In recent months Gatorade has experimented with cutting-edge platforms to spread marketing content, from virtual reality to Snapchat. But this week, the brand went back to the basics, using print for a first-of-its-kind branded-content play with Sports Illustrated.
The magazine's branded-content studio, called Sports Illustrated Overtime, created a standalone 14-page issue for Gatorade called "Fuel Illustrated." Articles spotlight the training, hydration, sleep and nutritional habits of Gatorade endorsers such as JJ Watt, Serena Williams, Bryce Harper and Cam Newton.
The so-called mini magazine was mailed inside bags that contained the regular May 2 weekly issue, representing one of SI Overtime's most aggressive print branded-content projects to date. But not everyone got it. The mini mag targeted 250,000 subscribers with children ages 12 to 17 in the household. Gatorade wants to reach young athletes. Sports Illustrated has 2.98 million paid and verified subscribers, according to the magazine's statement to the Alliance for Audited Circulation.
While SI has long done advertorial content inside regular issues, the magazine has not previously assembled anything with the scope and scale of Fuel Illustrated, said Damian Slattery, chief marketing officer for the Sports Illustrated Group. "We think this is a groundbreaking execution that will spark interest from other partners," he said. "But each one has to be handcrafted for that particular marketer. The vision behind this was to help move Gatorade from that sports drink to that sports fuel positioning."
Gatorade has been on that marketing path for a while, as the PepsiCo-owned brand pumps out a growing assortment of products including energy bars, protein powder, energy chews and more.
"The whole concept is Fuel Illustrated -- so it's about how do you prepare … or recover as an athlete," said Kenny Mitchell, Gatorade's senior director for consumer engagement.
The branding is present but not overt. The cover story -- which is about the importance JJ Watt places on healthy sleep habits -- does not mention Gatorade or even eating or drinking. Indeed, the word "Gatorade" is only used five times in the seven articles in the mini magazine.
A story about National Basketball Association player Karl-Anthony Towns notes that he "pays close attention to his diet and hydration. At 7 feet and 244 pounds, he knocks back at least 125 ounces of water and Gatorade -- in equal measure -- each day." Another piece titled "A Day in the Hardworking Life of Bryce Harper" includes this quote from the baseball star: "If I need something during the game, I might have a Gatorade Fuel Bar to give a burst to my system." Gatorade also has three traditional print ads in the piece, including one that spotlights its breadth of products. The articles are also on SI.com under the label "Sponsor Content."
The idea for the issue was sparked at a summit Gatorade hosted for its media partners last fall in which it sought unique custom products, Mr. Mitchell said.
The articles were written by freelancers hired by Sports Illustrated Overtime, not by full-time SI writers, Mr. Slattery said, although some of the writers are former SI writers. Gatorade recommended athletes to be covered and potential story insights, Mr. Mitchell said. But after that, the brand took a hands-off approach, he added.
"It was a little bit of a separation of church and state, which we were fine with," he said. "We wanted to make sure this was something interesting and entertaining. If we are too heavy-handed with brand messaging, and things like that, that might turn readers or customers off."
The brand had the power to review final drafts. Mr. Mitchell said Gatorade looked at the articles for accuracy, "not for story, or tonality, or approach or anything like that." Asked if the brand mandated the few Gatorade mentions, he said, "Honestly, we did not. That was their call."