PepsiCo brand Propel is choosing running communities over creators in summer sporting push

While marketers across the spectrum focus on activation or ambush strategies at major sporting events, PepsiCo flavored water brand Propel is taking a different route.

According to PepsiCo senior director of fitness Emily Boido, urban running clubs are the brand’s path to its key audiences. Propel is investing cash and water into 16 sports clubs in cities across the United States, in an effort to align itself with the wider running community. 

Propel is working with community groups such as Newark’s Brick City Run Club in New Jersey, Atlanta Run Club and Houston’s BLK Beetles, in an expansion of a 2023 project that began in Los Angeles with brand ambassador Michael B. Jordan. This year, the brand will stage pop-up gyms offering free classes and free Propel products, as well as give away $100,000 worth of fitness memberships to U.S. consumers.

With cookie deprecation (eventually) winnowing down marketers’ means of targeting an audience, brands like Propel are keen to plug themselves into exercise groups in order to reach their target demographics of fitness-minded consumers. Contributing materially to running and rowing clubs across the U.S. provides Propel with a philanthropic sheen, which matches the accessible and democratic nature of running.

“There’s a place for you regardless of who you are, or how fast or slow you run. As a long-time participant in a local running club, I can also tell you that members do appreciate and patronize brands that step up to support the cause,” Mike Stefeniak, chief strategy officer at branding agency Hanson Dodge, told Digiday.

Each of these community-based projects will burnish Propel with reams of social content, of course. Boido said Propel is prioritizing producing content with the community groups on Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok over engaging with influencers on those platforms.

​​”There’ll be points at time on our own social channels that we engage with fitness influencers and share content, but really the focus of this whole mission is in partnership with Michael B. Jordan and these 16 local organizations,” she said.

In return, Propel is spreading an unspecified cash bounty among the organizations. Boido said that PepsiCo was set to provide “a hybrid of investments through financial contribution, through hosting these spaces for them to be able to connect and host free fitness, and also through free Propel.”

Running is on the rise in the U.S. The New York Marathon recorded 165,000 signups this year, a record only beaten by its 2020 event. “[Running is] one of the most accessible fitness activities. It can be done alone or socially, in competition or not, almost anywhere, at almost any time of year, at any time of day, for any length of time,” said Trina Roffino, chief executive officer of brand strategy agency The Marketing Arm.

Propel’s team, which Boido said has an “obsession with the exerciser,” has been tracking that trend, and a Propel survey of 2,000 U.S. consumers found most runners exercise alone despite wanting the companionship of a group or club.

“For brands, connecting with runners checks multiple boxes. It’s a way to be associated with something that promotes physical and mental health,” Stefeniak said.

Though the term has fallen out of fashion for marketers, there’s clearly an element of purpose marketing behind Propel’s approach. The brand is supporting existing communities and, in some cases, helping them expand. In Newark, for example, it’s helping pay for one group to build a rowing dock on the Passaic River.

In Stefeniak’s view, it’s a smart move. “There’s a lot to love about running clubs,” he said in an email. “First, they’re booming — especially among Gen Z’s and younger millennials — because they’re a fun, easy way to meet like-minded people. Running clubs also tend to be inclusive and welcoming by nature.”

Roffino agreed. “Clubs appear to be thriving as social spaces, especially. Running with a club is a free and healthy way to socialize outdoors with people who share at least some of your values. People are really craving this nowadays, as so much of life has moved online and isolated us,” she said. “It takes a lot of local organizing, marketing and logistics to pull off events, so clubs can certainly use corporate support.”

Propel is not the only PepsiCo brand to pursue a combination of purpose marketing and partnership. Gatorade adds to its partnership of the Union of European Football Associations by getting involved in the game’s lower echelons.

Since 2015, Gatorade has organized Five by Five, a global kids’ five-a-side soccer tournament, to encourage more secondary school-age kids to keep participating in sports. According to Bart LaCount, vp of international beverages marketing at Gatorade, the company’s goal is to get 2.5 million kids to stay in sports teams by 2030.

And by increasing the number of kids playing sports, he added, Gatorade gains more opportunities to sell to them. “It’s a good thing for society, and we believe it’s also a good thing for our business, right? We don’t shy away from that. The more people that are participating in sport, the more occasions we have to go after,” LaCount said.

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