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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sports Science as a marketing tool - Gatorade vs Enlyten

About three weeks ago, we concluded our series on "Dehydration and fluid intake during exercise". We tried to uncover many of the myths that surround fluid intake during exercise, and much of our focus was on some of the marketing claims made by sports drink companies, particularly Gatorade, who fund much of the research that has been done on the topic.

In the first post of the series, we examined how our paradigm has changed regarding dehydration and fluid - until about the 1980's, it was uncommon to find people even concerned about drinking during events. Yet something happened to stimulate massive public sentiment and perception that dehydration was to be avoided at all costs. That "something" was the growth of the sports drink industry, which recognized a need and created what was to become an "indispensable" product for athletes of all levels. We challenged that perception and the need as a created one, not backed up the valid science (for the circumstances, that is)

It's a controversial subject, for sure, because it touches on the 'purity' of science, the application of what might well be sound laboratory-based research to the public who purchase a product that is developed specifically based on that research. And we made the point that the research has become part of the marketing armoury. Scientists and science become the endorsing agents for the product, and the integrity of the science is compromised as a result.

An example of science-marketing

Well, as it turns out, we had a shining example of this two weeks ago, when the NFL saw a start of a court battle between Gatorade and a rival company, Enlyten, who have manufactured what are called Electrolyte Strips for use by athletes. The strips are designed to be placed inside the mouth, where they deliver sodium and potassium to the system more rapidly than when they are taken in through Gatorade.

We won't concern ourselves with the heavy scientific details just yet - views on electrolytes will come when we address the muscle cramp issue in a future series, and was already discussed fairly extenstively in our dehydration posts. But what transpired between Enlyten and Gatorade makes for an interesting follow up to our previous posts.

Enlyten were able to obtain an endorsement deal with the Buffalo Bills of the NFL - they were to become the "Official Electrolyte strip of the team (along with 8 other teams, it later emerges). However, Gatorade reacted rather strongly to this news - Gatorade, incidentally, is an official sponsor of the NFL in the category of "Sports drinks, bars and gels".

Category exclusivity in sports - an important concept

As an important aside, in the sponsorship industry, a company will almost always (understandably) insist of category exclusivity when entering into any kind of sponsorship relationship. This is a means to shut out potential competition and dilution of returns from that sponsorship. An obvious example of this is that you will never, for example, have an event or a team sponsored by both CitiBank and UBS. Similarly, in South Africa, we have two large mobile phone companies who are very aggressive in pursuing sponsorship as a marketing strategy, but will always insist that no other mobile company be given rights that may undermine theirs.

So when a "Commercial rights owner" (that is, the company that "owns" what is being sponsored) puts together it's sponsorship package, it will usually designate certain categories. You will for example have Official Vehicle suppliers, Official Financial Service Providers, and Official Airline, an Official Technology Partner and so on. Sometimes the lines get hazy, as in this particular instance.

A court battle ensues

When Gatorade heard that Enlyten was promoting itself as the Buffalo Bills' "Official Electrolyte Replacement", they sent a letter to the NFL saying that they already had the rights to that category. In response, Enlyten filed a lawsuit against Gatorade and its parent company PepsiCo, saying that the deal covered only sports drinks, bars and gels. It was also at this stage that Enlyten revealed that EIGHT other NFL teams had also enlisted Enlyten as their official "Electrolyte replacement".

The argument becomes one of semantics - Gatorade are effectively claiming that Enlyten's strip is nothing more than a compressed gel, which means it does contradict the exclusivity term in the Gatorade-NFL contract. Enlyten of course deny this. And ultimately, this is one for the lawyers to comb over the contracts. But what caught our eye was Gatorade's strategy in arguing its point, because they relied HEAVILY on the science which, to be blunt, is simply not there to support their claim.

The Gatorade statement - science as both marketing and legal rebuttal

"For decades, the NFL and its member clubs have selected Gatorade as the only electrolyte replacement choice for their athletes because it's proven to enhance performance and safety on the field. Gatorade is backed by years of hydration and sports nutrition research -- more than 100 peer reviewed, published research studies -- that reinforces our rightful place on the sidelines and in the locker room."

This is the statement that was released by Gatorade in response to Enlyten's claims. You will notice the heavy emphasis on the research and science. Note that this is besides the point - the issue here is not whether Enlyten does or does not work, or whether Gatorade's electrolytes are better than Enlyten's. The issue should be a legal one - simply, to determine what the terms of the Gatorade contract are. But the explicit invoking of the "100 papers" (which is a fabrication - call it stretching the truth) and the years of research is quite clearly Gatorade's white stallion, the saviour and means to maintain an enormous market dominance.

It is Gatorade who have funded an entire "Gatorade Sports Science Institute" and developed much of the field of sports science in the USA. And while the offshoot of this is arguably beneficial in many instances, it does leave one wondering just to what extent the "science" is compromised as a vehicle for marketing, and now, legal arguments?

More than any of the examples of advertising which also invoke the laboratory based research on which fluid replacement guidelines are based, this statement illustrates the importance of the science to Gatorade, but not for its product development, but as a tool for promotion and marketing. And make no mistake - that is fine, provided it's done responsibly. But the dogmatic adherence to the paradigm, and the resultant advice to athletes to drink and drink and drink, to avoid dehydration (which were covered in detail in previous posts, so hopefully this will not be taken out of context without support) has resulted in numerous deaths and does really illustrate just how the conflict of interest can lead one down a very slippery slope.

Looking into the future

As emphasized, this is merely an addition to the previous series, so if it seems unsubstantiated, please to look through the series on dehydration which you can find in the left column of the page. And looking forward, we'll tackle this electrolyte issue and the science behind both Enlyten and Gatorade's arguments in our series on muscle cramps, coming up shortly!



Meg & Dave said...

You hydration posts have me fascinated. I think this whole Gatorade thing is pretty rediculous. Pepsi-Co is so driven to dominate the salty sugar water industry it's scary.

Personally, sports drinks give me cotton mouth and leave an aweful aftertaste when I'm working really hard for extended periods of time. I attribute this to heavy breathing through the mouth drying out my saliva and sports drink leaving a more concentrated brew or gack in the back of my throat. I think most athelets have had this experience.

Most of my favored sports are maximum efforts for 5-20 minutes. One problem I have a lot that I would be curious to hear about is that of cotton mouth. I have a lot of trouble with this on hot dry days esspecially on intense bike rides, I train on a track bike. I also do some canoe racing, one of our races is a 500m which, by the end, I've had such bad cotton mouth that I feel like I'm choking.

Do you have any insights on the issue of cotton mouth? How to prevent it? I ussually have to lower my intensity to the point that I can breath through my nose. In competition this is a bad thing.

Thanks, I've been reading your blog since day 1 and am really enjoying it!

Anonymous said...

I think you've been missing out on this latest rehydration research. Should be easy to find volunteers too!


Meg & Dave said...

I heard that one. There are a bunch of guys in my town that started a "running and drinking" club a few years ago. They try and stay nutral in terms of carb intake from beer and output from running... good stuff.

Anonymous said...

Further to Clyde's comment, there exist world-wide groups of "drinkers with a running problem" called the Hash House Harriers.

They have long known the benefits of drinking beer while exercising. Although many field tests are conducted world-wide on a weekly basis, I don't believe any coherent scientific data exists.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Thanks for keeping this light, guys!

Sometimes all the science and debate can wear us down, and this kind of "debate" is very welcome!

The bigger question is how can I get an NIH grant to do a study on the Hash House Harriers. . .? Thoughts and suggestions are welcome and invited!

Kind Regards,

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

In response to Energetich20's first comment, I hear you 100% on the sports drinks.

We have tried to lay out the science behind them, but you make an important point, and that is when you actually use these things they just cause problems. I am not saying that is the case with everyone, but often times the science does not always bridge the gap to the field.

For example, we can spend lots of money in the lab developing and testing a special product that, in the lab, does indeed have an effect on performance, But for whatever reason when that thing goes to market and the masses start using it, we discover it is just not practical (for any number of reasons).

I switched to water during my training rides because, like you, the sports drinks just make me more and more thirsty and dry out my mouth.

As for the insights into "cotton mouth," I cannot say I know much about it beyond what it is. For all I know there might actually be a medical term to describe it, but I have never researched it.

Thanks for the support and for participating in our discussions, and we hope to see you back in the discussions on the other posts!

Kind Regards,

Enlyten said...

Did you now that you can now purchase Enlyten Strips Direct?

Click to Enlyten

Brian Fitzgerald