about Powerade. They see them as the enemy and always want to make sure they are ahead. At the same time how can you really be in a dragrace when you have nearly “illegal” market share?

So in another way, they are acting like they are in a platform play, rising above the noise and continuing to grow the overall sports drink category.

Finally, at the same time, you could say they began by executing on a stealth strategy, focusing on an underserved, un-noticed subsegment of the market – non carbonated sports drinks and staying way under Coke’s and others’ radar for some time. Until now where the whole category of alternative, non carbonated beverages is a huge growth category of it’s own – vitamin waters, bottled teas, and yeah, the giant business of bottled water. And yet somehow amidst all this Gatorade keeps growing.

I want to talk about how they have pulled that off shortly, but one more second on the plays. You mentioned Powerade. How do they fit into this playing field?

That’s pretty interesting. Powerade only recently got to 15% market share. And you can’t really dragrace someone until you have at least that level of momentum behind you. But Powerade goes right after Gatorade all the time. They launched their new brand Option as a direct attack on Gatorade. “Not for jocks” and “80% fewer calories than Gatorade”. Well, first, why tell people they aren’t jocks in such a bald way, and second, while it may be 80% fewer calories than Gatorade, Option actually has 85% fewer calories than regular Powerade. Hmmm…

MPB: How is Gatorade responding/executing in all this?

This is one the things I really admire about the company. They are being smart. Although they may have a dragrace mentality internally, they are wise enough to know that taking such bait would only help their opponents. They are the leader. They never compare themselves. They do want to be the first in everything. But they will copy something if it makes sense and they have to.

MPB: An example?

Powerade was the first to come out with small containers for kids and Gatorade followed.

You know Gatorade has come a long way. It was a salty drink for southern football players and now it’s something my 6 year old begs me for. What’s the secret? How’d did they do it?

It’s almost a paradox. On the one hand, these guys are very disciplined, conservative and old fashioned. Unlike a lot of brands that try to change what they stand for all the time, Gatorade really wants to stick to its roots and keep continuity with what it has always stood for. They have always been about the aspiration that athletes can provide to all of us. They always will be. They have never varied this, they have never emphasized other benefits (like Doctors recommending it) or tried to shift their image to other hip, popular icons. They are adamant that there has never been any change to the formula (unlike Coke which faced all the problems of its back and forth shifts).

Yet at the same time, they have changed a ton and been incredibly creative. First, whatever they say about the formula, it does taste better. They only had 2 flavors until 1983 and now they have tons. In the last 5-7 years they have grown the variety of packaging options dramatically. Back when I was coming up, all you ever had was one big jug, one flavor in the house. Now there are tons of households with lots of bottles stacked in the pantry. Also, they have been great at exploiting the convenience store channel. They have more sales in convenience stores than in super markets. Brilliantly executed.

Another paradox is, despite the focus on athletes, the fact that most people drink Gatorade on a sedentary basis. Heck, only 15% of US households have a health club membership. And Gatorade sells way to much to only be targetting them.

MPB: When did this shift happen?

Well, back in the 80s, Gatorade was still a bit wierd, just for athletes. And you took pride in chugging it down after working up a sweat. It was sometime in the mid 1990’s that the majority of people really started just drinking it, not when they were working out but because they liked it.

Isn’t this all a bit like Nike. That brand – which really is all about something, just as mundane – shoes – came to mean all these aspirational things to people. It started out as performance footwear and became an icon of cool. How would you compare the two?

No one has asked that before, but if you think about it the diffference goes back to that basic conservatism that I talked about.

Nike is constantly evolving it’s technology. Yes Nike is still about athletes and stars. But it is always trying to be cutting edge and cooler and cooler. And it has done a lot more to stretch the brand into extentions and other apparel etc. You can argue whether all this has been great or not. Heck, for all the cool new technology, a lot of kids really just want their plain white Air Force Ones.

In constrast, for all the changes at Gatorade, from colors, to flavors, to sizes, to packaging (heck even to having aGatorade Sports Science Institute to add some thought leadership and reinforce the “secret sauce”), Gatorade remains one of the few brands still truly rooted in its past. They don’t want to change the basics.

MPB: And that sure seems to be working.

DR: Sure it. And I think it will keep doing so.

MPB: Thanks so much for your time. And good luck with your fascinating book.

DR: Thank you

Be sure to check out the other stops on the Business Blog Book Tour: