Natural Foods Merchandiser

Vitaminwater aims to score in sports drink sector

Detroit's Ford Field will be awash in Carolina blue and Michigan State green this weekend, but look for another color to also make a splash: Vitaminwater purple.

Throughout the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament, which began March 17 and ends Monday night, April 6, purple-and-white Vitaminwater coolers, bottles and cups have been featured prominently on television. Vitaminwater, which was purchased by Coca-Cola in 2007 for $4.1 billion, has been named the official sideline drink for all NCAA championships.

Not only are college jocks drinking Vitaminwater's Revive flavor, which contains B vitamins and potassium that aresupposed to help athletes recover faster after exercise, but Coke also switched pro basketball superstar LeBron James' endorsement deal from PowerAde (the Coke brand that competes with Gatorade) to Vitaminwater.

So does this mean that Vitaminwater and other natural, enhanced waters are poised to knock out Pepsi-owned Gatorade as the preferred sports drink of champions?

Vitaminwater won't say. A company spokeswoman didn't return two calls asking for comment on Vitaminwater's sports drink strategy. But Gary Hemphill, spokesman for New York-based beverage consultants Beverage Marketing Corp., said Vitaminwater has been "fairly aggressive" in marketing to the sports drink sector. "They may think that their audience is as likely to drink enhanced waters as they would drink a sports drink."

Coke may also be simply trying to get its money's worth out of Vitaminwater in an economy where there's "softness in the marketplace for refreshment beverages," Hemphill said. Beverage Marketing Corp. reported on March 30 that although U.S. refreshment beverage sales as a whole dropped 2 percent last year, enhanced water sales increased 8.3 percent. "As a result, beverage companies are putting more push behind the enhanced water brands," Hemphill said.

Gatorade is the fifth-best-selling drink in the U.S., according to BMC, behind Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew and Dr. Pepper. But Gatorade's sales were flat last year and sports beverage sales overall dropped 3.1 percent, BMC reported. That opens the door for Vitaminwater and other natural water beverages, Hemphill believes.

"Enhanced waters are positioned as healthy refreshments in keeping with the concept of active lifestyles, and I think Coke is trying to capitalize on that with Vitaminwater."

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