ASPIRE Beverage Co. fuels growth with unique grassroots marketing that taps student athletes

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: ASPIRE Beverage Co.
Source: ASPIRE Beverage Co.
The hardest decision made by the creators of the low-sugar sports drink company ASPIRE Beverage Co. was saying no to national distribution at Target a year within launching, but it was also one of the smartest decisions, according to a company executive. 

“A lot of companies say their biggest mistake was they didn’t say no. They said yes to everything and tried to grow fast because they were excited,”​ but they ultimately failed or suffered setbacks because they couldn’t meet demand or sufficiently support the output with marketing, said John Montague, co-founder and chief aspiration officer at ASPIRE Beverage Company.

“We didn’t want that to be us,”​ he added, explaining: “We knew when the offer came that we were not ready to support that level of distribution – that we had to do a lot of work still to get our supply chain set up and capacity set up so we could grow exponentially.”

So, with mixed emotions, Montague and his business partnered turned down Target’s offer for national distribution and instead negotiated distribution in five key markets across the US that could act as “hubs”​ for the company’s future “spokes”​ of growth, he said.

In the two years since the company made that fateful decision, it has grown steadily and quickly thanks to tireless efforts to meet its “mantra”​ of creating a business model where every facet of the company could scale to support the eventual production of 1 million bottles a day.

The company still has a long way to go to meet that goal, but the production capacity at its co-packer and operations are capable of producing and supporting this high volume, Montague said. 

He explained the company’s marketing model “is about going deep and not too broad too fast. We are really about getting deeply involved in the communities and supporting the communities that support us.”

Teaming with student athletes

The company is executing its marketing strategy with a unique twist on the common grassroots field campaign, which relies on brand ambassadors who also are the key consumer demographic of the drinks: high school and college athletes, Montague said.

He explained that the first year of the business he and his partner “were everywhere we knew people who would like our product would be – lacrosse tournaments, baseball games, basketball tournaments, school events, fun runs, community events. And it was working, but we knew it wouldn’t scale”​ because they could only be two places at once.

So they created a program to hire and train high school and college athletes who could go to events in their communities, speak about the beverage and pass out samples. They could explain from firsthand experience why it was better for them than high-sugar alternative sports drinks, Montague said.

The athletes also often are well known and respected in their communities and tied to other area leaders, which gives additional weight and reach to their marketing efforts, Montague said.

An app for that

With a full fleet of ambassadors, scheduling events and coordinating who would be where became a full time job within itself – which was something the young company could not afford.

To better coordinate field marketing scheduling and staffing, the company uses a mobile app developed by another firm that allows field marketers around the country to sign up for shifts, Montague said. As a result, “what was a full time job to manage events, now is just a few hours a week of overseeing the app.”

The system of hiring student athletes also won the company points with parents, teachers and members of the community who were pleased to see their youth gaining work experience and life skills beyond those taught them on a court, field or rink, Montague said.

Exclusive sponsorship

The ASPIRE Beverage Co. also recently inked a multi-year partnership as the exclusive drink of Under Armour All-American High School Football Game, which will elevate the brand to a national scale and showcase the firm’s better-for-you sports drinks.

Montague explained the partnership, which includes providing hydration stations and bottled sports drinks throughout game week, is particularly meaningful for ASPIRE Beverage Co. because the company has closely studied and tried to emulate Under Armour’s business development.

ASPIRE Beverage co. is like Under Armour in that it is taking a “bottoms up marketing approach”​ to challenge major brands that dominate each category. In the case of Under Armour, the company went up against Nike and Adidas, and for ASPIRE it is Powerade and Gatorade.

Offering a better-for-you alternative

The event also is an “awesome”​ platform for educating athletes and mainstream consumers about ASPIRE's better-for-you formula compared to some dominating sports drinks, Montague said.

He explained that ASPIRE Ice, one of the company's brands, has only 35 calories per 12 ounces and no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives, while it is also packed with electrolytes, vitamins and minerals.

This is compared to 80 calories and 21 grams of sugar per 12 ounces of Gatorade Thirst Quencher. Gatorade also offers a low-calorie G2 option that has a more comparable 30 calories and 7 grams of sugar per 12 ounces.

Montague says he and his partner were happily surprised to realize that not as much consumer education about the need for a healthy alternative was necessary as originally expected. He explained that the time is right for a healthier product because consumers are more aware of what they are putting in their body and many students already are flipping products over and reading the label before they consume a product.

This interest in healthier options is another key driver in the company’s fast growth, Montague said.

Going forward he said that, of course the company wants to sell more drinks, but mainly it wants to “solve the problem”​ of people “drinking junk in the name of sports.”

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