October 06, 2005


First in Thirst: How Gatorade Turned the Science of Sweat into a Cultural Phenomenon. By Darren Rovell. AMACOM. $21.95.

     This is not only a well-researched and entertainingly written history of one of the most recognizable brands in the United States, but also a case history that can help marketers and brand managers focus on techniques that can bring them at least a modicum of Gatorade’s success – though probably not its 80% market share.

     Darren Rovell, sports business reporter for ESPN.com, has spent years studying Gatorade and has gained remarkable access to the people who made and still make it a success.  That success dates back to a foul-tasting, salty liquid created in 1965 for the University of Florida’s football team, the Gators.  Developed by Robert Cade, an associate professor of medicine specializing in kidney disease, with the help of three research fellows, the original drink was a sodium-and-potassium-enhanced formula designed to move quickly through the body and replace fluids and electrolytes lost through sweat.  It didn’t taste good, but it helped the college athletes maintain stamina and body weight during games.

     Rovell takes the story from its origin through numerous highs, a few lows, and a fair number of byways.  He explains how a company known for pork and beans improved Gatorade’s flavor…how the famous Gatorade bath started with an act of revenge against New York Giants Coach Bill Parcells…how the Disney movie The Jungle Book inspired the “Be Like Mike” jingle that brought Gatorade unprecedented attention and popularity…how Gatorade fought off challenges from Pepsi’s AllSport and Coca-Cola’s POWERade…and much more.  The book tends toward hagiography – perhaps one reason Rovell got such extensive access to Gatorade sources – but does not ignore the brand’s marketing missteps, such as Gatorade Light and the misguided brand extensions of Gatorgum and Gator Bars.

     Marketers and brand managers would do well to focus on the nine “Gatorade Rules” that Rovell extracts from this story: Be sure you have a unique product or service, and know why it is unique; keep researching the market; identify what drives your business, and focus on it; keep working to get new consumers; focus on packaging; learn from mistakes; connect passion to the brand; stay disciplined to avoid devaluing the brand; form smart strategic alliances.  The specific ways Gatorade implemented these rules are unique – for  instance, it was able to identify team trainers as the pros who influence top athletes because of Olympic javelin champion Bill Schmidt, who took over Gatorade sports marketing in 1983.  But the basic principles are sound, as is a tenth one: be lucky.  Gatorade as a brand has passed through several owners, from Stokely-Van Camp to Quaker Oats to PepsiCo, without ever losing its niche, its marketplace strength or the commitment of marketers and executives to make it even better.  The lesson is that great planning and execution, in marketing as in sports, is a necessity for victory.  But so is at least a smidgen of luck.

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