Gatorade's approach to marketing: Then and now

Gatorade brand history
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Listen to this article:

Here’s a weird fact: In the 1960s, many athletes were told not to drink water during their training sessions. Coaches thought water caused nausea and cramps. 

At the time, it was normal for a football player to lose several pounds of water weight during a game. Then in 1963, University of Florida football coach Dwayne Douglas asked a simple question: Why would football players lose so much weight during practices and games … but didn’t seem to pee that much?

When Douglas asked the question, he was speaking to the right person: Robert Cade, director of the University of Florida College of Medicine’s renal and electrolyte division. After that, Cade became obsessed with getting answers, and he recruited colleagues Dana Shires, Jim Free, and A.M. deQuesada to help him investigate. 

Gatorade: From science experiment to 72% market share

Researchers had a theory: Players were losing electrolytes in their sweat. Replacing the lost sodium and potassium would improve performance.

Members of the freshman football team became test subjects for the first version of Gatorade’s recipe: water, salt, and a little bit of sugar. But there was one problem—the solution tasted so nasty that the scientists themselves didn’t want to drink it. 

After Cade’s wife suggested adding a bit of lemon juice, the first sports drink was born. The University of Florida’s football team—the Gators—gave some of the credit for their 1967 Orange Bowl win to Gatorade, and the athletic community took notice.

Early Gatorade “thirst quencher.” Credit: Fortune 


Gatorade would go on to invent the sports drink category, capturing 46% of the sports drink market worldwide in 2012. That year Gatorade was worth $4.8 billion and distributed in 80 countries. In 2020, that market share has skyrocketed to 72%, with Powerade trailing far behind at 20%. 

But for its first 20-ish years as a Stokely-Van Camp product, the Gatorade product line stuck to the basics: U.S. distribution, one product, two flavors. So how did Gatorade become one of the most recognizable food and beverage brands in the world? 

Keep reading to find out how Gatorade mastered athletic sponsorships to become synonymous with performance, grit, and achievement—but not without some serious fumbles in messaging. 

Gatorade brand timeline

University of Florida

1965: Gatorade is developed at the University of Florida by Robert Cade and colleagues.

1966: Several Gators football players are admitted to the hospital for heat exhaustion. Football coach Ray Graves asks Robert Cade to supply the team with Gatorade as a future preventative solution.

Stokely-Van Camp (SVC) ownership

1967: SVC secures the rights to Gatorade from Robert Cade and colleagues.

1968: SVC develops tastier versions of Gatorade’s original lemon-lime and orange flavors. 

1969: Gatorade becomes the official sports drink of the National Football League (NFL).

1973: SVC settles legal disputes for royalties between Gatorade’s inventors and the University of Florida. To this day, the University of Florida receives 20% of all Gatorade sales.

Late 1970s: Gatorade launches Gator Gum, which sees inconsistent sales until its final discontinuation in the early 2000s. 

Quaker Oats Company ownership

1983: The Quaker Oats Company buys SVC and Gatorade for $220 million.

1984: Gatorade expands to Canada.

1984: Gatorade develops sponsorship deal with NASCAR.

1985: The “Gatorade Shower” is popularized when New York Giants’ players pour a bucket of Gatorade on head coach Bill Parcells.

1987–88: Gatorade expands to select countries in Asia, South America, and Europe.

1990: Gatorade creates its first low-calorie product, Gatorade Light. 

1991: Gatorade launches a ten-year endorsement deal with Michael Jordan. 

1991: Gatorade releases iconic “Be Like Mike” ad campaign with Michael Jordan.

1994: Aid agency AmeriCares ships Gatorade to Rwandan refugees to help with rehydration in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. 

1996: The Quaker Oats Company spends $20 million on Gatorade’s international expansion. In return, they see $283 million in worldwide sales. 

1997: Gatorade sees 18.7% growth in annual sales after launching in ten more countries.

1997: Gatorade launches Gatorade Frost to capture the “active thirst” market beyond the sports drink category. 

PepsiCo acquisition

2001: PepsiCo acquires the Quaker Oats Company for $13 billion—because they want Gatorade.

2001: Gatorade launches its first solid food, the Gatorade Energy Bar, as part of the Gatorade Performance Series, a special line of sports nutrition products. 

2004: Gatorade expands to India. 

2008: Gatorade launches in the United Kingdom and Ireland. 

2008: Gatorade becomes the official sports drink for the Chelsea F.C. in the UK.

2010: Gatorade undergoes massive rebranding and repositioning efforts to produce its G Series for before, during, and after athletic events.

2015: Gatorade releases new versions of the “Be Like Mike” campaign to celebrate its 50th anniversary. 

2021: Gatorade launches its first wearable: a smart patch that measures sweat and hydration during a workout. 

The science of product naming: Gator-Aid vs. Gatorade

What’s in a name? In Gatorade’s case, it meant the difference between FDA classification as a nutrition supplement or commercial product. 

Robert Cade and his colleagues created Gatorade to help the Gators replenish electrolytes and stay hydrated during football practices and games. While they couldn’t have known they would create a new product category—sports drinks—they did seem to understand the implications of developing a beverage that claimed to improve athletic performance. 

At first the most obvious product name seemed like the best choice: Gator-Aid. But, as Gatorade co-inventor Dana Shires explained, "We were told that you couldn't use that because the Food and Drug Administration prohibited that. That would classify it as something other than a cola or soft drink, so we changed it to ade." 

As scientists, Robert Cade and Dana Shires also understood what it would take to prove that Gatorade did in fact improve athletic performance. 

The researchers would first need to recruit hundreds, if not thousands, of diverse athletes to participate in a placebo-controlled, double-blind trial. Those athletes and their coaches would need to agree to several rounds of tests and lifestyle limitations for conclusive results—a significant obstacle for most nutrition studies. 

Cade and Shires knew the barriers to entry would be lower for a commercial product. Whereas the FDA raised an eyebrow at a name as brazen as “Gator-Aid”, the subtle switch to “Gatorade” was enough to satisfy regulators, who prohibited marketing that would mislead people into thinking the sports drink would make them superhuman. 

Advertising pseudoscience: Gatorade makes false claims and causes damage 

With product category invention comes uncharted territory. When Gatorade first started advertising itself as a sports drink, the company struggled to ethically communicate their “enhanced athletic performance” benefit. To this day, people still ask whether or not Gatorade is better than just drinking water. 

(TL;DR: If you’re training for less than an hour, water alone is just fine for keeping you hydrated. Anything more than that and you may benefit from the sodium in a sports drink like Gatorade.)

This is why you’ll see Gatorade labeled as a “thirst quencher”, not as a nutritional supplement or performance enhancer. Gatorade can safely claim that its product quenches thirst—just like water.  

But that hasn’t prevented Gatorade from distorting the facts over the years, most notably through its biased Gatorade Sports Science Institute (also a funder of the American College of Sports Medicine).  

Early Gatorade ads made some ridiculous statements, including that the drink was absorbed by the body faster than water. In 1970, after Ohio State team doctor Robert J. Murphy challenged the claim at an American Medical Association meeting, Gatorade removed the statement from its ads.

This 1969 Gatorade print ad claims that “Gatorade is absorbed even faster than water!”

Even more harmful, a 2001 Gatorade ad that ran in Northwest Runner magazine said, “Research shows your body needs at least 40 oz. of fluid every hour or your performance could suffer.” 

But this claim isn’t true. When South African exercise physiologist Dr. Tim Noakes investigated further, he found a risk of exercise-associated hyponatremic encephalopathy if someone were to drink Gatorade at "the rate recommended by the advertisements". 

Gatorade seems to have cleaned up some of its messaging since the early aughts, but that doesn’t mean the brand’s recent track record is pristine. As early as 2017, Gatorade has misled consumers with “anti-water messaging”, specifically via a video game featuring Usain Bolt. In the game, Bolt gets faster when he touches a Gatorade icon, then gets slower when he touches a water droplet. 

As a result, the California Attorney General sued Gatorade for false advertising. Gatorade was “required to pay $300,000, of which $120,000 will be used to fund research or education on water consumption and the nutrition of children and teenagers.”

Gator Gum: A core audience behavior mismatch

The early years of Gatorade were known for their simplicity. Between 1965–1983, the company focused on its core product, Gatorade Thirst Quencher, in two flavors only: lemon-lime and orange. In 1983, they added fruit punch.

The exception to this risk-averse product strategy was Gator Gum.

In the late 1970s, Gatorade created a brand of “thirst quenching gum” for active folks to chew during or after their workouts. Manufactured by Fleer Corporation, Gator Gum was also available in lemon-lime and orange. 

Check out this 1981 ad for Gator Gum—it might encourage you to chew some gum after your next marathon…?

If you talked to anyone who tried Gator Gum, odds are they would tell you about its strong flavor. Retroist writes, “[It was] strong enough that it made your mouth pucker and then has this weird side-effect of making you salivate.”

But Gator Gum was officially discontinued in 1989 after its licensing deal with Swell expired, although some people claimed to have seen it floating around in the early aughts. The gum developed sort of a cult following among retro product enthusiasts, but it never saw the kind of sales Gatorade had come to expect. So why did it fail?

Gator Gum’s mechanism for delivering on its primary benefit was confusing for its target audience. If you’re thirsty during a workout, why would you pop a piece of gum over drinking a liquid? The behavior isn’t natural, and Gatorade was asking too much of its audience to make the switch. 

Key lesson: Changing consumer behavior isn’t impossible—the iPhone proves this—but it’s an exception more than a rule. For faster uptake, products should address a pain point with behaviors that aren’t too much of a stretch beyond the standard. 

Mastering the athletic sponsorship: How Gatorade became synonymous with sports

If you watch most popular team sports, you’ve been exposed to the power of Gatorade athletic sponsorship. 

Gatorade is the official sports drink of the NFL, MLB, NBA, WNBA, NHL, Indian Super League, NASCAR, and … even more leagues than we can list here.  

The same year Stokely-Van Camp bought the rights to sell Gatorade (1967), they established a licensing arrangement that made Gatorade the official sports drink of the NFL. While that deal wouldn’t become official until 1983, the longstanding sponsorship deal between Gatorade and the NFL remains one of the most recognizable in the world—and not even because it’s worth millions of dollars.

So much money spent, yet NFL fans know Gatorade because of an organic development called the “Gatorade Shower”. 

“I’ve died and gone to heaven”: The Gatorade Shower as free sports advertising 

After witnessing the spontaneous Gatorade Shower, Bill Schmidt, former vice-president of worldwide sports marketing at Gatorade, apparently said, “I think I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

Photo credit: NFL

If you’ve ever worked in marketing, you understand why. The Gatorade Shower is a viral dream come true: Product placement is clear. The action is memorable. The reaction is worth sharing. 

According to Darren Rovell's book First in Thirst: How Gatorade Turned the Science of Sweat into a Cultural Phenomenon, New York Giants’ football player Jim Burt came up with the Gatorade Shower as a prank against head coach Bill Parcells while they were struggling during the 1985 season.

Before a midseason game against the Washington Redskins, Burt dumped a cooler full of Gatorade on Parcells. But linebacker Harry Carson was the one who kept up the Gatorade Shower as a tradition, all the way to the 1986 Super Bowl championship season.

Gatorade hadn’t paid a direct cent for what turned out to be a longstanding sports tradition that still persists today. The brand initially sent Burt and Parcells $1,000 Brooks Brothers gift certificates as a show of gratitude, but they eventually developed formal endorsement deals for Parcells and Carson, worth $120,000 and $20,000, respectively. 

Be Like Mike: Michael Jordan as the first of all the athlete endorsements

In 1991, Gatorade scored the white whale of athletic endorsements: a ten-year deal with Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan. 

At the time, Gatorade was in a bind. The company had just been forced to pay Sands, Taylor & Wood $24.7 million in damages for copyright infringement on a trademark for "Thirst Aid", a key part of Gatorade’s main campaign messaging between 1984 and 1990. 

With new competitors Powerade and Mountain Dew Sport picking up more of their market share, Gatorade needed a fresh marketing push that would make a huge impact. 

Gatorade had already tried to secure an endorsement deal with Michael Jordan in 1985, but they couldn’t afford him—he signed with Coca-Cola that year instead. But in July 1991 that deal was set to expire, and Gatorade secured a ten-year partnership with Jordan worth $13.5 million. 

Inspired by the song "I Wanna Be Like You" from the Disney film The Jungle Book, advertisement executive Bernie Pitzel created a series of catchy ads that would become household humming all over the U.S. 

While the first ads weren’t successful in increasing sales, the endorsement deal did prevent Michael Jordan from endorsing Powerade, Gatorade’s Coca-Cola-owned rival. With a little more time, Gatorade was able to switch up the ad formula to better demonstrate Gatorade’s benefit to Michael Jordan, and sales increased accordingly. 

Since then, Gatorade has forged even more lucrative sponsorship deals with famous athletes. 

Tiger Woods + Gatorade

In 2007, Tiger Woods signed a five-year deal with Gatorade worth a whopping $100 million. 

As part of the partnership, Gatorade developed a new product: Gatorade Tiger, which claimed to contain “25% more electrolytes”. The product was advertised as part of Gatorade’s moonshot campaign, which featured Tiger Woods as an astronaut playing golf on the moon. 

Sponsorship tip: Diversify your brand ambassadors 

The Tiger Woods deal, however, is a cautionary tale for any brand that relies on celebrity ambassadors. 

In 2010, amidst allegations of infidelity from Tiger Woods’ then wife Elin Nordegren, Gatorade canceled the sponsorship ahead of its expiry in 2012. While the brand initially claimed the cancellation had nothing to do with the infidelity, the timing made the statement seem suspicious. 

But if any brand understands the value of diversifying its athletic sponsorships, it’s Gatorade. The brand has sponsored Major League Baseball player Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees, National Hockey League player Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, National Basketball Association player Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls, and National Football League quarterback Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos.

Serena Williams + Gatorade

Some of Gatorade’s best ad creative, however, emerged from their sponsorship of the GOAT herself, Serena Williams. 

In one of their most emotional ads of all time, Gatorade’s Unmatched campaign tugs at viewers’ heartstrings by telling Serena Williams’ story of rising success as one of the greatest athletes of all time. 

Since then, Williams has gone on to design her own limited-edition Gatorade bottle as part of Gatorade’s Gx customizable hydration line. The tennis player has joked that she has a “lifetime partnership” with Gatorade—so it’s clear she plans to keep working with the brand as her career progresses. 

Gatorade’s future as a … tech company?

The 2020s are a crossroads for Gatorade. While Gatorade still holds 72% market share for sports drinks, the category has never been more competitive. 

Bodyarmor CEO Mike Repole publicly stated he plans to overtake Gatorade’s dominance by 2025, going so far as to say, “[Bodyarmor sports drink] is either going to go bankrupt in five years or going to be the No. 1 sports drink by 2025…. And there is no in-between—either bankrupt or epic.”

Gatorade understands the need to diversify its product line for the long-term health of the company. In March 2021, the brand released their first non-F&B product: a fitness wearable sweat patch that measures hydration through the skin. 

Photo credit: Gatorade


The Gx app works with the wearable sweat patch to measure hydration.

While reviews of the patch have been mixed—especially at a price point of $12.50 per disposable patch—an audience of serious athletes who are increasingly obsessed with biometric data may be willing to make the patch a normal part of their training. 

The success of Gatorade as a wearable tech company remains to be seen, but after years of conservative product choices and what seems to be a risk averse culture, it’s exciting to see how Gatorade will use its research arm to develop new fitness technology. 

With the wearable technology market projected to be worth $265.4 billion by 2026, Gatorade is anticipating that its sports drink market share will shrink and need to be replaced with another booming product line. 

Who knows—by 2028 we could all be chewing Gatorade smartgum to measure electrolyte levels in our saliva … and the Gator Gum enthusiasts will finally feel vindicated. 

Share

Gatorade's approach to marketing: Then and now

Gatorade brand history

Listen to this article:

Here’s a weird fact: In the 1960s, many athletes were told not to drink water during their training sessions. Coaches thought water caused nausea and cramps. 

At the time, it was normal for a football player to lose several pounds of water weight during a game. Then in 1963, University of Florida football coach Dwayne Douglas asked a simple question: Why would football players lose so much weight during practices and games … but didn’t seem to pee that much?

When Douglas asked the question, he was speaking to the right person: Robert Cade, director of the University of Florida College of Medicine’s renal and electrolyte division. After that, Cade became obsessed with getting answers, and he recruited colleagues Dana Shires, Jim Free, and A.M. deQuesada to help him investigate. 

Gatorade: From science experiment to 72% market share

Researchers had a theory: Players were losing electrolytes in their sweat. Replacing the lost sodium and potassium would improve performance.

Members of the freshman football team became test subjects for the first version of Gatorade’s recipe: water, salt, and a little bit of sugar. But there was one problem—the solution tasted so nasty that the scientists themselves didn’t want to drink it. 

After Cade’s wife suggested adding a bit of lemon juice, the first sports drink was born. The University of Florida’s football team—the Gators—gave some of the credit for their 1967 Orange Bowl win to Gatorade, and the athletic community took notice.

Early Gatorade “thirst quencher.” Credit: Fortune 


Gatorade would go on to invent the sports drink category, capturing 46% of the sports drink market worldwide in 2012. That year Gatorade was worth $4.8 billion and distributed in 80 countries. In 2020, that market share has skyrocketed to 72%, with Powerade trailing far behind at 20%. 

But for its first 20-ish years as a Stokely-Van Camp product, the Gatorade product line stuck to the basics: U.S. distribution, one product, two flavors. So how did Gatorade become one of the most recognizable food and beverage brands in the world? 

Keep reading to find out how Gatorade mastered athletic sponsorships to become synonymous with performance, grit, and achievement—but not without some serious fumbles in messaging. 

Gatorade brand timeline

University of Florida

1965: Gatorade is developed at the University of Florida by Robert Cade and colleagues.

1966: Several Gators football players are admitted to the hospital for heat exhaustion. Football coach Ray Graves asks Robert Cade to supply the team with Gatorade as a future preventative solution.

Stokely-Van Camp (SVC) ownership

1967: SVC secures the rights to Gatorade from Robert Cade and colleagues.

1968: SVC develops tastier versions of Gatorade’s original lemon-lime and orange flavors. 

1969: Gatorade becomes the official sports drink of the National Football League (NFL).

1973: SVC settles legal disputes for royalties between Gatorade’s inventors and the University of Florida. To this day, the University of Florida receives 20% of all Gatorade sales.

Late 1970s: Gatorade launches Gator Gum, which sees inconsistent sales until its final discontinuation in the early 2000s. 

Quaker Oats Company ownership

1983: The Quaker Oats Company buys SVC and Gatorade for $220 million.

1984: Gatorade expands to Canada.

1984: Gatorade develops sponsorship deal with NASCAR.

1985: The “Gatorade Shower” is popularized when New York Giants’ players pour a bucket of Gatorade on head coach Bill Parcells.

1987–88: Gatorade expands to select countries in Asia, South America, and Europe.

1990: Gatorade creates its first low-calorie product, Gatorade Light. 

1991: Gatorade launches a ten-year endorsement deal with Michael Jordan. 

1991: Gatorade releases iconic “Be Like Mike” ad campaign with Michael Jordan.

1994: Aid agency AmeriCares ships Gatorade to Rwandan refugees to help with rehydration in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. 

1996: The Quaker Oats Company spends $20 million on Gatorade’s international expansion. In return, they see $283 million in worldwide sales. 

1997: Gatorade sees 18.7% growth in annual sales after launching in ten more countries.

1997: Gatorade launches Gatorade Frost to capture the “active thirst” market beyond the sports drink category. 

PepsiCo acquisition

2001: PepsiCo acquires the Quaker Oats Company for $13 billion—because they want Gatorade.

2001: Gatorade launches its first solid food, the Gatorade Energy Bar, as part of the Gatorade Performance Series, a special line of sports nutrition products. 

2004: Gatorade expands to India. 

2008: Gatorade launches in the United Kingdom and Ireland. 

2008: Gatorade becomes the official sports drink for the Chelsea F.C. in the UK.

2010: Gatorade undergoes massive rebranding and repositioning efforts to produce its G Series for before, during, and after athletic events.

2015: Gatorade releases new versions of the “Be Like Mike” campaign to celebrate its 50th anniversary. 

2021: Gatorade launches its first wearable: a smart patch that measures sweat and hydration during a workout. 

The science of product naming: Gator-Aid vs. Gatorade

What’s in a name? In Gatorade’s case, it meant the difference between FDA classification as a nutrition supplement or commercial product. 

Robert Cade and his colleagues created Gatorade to help the Gators replenish electrolytes and stay hydrated during football practices and games. While they couldn’t have known they would create a new product category—sports drinks—they did seem to understand the implications of developing a beverage that claimed to improve athletic performance. 

At first the most obvious product name seemed like the best choice: Gator-Aid. But, as Gatorade co-inventor Dana Shires explained, "We were told that you couldn't use that because the Food and Drug Administration prohibited that. That would classify it as something other than a cola or soft drink, so we changed it to ade." 

As scientists, Robert Cade and Dana Shires also understood what it would take to prove that Gatorade did in fact improve athletic performance. 

The researchers would first need to recruit hundreds, if not thousands, of diverse athletes to participate in a placebo-controlled, double-blind trial. Those athletes and their coaches would need to agree to several rounds of tests and lifestyle limitations for conclusive results—a significant obstacle for most nutrition studies. 

Cade and Shires knew the barriers to entry would be lower for a commercial product. Whereas the FDA raised an eyebrow at a name as brazen as “Gator-Aid”, the subtle switch to “Gatorade” was enough to satisfy regulators, who prohibited marketing that would mislead people into thinking the sports drink would make them superhuman. 

Advertising pseudoscience: Gatorade makes false claims and causes damage 

With product category invention comes uncharted territory. When Gatorade first started advertising itself as a sports drink, the company struggled to ethically communicate their “enhanced athletic performance” benefit. To this day, people still ask whether or not Gatorade is better than just drinking water. 

(TL;DR: If you’re training for less than an hour, water alone is just fine for keeping you hydrated. Anything more than that and you may benefit from the sodium in a sports drink like Gatorade.)

This is why you’ll see Gatorade labeled as a “thirst quencher”, not as a nutritional supplement or performance enhancer. Gatorade can safely claim that its product quenches thirst—just like water.  

But that hasn’t prevented Gatorade from distorting the facts over the years, most notably through its biased Gatorade Sports Science Institute (also a funder of the American College of Sports Medicine).  

Early Gatorade ads made some ridiculous statements, including that the drink was absorbed by the body faster than water. In 1970, after Ohio State team doctor Robert J. Murphy challenged the claim at an American Medical Association meeting, Gatorade removed the statement from its ads.

This 1969 Gatorade print ad claims that “Gatorade is absorbed even faster than water!”

Even more harmful, a 2001 Gatorade ad that ran in Northwest Runner magazine said, “Research shows your body needs at least 40 oz. of fluid every hour or your performance could suffer.” 

But this claim isn’t true. When South African exercise physiologist Dr. Tim Noakes investigated further, he found a risk of exercise-associated hyponatremic encephalopathy if someone were to drink Gatorade at "the rate recommended by the advertisements". 

Gatorade seems to have cleaned up some of its messaging since the early aughts, but that doesn’t mean the brand’s recent track record is pristine. As early as 2017, Gatorade has misled consumers with “anti-water messaging”, specifically via a video game featuring Usain Bolt. In the game, Bolt gets faster when he touches a Gatorade icon, then gets slower when he touches a water droplet. 

As a result, the California Attorney General sued Gatorade for false advertising. Gatorade was “required to pay $300,000, of which $120,000 will be used to fund research or education on water consumption and the nutrition of children and teenagers.”

Gator Gum: A core audience behavior mismatch

The early years of Gatorade were known for their simplicity. Between 1965–1983, the company focused on its core product, Gatorade Thirst Quencher, in two flavors only: lemon-lime and orange. In 1983, they added fruit punch.

The exception to this risk-averse product strategy was Gator Gum.

In the late 1970s, Gatorade created a brand of “thirst quenching gum” for active folks to chew during or after their workouts. Manufactured by Fleer Corporation, Gator Gum was also available in lemon-lime and orange. 

Check out this 1981 ad for Gator Gum—it might encourage you to chew some gum after your next marathon…?

If you talked to anyone who tried Gator Gum, odds are they would tell you about its strong flavor. Retroist writes, “[It was] strong enough that it made your mouth pucker and then has this weird side-effect of making you salivate.”

But Gator Gum was officially discontinued in 1989 after its licensing deal with Swell expired, although some people claimed to have seen it floating around in the early aughts. The gum developed sort of a cult following among retro product enthusiasts, but it never saw the kind of sales Gatorade had come to expect. So why did it fail?

Gator Gum’s mechanism for delivering on its primary benefit was confusing for its target audience. If you’re thirsty during a workout, why would you pop a piece of gum over drinking a liquid? The behavior isn’t natural, and Gatorade was asking too much of its audience to make the switch. 

Key lesson: Changing consumer behavior isn’t impossible—the iPhone proves this—but it’s an exception more than a rule. For faster uptake, products should address a pain point with behaviors that aren’t too much of a stretch beyond the standard. 

Mastering the athletic sponsorship: How Gatorade became synonymous with sports

If you watch most popular team sports, you’ve been exposed to the power of Gatorade athletic sponsorship. 

Gatorade is the official sports drink of the NFL, MLB, NBA, WNBA, NHL, Indian Super League, NASCAR, and … even more leagues than we can list here.  

The same year Stokely-Van Camp bought the rights to sell Gatorade (1967), they established a licensing arrangement that made Gatorade the official sports drink of the NFL. While that deal wouldn’t become official until 1983, the longstanding sponsorship deal between Gatorade and the NFL remains one of the most recognizable in the world—and not even because it’s worth millions of dollars.

So much money spent, yet NFL fans know Gatorade because of an organic development called the “Gatorade Shower”. 

“I’ve died and gone to heaven”: The Gatorade Shower as free sports advertising 

After witnessing the spontaneous Gatorade Shower, Bill Schmidt, former vice-president of worldwide sports marketing at Gatorade, apparently said, “I think I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

Photo credit: NFL

If you’ve ever worked in marketing, you understand why. The Gatorade Shower is a viral dream come true: Product placement is clear. The action is memorable. The reaction is worth sharing. 

According to Darren Rovell's book First in Thirst: How Gatorade Turned the Science of Sweat into a Cultural Phenomenon, New York Giants’ football player Jim Burt came up with the Gatorade Shower as a prank against head coach Bill Parcells while they were struggling during the 1985 season.

Before a midseason game against the Washington Redskins, Burt dumped a cooler full of Gatorade on Parcells. But linebacker Harry Carson was the one who kept up the Gatorade Shower as a tradition, all the way to the 1986 Super Bowl championship season.

Gatorade hadn’t paid a direct cent for what turned out to be a longstanding sports tradition that still persists today. The brand initially sent Burt and Parcells $1,000 Brooks Brothers gift certificates as a show of gratitude, but they eventually developed formal endorsement deals for Parcells and Carson, worth $120,000 and $20,000, respectively. 

Be Like Mike: Michael Jordan as the first of all the athlete endorsements

In 1991, Gatorade scored the white whale of athletic endorsements: a ten-year deal with Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan. 

At the time, Gatorade was in a bind. The company had just been forced to pay Sands, Taylor & Wood $24.7 million in damages for copyright infringement on a trademark for "Thirst Aid", a key part of Gatorade’s main campaign messaging between 1984 and 1990. 

With new competitors Powerade and Mountain Dew Sport picking up more of their market share, Gatorade needed a fresh marketing push that would make a huge impact. 

Gatorade had already tried to secure an endorsement deal with Michael Jordan in 1985, but they couldn’t afford him—he signed with Coca-Cola that year instead. But in July 1991 that deal was set to expire, and Gatorade secured a ten-year partnership with Jordan worth $13.5 million. 

Inspired by the song "I Wanna Be Like You" from the Disney film The Jungle Book, advertisement executive Bernie Pitzel created a series of catchy ads that would become household humming all over the U.S. 

While the first ads weren’t successful in increasing sales, the endorsement deal did prevent Michael Jordan from endorsing Powerade, Gatorade’s Coca-Cola-owned rival. With a little more time, Gatorade was able to switch up the ad formula to better demonstrate Gatorade’s benefit to Michael Jordan, and sales increased accordingly. 

Since then, Gatorade has forged even more lucrative sponsorship deals with famous athletes. 

Tiger Woods + Gatorade

In 2007, Tiger Woods signed a five-year deal with Gatorade worth a whopping $100 million. 

As part of the partnership, Gatorade developed a new product: Gatorade Tiger, which claimed to contain “25% more electrolytes”. The product was advertised as part of Gatorade’s moonshot campaign, which featured Tiger Woods as an astronaut playing golf on the moon. 

Sponsorship tip: Diversify your brand ambassadors 

The Tiger Woods deal, however, is a cautionary tale for any brand that relies on celebrity ambassadors. 

In 2010, amidst allegations of infidelity from Tiger Woods’ then wife Elin Nordegren, Gatorade canceled the sponsorship ahead of its expiry in 2012. While the brand initially claimed the cancellation had nothing to do with the infidelity, the timing made the statement seem suspicious. 

But if any brand understands the value of diversifying its athletic sponsorships, it’s Gatorade. The brand has sponsored Major League Baseball player Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees, National Hockey League player Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, National Basketball Association player Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls, and National Football League quarterback Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos.

Serena Williams + Gatorade

Some of Gatorade’s best ad creative, however, emerged from their sponsorship of the GOAT herself, Serena Williams. 

In one of their most emotional ads of all time, Gatorade’s Unmatched campaign tugs at viewers’ heartstrings by telling Serena Williams’ story of rising success as one of the greatest athletes of all time. 

Since then, Williams has gone on to design her own limited-edition Gatorade bottle as part of Gatorade’s Gx customizable hydration line. The tennis player has joked that she has a “lifetime partnership” with Gatorade—so it’s clear she plans to keep working with the brand as her career progresses. 

Gatorade’s future as a … tech company?

The 2020s are a crossroads for Gatorade. While Gatorade still holds 72% market share for sports drinks, the category has never been more competitive. 

Bodyarmor CEO Mike Repole publicly stated he plans to overtake Gatorade’s dominance by 2025, going so far as to say, “[Bodyarmor sports drink] is either going to go bankrupt in five years or going to be the No. 1 sports drink by 2025…. And there is no in-between—either bankrupt or epic.”

Gatorade understands the need to diversify its product line for the long-term health of the company. In March 2021, the brand released their first non-F&B product: a fitness wearable sweat patch that measures hydration through the skin. 

Photo credit: Gatorade


The Gx app works with the wearable sweat patch to measure hydration.

While reviews of the patch have been mixed—especially at a price point of $12.50 per disposable patch—an audience of serious athletes who are increasingly obsessed with biometric data may be willing to make the patch a normal part of their training. 

The success of Gatorade as a wearable tech company remains to be seen, but after years of conservative product choices and what seems to be a risk averse culture, it’s exciting to see how Gatorade will use its research arm to develop new fitness technology. 

With the wearable technology market projected to be worth $265.4 billion by 2026, Gatorade is anticipating that its sports drink market share will shrink and need to be replaced with another booming product line. 

Who knows—by 2028 we could all be chewing Gatorade smartgum to measure electrolyte levels in our saliva … and the Gator Gum enthusiasts will finally feel vindicated.