LeBron James' stint with Coca-Cola can best be described as moderately interesting.
Five and half years ago, the brand signed the high school phenom and number one NBA draft pick to a six-year deal and assigned him to its Sprite and Powerade brands. A year later, James was given his own Powerade flavor called FLAVA23. It wasn't anything special, neither was the Lil' Penny like character Coke gave him for a Sprite commercial names Miles Thirst, which was quickly retired.
In fact, the only thing really to speak of was the awesome commercial that was made as part of a series of tremendous commercials Powerade was making at the time. You know them all. Everyone was talking about them. Andy Roddick pounding the ball into the French Open clay. Michael Vick throwing the ball hundreds of yards. And LeBron James draining ridiculous three pointers.
Perhaps it's impossible for a sports endorsement to work with a drink, but my sense is that James hasn't really done much with Powerade so far, even though in 2007 Powerade's volume grew 15 percent at retail, while Gatorade was down 0.9 percent, according to Beverage Digest. "It had more to do with pricing and less to do with marketing," said Beverage Digest publisher John Sicher.
So it should get interesting now that Coca-Cola is having James switch from pitching Powerade to Vitaminwater, which the brand acquired when it bought Glaceau for $4.1 billion last year.
The man in the middle of it all is Rohan Oza, the senior vice president of Glaceau, who joined Coke in 1997, went on to work with Powerade and then eventually left to join Vitaminwater only to join the Coke family again when it was sold. Oza thinks LeBron is a powerful icon that can help Vitaminwater in the future and he thinks his endorsements work because they are more authentic than others.
"Every athlete that supports Vitaminwater has to be a fan first," Oza said. "LeBron was drinking it in high school. As soon as we heard about it, we knew that it was a natural fit. That's what's made Vitaminwater so successful over the years--four years of triple digit growth. It's a partnership. Not an endorsement."
Oza would not say what LeBron will do with the Vitaminwater brand, but I suspect we'll see some sort of flavor. We know there's a commercial coming out in which he'll play a defense attorney.
Oza, who has brought in big names over the years to the brand including David Wright, Tom Brady, Gilbert Arenas, Shaquille O'Neal, Brian Urlacher, Tracy McGrady, Kasey Kahne, Donovan McNabb, David Ortiz and LaDainian Tomlinson--is bringing the hottest free agent out there in Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who recently signed on with the brand.
"For us, Adrian is one of the most exciting players in the NFL and we're glad he kept the door open to a partnership with us." Peterson's other drink sponsorship, Muscle Milk, didn't keep him from doing a deal with Vitaminwater.
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