In August 2011, with a new hockey season just around the corner, NHL fans were treated to a flurry of feel-good media stories emanating from a weeklong pre-season training camp run by legendary Toronto Maple Leaf Gary Roberts and former team trainer Matt Nichol. The event drew stars like Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos and Montreal Canadiens sharpshooter Mike Cammalleri, who, alongside a group of the league’s most promising prospects, all paid for the opportunity to press iron, grunt through excruciating exercises and run skating drills on the storied ice surface at Toronto’s St. Michael’s College School Arena.
The camp wasn’t just about training. It bore the branding of an upstart sports beverage firm called BioSteel, which had sponsored the event, stamped its logo on the practice jerseys and invited media to attend. BioSteel filmed everything, posting daily sizzle reels to YouTube. The event was, all told, a commercial for BioSteel, the all-natural hydrating drink Nichol had invented to help his NHL clients with their conditioning. In fact, Cammalleri and Stamkos were BioSteel brand ambassadors.
BioSteel used the coverage to lay a few heavy checks on Gatorade, the world’s best known sports drink. As one TV reporter noted, whenever the cameras panned down the bench during regular season games, the players were increasingly guzzling BioSteel’s distinctively pink drink, albeit from Gatorade’s familiar green bottles. The NHLers touted BioSteel as a superior alternative. As Stamkos enthused, “I use it the entire year.”
Gatorade, owned by PepsiCo, was not amused. The company’s enforcers complained to the NHL Players’ Association, which, along with the NHL, has a multimillion-dollar sponsorship licence with the giant brand. NHLPA lawyers, in turn, phoned BioSteel CEO John Celenza and told him in no uncertain terms that he had to cease and desist: no more BioSteel training camps for NHLers. (Stamkos was also warned.)
Celenza considered legal action but didn’t get far. “No lawyer I knew was versed in NHLPA group licensing,” he says. Today, his office bears stark evidence of Gatorade’s intervention. He has four framed and amply autographed jerseys from those camps; the first two prominently feature the BioSteel logo, while the final two just had the word “#camp” across the chest. “The NHLPA had to do what they had to do,” he allows. “At first it was frustrating, but we’ve learned to live with it.”
It’s difficult to imagine a more formidable rival than Gatorade, which Celenza describes as the “800-pound gorilla.” Valued by Forbes at US$4.8 billion, it ranks among the world’s most powerful consumer brands; with an estimated US$3.3 billion in 2012 revenues, Gatorade controls almost half of the global sports beverage market. (Coca-Cola’s Powerade commands much of the balance.) Founded in the 1960s by Florida scientists to help college football players restore electrolytes during games, Gatorade is, according to a company spokesperson, “the most thoroughly researched beverage in the world and is scientifically engineered to help athletes maintain their best performance.” It has recruited many of sports’ highest-profile brand ambassadors (Michael Jordan, Usain Bolt, Serena Williams and Sidney Crosby) and locked up markets with licensing deals that reach all the way into the vending machines at municipal arenas.
The problem is that top-flight athletes, and even serious amateurs, tend not to drink the stuff, as it is considered excessively sugary. “Kool-Aid for adults,” says Sevag Khatcherian, manager of The Treadmill Factory, a Toronto training equipment retailer. When customers ask for advice on hydrating drinks that don’t trigger blood sugar spikes, he points them toward BioSteel, which he discovered while playing in an indoor adult soccer league. “It’s what Gatorade or Powerade claims to be.” Most customers who try it once, Khatcherian adds, will buy it again.
That’s the kind of viral brand narrative that has propelled BioSteel into an intriguing market position in a relatively short period. “It’s a story about cultural branding,” says York University associate professor of marketing Markus Giesler. In recent years, clever marketers have discovered that Gatorade-level mind share isn’t necessarily an impregnable fortress. Instead, upstart brands like BioSteel are learning to leverage social networks, new generations of influencers and broader consumer trends to establish toeholds in markets seemingly locked up by a handful of giant, well-capitalized players.
“Managing an underdog brand is like creating a social movement,” Giesler adds. “It’s not about your product. You’re playing a game of David and Goliath.” The appeal transcends the particular product and taps into a larger social conversation.
BioSteel’s story, of course, is all about the product. In 2004, when the NHL brought in its first anti-doping drug-testing protocol, Nichol, then working for the Leafs, knew he had to do something to control what was going into his players’ bodies. As Celenza explains, dressing rooms in those days often featured a table piled high with freebies from energy bar and protein supplement companies that either had licensing deals with the league or wanted them. Few of the products listed ingredients. “They’re just there for the guys to grab,” he says. “You didn’t know what was drug-tested or not.”
Nichol, who’s credited with helping star wingers like Roberts find religion through nutrition, took matters into his own hands. Armed with a kinesiology and biomechanics degree from McGill, the former university football player had learned how to mix supplements from Eric Serrano, a sports performance nutritionist, and bodybuilding guru Mauro Di Pasquale, a biochemist who consults for nutritional supplement companies and wrote a book extolling the benefits of amino acids for athletes.
As he experimented with different formulas for a drug- and additive-free sports drink, Nichol says he was constantly analyzing his athletes’ results. “I looked at both performance measures—weight, body fat, strength, speed, etc.—as well as biochemical measures of health. We routinely did blood and urinalysis, hydration levels, etc.” Eventually, Nichol locked on a recipe and started giving it to his players. The result is a mildly sweet and faintly medicinal beverage with none of the viscosity of some of its rivals. “It was never made for sale,” says Celenza. “Matty didn’t care about [profit] margins. He was just making it for his athletes.”
As it happens, the drink is bright pink. Nichol had been looking to add a colour, but didn’t want to introduce artificial dyes. He settled on red beet powder, which coincidentally came with its own performance-enhancing reputation. The decision to brand BioSteel by its remarkable colour (the current slogan, #DrinkThePink, is stamped on the bottles) would come later, as folks began noticing the pink liquid NHL players were drinking on TV.
A few years later, Nichol gave Mike Cammalleri, then with the L.A. Kings, some of his homebrew at one of his pre-season training camps. The small but tenacious left-winger was impressed. As Cammalleri explains, he’d been spending a lot of money on supplements but didn’t know which ones were safe. “Matty had this product, and it addressed a lot of those needs.”
Cammalleri called Celenza, a childhood friend from King City, Ont. At the time, Celenza was a consultant aiming to break into the sports marketing and agency business. Cammalleri offered to introduce Celenza to Nichol so he could make a pitch. They met at Nichol’s gym at St. Michael’s. Celenza’s idea: Sell the drink crystals in tubs for $60 apiece, and target serious athletes. As Celenza reckoned, if players were prepared to ante up $300 for a composite stick that would break after a few games, they’d pay $60 for a sports drink formula that passed muster with both the doping regulators and serious conditioning coaches.
Initially, the company focused on selling the drink to NHL players through word-of-mouth recommendations that extended out of Nichol’s training camps and into dressing rooms around the league. Matt Price, the Kings’s head strength and conditioning coach, points out that BioSteel had its product tested, batch by batch, in independent labs that could certify its composition to the league’s drug regulators. He also recognized that it was a specialized product. “A lot of these companies are making product for mass consumption, not high performance.”
Little by little, with Cammalleri serving as a pitchman, BioSteel built a following in the NHL. Teams quietly cut cheques to the company, despite the endless stream of freebies—including countless cases of Gatorade—that flow into their dressing rooms. Trainers in junior leagues followed suit. “It’s a very crowded marketplace, and it’s filled with misinformation,” says Mark Fitzgerald, a CHL trainer who runs a Whitby, Ont., gym called Elite Training Systems. He signed on as a brand ambassador, introducing younger players to BioSteel.
The moment that changed everything came on April 28, 2010, during a Hockey Night in Canada playoff broadcast. After the second period, Ron MacLean interviewed Roberts and asked him about the pink liquid the players were drinking, “the kids would love to know.” It was BioSteel, said Roberts. That night, Celenza happened to be playing pickup with a bunch of guys in a North York, Ont., arena. When he checked his smartphone in the dressing room, he had 840 emails in his inbox. Celenza called his father to ask if anything had happened while he was on the ice. “Yeah,” his dad replied, “Gary Roberts just told the whole country to drink BioSteel.”
Despite the late hour, Celenza called one of his employees, and they hustled to put up a splash page on BioSteel’s website to accept orders. Celenza insists it wasn’t an engineered announcement: “Gary’s not a partner. He was just telling the truth.” (Gatorade contends that “NHL players consume Gatorade during televised NHL games.”)
Following Roberts’ bombshell, Celenza and his small team realized they were suddenly in the retail business. But he wanted to make sure his products didn’t get lost in the confusion of health food store merchandising, where shelves are invariably piled high with tubs of protein supplements, strengthening powders and drinks. Instead, Celenza focused his efforts on venues where his customers were already shopping: sporting goods and training equipment retailers, including national chains like Sport Chek. These retailers generally didn’t stock consumables, so Celenza had to press his case. “They were interesting conversations to start,” he says. But buyers, bolstered by anecdotes and overtures from pro athletes, began to come around. Khatcherian began selling BioSteel powder and protein supplements in early 2014, based on a connection with Roberts’s gym, which sources its equipment from The Treadmill Factory.
Being technically locked out of the NHL proper, BioSteel focused its efforts on signing endorsement deals with up-and-coming athletes, both in hockey and other professional sports. The company signed a deal with Andrew Wiggins, the number one pick in the 2014 NBA draft. (The Thornhill, Ont., forward, now with the Minnesota Timberwolves, is a solid contender for Rookie of the Year.) Meanwhile, Celenza, who continues to scout for new marketing “properties” to replace BioSteel Camp, figured the firm could sponsor a Canadian high school all-star basketball game, modelled on a similar event McDonald’s sponsors in the U.S. Celenza met with organizers at Canada Basketball and offered product instead of money. With basketball’s star rising in Canada, due to the success of NBA drafts like Wiggins, Celenza reckons he’ll be in a position to associate BioSteel with the stars of tomorrow, and gain TV coverage (TSN is broadcasting the event, which takes place in Toronto this April).
The strategy of targeting trainers and younger players assumes they’ll become boosters for the long haul. Consider BioSteel’s endorsement deal with NHL prospect Connor McDavid; the captain of the OHL’s Erie Otters has been touted as the next Sidney Crosby. Celenza insists he’s not worried about losing McDavid to a richer offer offer once he turns pro: “Connor’s not going anywhere, and he’d be the first to tell you that.”
Celenza adds that BioSteel’s popularity with this next generation was in evidence during the World Juniors. Gatorade, he says, sent an account rep into the Team Canada dressing room before cameras were allowed in, to remove BioSteel bottles. “It was the pros that helped get the brand momentum going,” he says. “Now, it’s the young kids.”
In recent months, BioSteel has begun to appear in more mainstream retail venues—convenience stores and supermarkets. It’s a big step, from a merchandising and marketing point of view, and one that required new packaging. Buy BioSteel in your local Mac’s, for example, and you’ll get a bottle of clear water with a capsule of pink crystals in the cap, to be popped open just before you consume it. “It was the only way for us to sell our product in a ready-to-drink format and keep it natural,” says Celenza. “Without the powder in the cap, it would have to be ready-mixed, and that would involve the use of preservatives or artificial flavours, which we don’t stand for.”
The move into the realm of mass consumer products is almost certainly a game-changer; after all, those corner store fridges are dominated by BioSteel’s billion-dollar rivals. As he considers the BioSteel-Gatorade dynamic, Giesler points out that Celenza’s company has every incentive to make hay from the fact the playing field is anything but level. He says consumers will naturally gravitate to a scrappy challenger that has an authentic product and a compelling narrative. “What they’re really saying is that they want to be part of a movement.”
Celenza knows he has to bang away at the idea that BioSteel occupies a kind of nutritional moral high ground, while building his brand in defiance of the efforts of a massive competitor. What complicates this dance is the fact BioSteel might one day be on the receiving end of a lucrative acquisition proposal from one of the aforementioned 800-pound gorillas. After all, that’s what happened with flavoured water companies like Glacéau Vitaminwater, which Coca-Cola bought for US$4.1 billion in 2007.
Celenza is often asked what he’d do if PepsiCo phoned with a similar offer. “Yeah, I would think about it,” he says. BioSteel “would be a great company to acquire. We have a great brand, and we have a great product. But there’s lots that I’d like to see through before I’d even consider something like that. To be honest, I think for us, the party hasn’t even started.”
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