How Gatorade uses a boarding school to test products

A boarding school may seem like an unlikely place for a brand sponsorship, unless it’s IMG Academy.

For years, the sports academy has had sponsors like Gatorade, Under Armour, motion-capture tech company Motus and mattress-pad company Airweave. For the academy, it’s a way to provide its 1,000 full-time students and assorted part-time camp attendees with sports and lifestyle equipment. For sports brands, it’s the perfect focus group of high-performance athletes.

The school opened in 1978 as a tennis academy by tennis coach Nick Bollettieri and was bought by sports and entertainment marketing company IMG in 1987. Today, the academy trains for eight sports, including football, lacrosse and basketball. Tuition runs about $60,000 a year.

Gary Pluchino, vp of business development, said that partnering with brands including Gatorade or Under Armour lets the school provide the latest products and services to students. Gatorade runs a “sports science institute” on campus that tests the students’ athletic performance. Airweave does sleep research and teaches students about getting a good night’s sleep.

Gatorade calls itself an IMG “supplier,” but there’s no question that the brands’ role is a marketing one.

The GSS at IMG Academy
The GSS at IMG Academy

For Gatorade, IMG fits its marketing focus on athletes and goal of expanding its business beyond sports drinks to items like nutrition bars, chews and breakfast foods.

For example, Gatorade uses its relationship with IMG to test product flavors before introducing them. Right now, said Pluchino, the brand is testing “smart bottles” that are personalized to individual athletes. Sensors on the bottles send consumption information to coaches and trainers through an app so they know who needs fluid or electrolytes and when.

“IMG provides a great resource” to Gatorade’s scientists, said Jeff Kearney, head of Gatorade sports marketing. “They have year-round access to this broad spectrum of elite athletes, as well as the next generation of talent and the opportunity to spend a great deal of time observing and learning from them.”

The IMG relationship also gives brands access to a pool of potential professional athletes for endorsement deals. IMG alumni include, for example, Tony Romo, the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys; Russell Wilson, quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks; and the Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton.

For Under Armour, endorsement deals are a key to catching No. 1 sports brand Nike: Its deals with Steph Curry, golfer Jordan Spieth and Tom Brady have been touted as one of the major reasons it has grown so fast. At its most recent investor’s day in September, the brand said it had reached its $4 billion revenue goal a full year earlier than expected.

Kearney of Gatorade said that while thinking about professional athlete partners, a variety of criteria are considered. The IMG one, he said, lets Gatorade “learn and build our future innovation pipeline.”