While Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt made a dash for Olympic gold in the summer of 2012, his tiny cartoon counterpart raced across a Caribbean beach under a hail of cannon fire from a floating pirate ship. The digitized Bolt was the hero of Gatorade’s mobile app Bolt!, in which gamers steered the runner toward globules of Gatorade. When he consumed one, he’d speed up. But if he accidentally drank a droplet of water instead, he’d slow down. Water was the obstacle.
By this past January, the game had almost 2.5 million downloads and was played some 87 million times—and then food activist Nancy Huehnergarth found it. She filed a complaint with the New York State Attorney General, claiming it was a deceptive campaign with an anti-water message. The game was yanked, leaving a Bolt-shaped hole in the iTunes Store and reviving a difficult question for the beverage industry: How do you market water alternatives without demonizing nature’s most abundant and healthful natural resource?
Marketers routinely compare products against the competition. Nothing wrong there. But when that competition is also the foundation of life on our planet, comparisons get tricky, and missteps unite a wide range of health and environment activists. In 2010, Coca-Cola was publicly spanked after launching a training program called "Cap the Tap." It instructed restaurant employees on how to discourage patrons from drinking water, and then steer them toward "revenue-generating beverages." The program has since been discontinued; Coca-Cola representatives declined to comment.
And in January, Shape magazine got in trouble after running an advertorial under the heading of "News" that claimed "plain water is just so, well, plain" and that 20% of Americans don’t like the taste of water. The offered solution: a flavor squirt called Shape Boosters. Shape, too, declined to comment, except to say it is no longer working with Shape Boosters. The ad industry’s self-regulation arm, National Advertising Division, criticized the magazine after an investigation.
The irony, of course, is that many water alternatives ride on water’s good reputation—particularly with names like VitaminWater and SoBe Lifewater. "They benefit from water’s healthy halo yet can market as a lifestyle beverage," says Michael Bellas, chairman and CEO of the Beverage Marketing Corporation. "And the majority of the product is water, so they can use that as a marketing stand. Gatorade is a sports drink, Hint is an essence water, and when you add some sugar and maybe some functionality, that becomes what we call a value-added water."
So what’s a marketer to do? Morgan Flatley, VP of brand marketing at Gatorade, pauses before discussing her brand’s snafu. "To me, the big takeaway is we believe athletes have a number of different needs," she says. "Water certainly plays a role, for athletes, for exercisers, for everyone. So we don’t at all want to be sending the message that people should not be drinking water. I think some of it was interpreted that way, which was not the intent. The message we want to be sending is, ‘When you’re in intense, active occasions, you need more than water.’"
(For what it’s worth, that’s not just marketing-speak. "For most weekend warriors, the need for Gatorade isn't as real as the ads will make it seem," says New York Times best-selling fitness expert Adam Bornstein. "Now, when you're working out at a high intensity and crushing your body? No doubt you need more than water.")
But another source close to the offending app, who requested anonymity because the game is still a sensitive subject for those involved, believes Gatorade shouldn’t have pulled the game at all. "I think [Gatorade] should have come on the offensive and said to that blogger, ‘Hey, if you have any questions, come to the [company’s] Sports Science Institute and we’ll talk to you more about this. We’ve got hundreds of scientists that make this stuff.’"
Still, these episodes have encouraged a very different set of marketers: those who promote water in its simpler form. Now the competition is fighting back.
One such organization is Drink Up, formed by the Partnership for a Healthier America, which counts Michelle Obama as its honorary chair. It has been trying to improve public perception of drinking water with moves more akin to a corporate campaign than a public health crusade: app sponsorships, working its message into NBC’s The Biggest Loser, airing 15-second promo spots at gas stations and doctor’s offices, and stamping its blue water drop logo on everything from Brita Filters to Evian bottles. "If you want to play in the space of people selling drinks based on happiness, youth, or whatever, you have to play that game," says Drew Nannis, the organization’s chief marketing officer. "By pushing the positive message, giving people more options, and suggesting simple things that people can do as opposed to can’t, we’ve been able to move the needle a little further."
Although its budget is far smaller than the average beverage giant’s, Drink Up says it has accrued more than a billion media impressions.
Other pro-water campaigns are less aimed at the Gatorades of the world, and more toward the Dasanis. They’re groups trying to counter the bottled water industry’s implication that expensive water is somehow better than the tap. "What’s relatively new is growth in the number of businesses whose successes in part rely on the perception that tap water is inferior or in need of improvement," says Greg Kail, spokesman for the trade group American Water Works Association. His group does what it can with a limited budget—direct mailings and op-eds, mostly, along with an annual Drinking Water Week campaign that occasionally hits more mass media.
None of that will put the beverage industry on its heels, but it may not need to. The various PR disasters that came from running anti-water messages may do more than Drink Up or the American Water Works Association ever could. "You need to be clear about who your audience is and who you develop that product for," says the source close to the Bolt! campaign. "A lot of Gatorade advertising is pretty serious. But this was a chance for Gatorade to put out their message in a fun, engaging sort of way that wasn’t even close to as harmful as the backlash suggested."
Regardless of whether that’s true, Gatorade will likely think hard before challenging water again.