Celsius is “constantly trying to push the envelope,” said CEO John Fieldly. “We are always going to be outspent—how do we out-maneuver and out-execute? It’s the only way we are going to win going against two of the largest CPG brands in the world, Red Bull and Monster, in an extremely competitive category.”
Below, more on where Celsius came from, where it’s headed—and some secrets to its marketing success that all brands can learn from:
How it started
Celsius was founded in 2004 in Delray Beach, Florida and run by husband-and-wife team Steve and Janice Haley. The drink was positioned as a first-of-its-kind “calorie-burning beverage” designed to increase metabolism. A key moment came about three years later when it drew a major investment from South Florida entrepreneur Carl DeSantis, who is known for selling his vitamin firm Rexall Sundown for $1.8 billion in 2000. The category-busting drink benefited early on from free media coverage on newscasts and on NBC’s “Today Show,” according to media reports.
But the early momentum fizzled by 2011 after the company burned through $19 million in investment money and lost a big distribution deal with Costco, according to a 2016 profile in the Sun-Sentinel. "That was what I was greeted with immediately – that 40 percent of our revenue would be going away," Gerry David, who was named CEO in 2011, told the newspaper.
David, a former executive at biotech company Oragenics, moved the drink beyond its health club roots, seeking a broader audience of health-conscious adults, according to the Sun-Sentinel.
But it was the brand’s presence at a health club that resulted in a key break: An associate of Chinese billionaire Li Ka-Shing spotted Celsius at an Equinox in Los Angeles and took it back to Ka-Shing in Hong Kong, recalled Fieldly, who was named CEO in 2018 after serving as chief financial officer since 2012. Ka-Shing “started drinking our cola flavor and just fell in love with it,” Fieldly told Ad Age, noting the billionaire had one before every round of golf. In 2015, Celsius lured a $15.9 million investment from a group that included Ka-Shing’s Horizons Ventures and hip hop mogul Russell Simmons.
Horizons—known for early investments in companies like Facebook and Zoom—“saw us as a disruptive technology ... and that is how we got talking,” Fieldly said. “A lot of business is about being at the right place at the right time, but you’ve got to be ready to capture it.”
Subscribe to Ad Age now for the latest industry news and analysis.
As Celsius looked to reclaim distribution, it stayed close to its Florida roots, targeting Miami and Tampa, and added on three cities that had a high concentration of health clubs: Dallas, Los Angeles and San Diego. “Our marketing strategy has been extremely tight. We had a drill deep strategy of five initial markets,” Fieldly said.
The brand, which uses the tagline “Live Fit,” targets people where they live, work and play, setting up distribution and marketing that hits its key target of health-conscious consumers ages 24 to 44 multiple times a day. Its media plan includes digital TV to reach consumers at home; digital radio to catch them on their way to work; and then marketing at running races or near beaches to capture “play” occasions. Experiential marketing has included a “Live Fit tour” featuring branded pop-up fitness events hosted by popular instructors from nationwide fitness chains.
Celsius is now sold nationally, as well as in some international markets, at more than 150,000 retailers, including key accounts with Publix, Target, CVS, Walmart and Kroger.
Celsius’ sales began taking off after it got into 7-Eleven, a key convenience outlet for on-the-go energy drink consumers. But it took plenty of persistence. The brand lobbied regional 7-Eleven managers but “we got a lot of no’s,” Fieldly said. Finally, “we were able to crack some store owners that were willing to go against corporate.” Then, after strong sales, “we got noticed by corporate and we were finally able to get a meeting with them,” he said.
7-Eleven “saw Celsius as an opportunity to be able to capitalize on the health and wellness trend,” he added. One key factor: Celsius had appeal with both men and women, a differentiator from other energy drinks that skewed male.