At the ripe age of 25, elite tennis star Maria Sharapova is looking ahead to life after sport and her future looks sweet. And sour. And gummy. Parlaying her life-long sweet tooth into a tasty business venture, the world champion and Olympic silver medalist this week launched Sugarpova, a line of premium sweet and sour gummy candies.
Sharapova has a long history of working with brands; she’s been the face of brands like TAG Heuer, Samsung, Evian, and Head, and has worked closely with Nike and Cole Haan to design lines for their brands. So it’s not really a surprise that branding and product development would be in her future. Indeed, she says the idea to create a candy collection had been floating around for years and that “it was really when the name Sugarpova was conceived that the whole thing came to fruition.”
Getting over for a moment that candy might not be the expected play for someone like Sharapova (hello, fashion line!), she says the venture is in keeping with her personality.
“I think it’s important that any venture, business or otherwise, feel authentic,” says Sharapova amid the frenzy of launch day. “As a little girl, I was awarded a lollipop after a good practice–I’ve had a love affair with candy ever since.”
The brand’s roots might seem steeped in frivolity–lollies after practice, an unrelenting sweet tooth, an impossibly cute name–but the strategy behind it could be sound. Gummy candy is a corner of the market that is lacking strong brand recognition and certainly doesn’t trigger a premium response.
“We felt that there was an unmet market need for a fun, flirty, feminine candy collection that felt luxurious but was also accessible. Most candy is marketed to children–but grown-up children need their candy too,” says Sharapova.
Always hands-on in her off-court dealings, Sharapova has been much more than a pretty-faced figurehead for Sugarpova. She is funding the venture entirely herself, and has she been central to product’s branding and the development of the candies.
“One thing that stands out to me is that retailing is about the full experience. Customers don’t want to buy an empty product–the designs that feel authentic and aspirational are those that tell a cohesive story. From the logo and graphics used, to the photoshoots (shot by fashion photog Liz Van Hoene), to the colors and shapes chosen, to the marketing platforms right down to the shopping bags–they all have to work together,” says Sharapova.
For that brand story, Sharapova turned to New York agency Dentsu which engaged branding agency Red Antler to channel Maria’s essence into a candy collection.
The star’s love of fashion and design guided Red Antler when conceiving the Sugarpova brand identity. “As much as she’s a tennis star she’s also a fashion icon. That inspired us throughout, thinking about this as a higher end, more fashionable, sophisticated brand of candy. It’s more of a lifestyle product,” says JB Osborne, Partner and CEO of Red Antler. That aspiration to lifestyle status has been met with placement in such luxury shops at Henri Bendel and It’Sugar.
Osborne says the core strategic idea for the brand became “sweets with teeth,” something that exuded personality. “Maria’s got a great sense of humor,” he says. “We were trying to bring out those different angles and personalities through the different names and messages of the candies.”
Sporting a vibrant pop art look and such names as Flirty, Cheeky, Quirky, Silly, Sassy and Chic–to say nothing of the sour versions–the collection is priced at $6 a bag. The Cheeky gummies are a familiar bear shape, while Flirty are pillowy lips. The Chic variety offers an assortment of fashion-shaped gummies, while Quirky is a marshmallow-stuffed licorice candy (Maria’s favorite). And quite possibly the most interesting candy in the collection, Sporty is a totally adorable gumball shaped like a tennis ball (which, incidentally, is already sold out online).
Each bag sports a lip logo that changes with each variety, something that Simon Endres, Red Antler’s Partner and Creative Director, became a great technical branding system. “One of our designers came up with the idea of embedding the pattern within the lips and changing the shape in the middle to express all these different personalities and it dovetailed into this idea of showing the other sides of Maria.”
So how did Sharapova manage to create this brand over the course of 18 months while in the midst of a world-class tennis circuit? Very well, apparently. As Endres says, “Maria was amazingly focused. She would be in between games at Wimbeldon and she’d get on the phone and look at work and be really focused and professional about her comments and decision-making.”