Conducted by doctors at the Harvard School of Medicine, the study of 488 runners in the Boston Marathon showed 13%, or one in eight, had diluted salt levels in their blood, a condition called hyponatremia. A 28-year-old woman died after the 2002 Boston Marathon and three others had near-fatal low-salt levels in their blood.
Worse, the study was published just days before the prestigious Boston Marathon, which Gatorade sponsors and provides the sports drinks for. "It's a public-relations disaster," said an executive close to the situation.
PepsiCo, and its PR shop Fleishman-Hillard sprinted into action defending the $3 billion brand. "Our people have been setting the record straight and making sure that the story doesn't continue to be distorted," said a Gatorade spokesman. Though he noted there are flaws in the research, the company's primary concern is the media. "We're more worried that the coverage around this issue is dangerous and irresponsible to athletes," he said.
While no brand was named in the study, all sports drinks were called into question. Powerade marketer Coca-Cola Co. was notably quiet on the issue. "We're looking at the study," said a Powerade spokesman.
"This is not about brand sales, this is about defending our credibility and the science we know is true and making sure that athletes have the best and most accurate information to compete safely," said the Gatorade spokesman. "We feel very confident in our ability to defend our reputation and defend the science that we know is true. There won't be any effect on sales because of this."
On April 14, the marketer through its Gatorade Sports Science Institute issued dual letters to the media and race directors, sports-medicine and related sports influencers. "We fear that the media coverage surrounding this study is doing a disservice to the running and athletic communities by providing a single-minded focus on the dangers of hyponatremia as compared to the more common ailment of dehydration and consequent heat illnesses," wrote Bob Murray, director. "It's important that athletes don't allow this media coverage to create a fear of drinking-because it's essential that athletes drink appropriate amounts to replace their fluid and electrolyte losses."
He went on to agree that the importance of weighing before and after endurance activities and replacing just the fluids and nutrients lost, but offered information from a peer-reviewed study in the Journal of Applied Physiology (funded by Gatorade) that "demonstrated sports drinks do a better job than water of helping athletes to maintain blood-sodium levels, which is critical to preventing hyponatremia."
He then offered hydration advice from the American College of Sports Medicine and names of physicians to consult for additional questions. Those physicians are on the GSSI advisory board.
The problem with these stories is that people oversimplify the issue and then act on it, said David Patt, CEO of Chicago Area Runners Association, whose 18-week marathon training program is sponsored by Gatorade. "If people look at the reports, they don't read them entirely," he said. "I'm worried that people will get the wrong message and stop drinking."
Gatorade already is hosting a hydration seminar at the pre-race expo at today's Boston Marathon and anticipates lots of questions. The marketer is also distributing information about its new Endurance formula that has twice the sodium as the original formula. Starting with the Iron Man Coeur d'Alene triathlon June 26 in Idaho, the Endurance formula will be served on the course and at most other races including next year's Boston race.
Dr. Marvin Adner, medical director for the Boston Marathon, hadn't heard from Gatorade at press time, but he said the journal "presented valid, scientific data."
Consultants and public-relations experts argued that the audience is relatively narrow and that Gatorade's reputation with the sports community is pristine, so potential damage to the brand would be minimal, if not unlikely.
Richard Hyde, exec VP-director of crisis communications at Hill & Knowlton, New York, said Gatorade's strategy to refer to medical experts and its scientific history is a good one. "I suspect that there is a great deal of information that can be presented that is going to be valid and helpful not just to marathon runners, but anybody engaging in active sport or strenuous exercise," he said. "It would be prudent for Gatorade and other sports beverages to address that with the medical expertise that they have."
The brand has a platinum reputation and that may help, said crisis expert James E. Lukaszewki, president-chairman of Lukaszewski Group, White Plains, N.Y. "Absent a catastrophe or surprising development, they should be able to-with their reputation-manage this well."