Kobe Bryant, the Ad Creator, Discusses His New Sports Drink Ads

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The NBA Playoffs are underway but Kobe Bryant -- who retired a year ago -- is barely paying attention. He's got other things on his mind, like beating Gatorade.

Bryant is a major investor in six-year-old startup sports drink brand BodyArmor, which is about to launch its largest ad campaign to date, including its first TV ad. Bryant is the creative director and narrator of the campaign, which includes appearances by nine pro athletes.

This is not a case of a celebrity simply lending his name to a project for PR value. Bryant is intimately involved in BodyArmor's marketing, just like he has provided his creative input on Nike ads over the years. He even had a major role in crafting BodyArmor's tagline, "Obsession is Natural," which is a play on BodyArmor's product pitch that it is made from natural flavors and sweeteners and is not colored with artificial sources.

Bryant said he first wrote the line on a BodyArmor-branded towel that he he used last year in his final game when he poured in 60 points in a win over the Utah Jazz. He autographed the towel for BodyArmour co-founder Mike Repole and wrote the phrase on the towel because he thought it summed up his obsession for basketball and Repole's obsession with entrepreneurship and building companies.

"I stepped back and I looked at it and I was like, huh, Mike, I just came up with our line. I just came up with our company ethos," Bryant said in an interview with Ad Age.

The theme of the campaign is the role obsession plays for athletes. The spot includes appearances by Dustin Johnson, James Harden, Mike Trout, Anthony Rizzo, Andrew Luck, Richard Sherman, Dez Bryant, Kristaps Porzingis and Skylar Diggins. The ad is shot in black-in-white with the exception of bottles of BodyArmor, which the athletes drink at the end of grueling workouts.

PepsiCo-owned Gatorade, which has a huge market share lead on BodyArmor, has long used athletes in its ads with an A-list roster that has recently included Usain Bolt, J.J. Watt, Bryce Harper, Serena Williams and Cam Newton. Asked to contrast BodyArmor's creative approach to Gatorade, Bryant said that his brand is trying to create a "movement."

"It's one thing to inspire athletes to want to be great and you see a lot of brands doing that," he said. "What we are trying to do instead is challenge. And there's a big difference between inspiring and challenging."

He added: "We live in a day and age now where kids are surrounded by instant gratification." But "in sports you can't do that."

BodyArmor's challenge is to chip away at Gatorade's domination. PepsiCo controls more than 75% of the category, followed by Powerade owner Coca-Cola at roughly 20%, according to IRI. BodyArmor has less than 2% share, but sales grew by more than 140% to $122.9 million in the 52 weeks ending March 19, according to IRI.

"BodyArmor faces a powerful competitor in Gatorade, which enjoys enormous reach, marketing power and retail leverage," said Duane Stanford, editor-in-chief of Beverage Digest. "But BodyArmor has shown it has the muscle to fight its way in and build share with in-trend ingredient claims, compelling packaging and strong challenger marketing."

Repole has a credible track record in the beverage industry. He is a co-founder of Vitaminwater, which Coca-Cola acquired in 2007. Multiple pro athletes have invested in BodyArmor, including the nine stars in the campaign. Bryant himself invested in 2013. He declined to detail his investment other than to say he is BodyArmor's third-largest shareholder. Forbes in 2014 estimated his stake to be worth $4 million-$6 million. BodyArmor's second-largest shareholder behind Repole is Dr Pepper Snapple Group, which early last year upped its ownership stake to 15.5% with a $6 million investment that built upon the $20 million it laid down in 2015.

"When I became partner with BodyArmor I was really looking forward to taking a fresh and new brand and help build what that identity is," Bryant said in the interview.

"I've been into story telling for a very, very, very long time," he said. "It started when I first came into the league and had a fascination with stories and campaigns and how to write and create some of those things myself." He noted that Nike has often given him the freedom to write his own ads for the brand, which he has long endorsed.

For the BodyArmor spot he collaborated with Brian Ford, a former Wieden & Kennedy copywriter with whom he has previously partnered on Nike work, including this old Nike ad called "Love Me or Hate Me." (Bryant and Ford share writer/director/editor/producer credits on the BodyArmor campaign.)

"Being creative is what I love to do," Bryant said. "Working with a great copywriter to make sure my vision comes to fruition is extremely important." Asked where his creative inspiration comes from he cited a high school teacher, Jeanne Mastriano, who turned him onto authors and thinkers such as Joseph Campbell, the writer and mythologist best known for the book "A Hero With A Thousand Faces."

"I just absolutely fell in love with it at that moment in time," Bryant said. "In terms of my process it always starts with the truth of the brand. Once you find that truth it becomes very easy to attach that to human nature as a whole and have that speak to a larger audience."

His BodyArmor investment is via Kobe Inc., which is headquartered in Newport Beach, Calif. Last year Bryant founded Kobe Studios, an arm of Kobe Inc., "in an effort to bring others' stories to life in a variety of media," according to a report in the Orange County Register.

Bryant's team was behind a 10-minute video called "Canvas City: Musecage" that aired earlier this year during ABC's "NBA Countdown" pregame show. A "musecage" is "a room decorated with any and everything that inspires you," Bryant says in the film, which ESPN described as being influenced by "Fantasia" and "Sesame Street." The Los Angeles Children's Chorus sings the opening sequence.

His BodyArmor ad will air during the NBA Playoffs on on TNT, ESPN and ABC. When Ad Age asked him for a prediction on who will win it all, he drew a blank, mostly because he's been so busy on his business ventures. "I haven't seen enough to make an educated pick," he said. Asked if he ever gets the urge to return to the court, he said, "I don't have the urge at all, not even a little bit."

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