SBJ/November 5 - 11, 2001/Forty Under 40

Tom Fox

Gatorade sports marketing chief Tom Fox is one of a select few with insight into every side of the property-rights business. He knows what makes rights holders happy and what moves products off retail shelves.

That alone is enough to set him apart. But Fox also has an appreciation for the art of brand marketing, honed while working on some of the most well-managed brands in the country: the NBA, Nike and Gatorade.

The definitive Fox story has to be about when he left his first stint at Gatorade to sell corporate sponsorships at the NBA. Talk about a role reversal; in two weeks, Fox went from buying a new NBA deal for Gatorade to selling one to Gatorade for the NBA. Given the circumstances, you'd assume the NBA got the best of that deal. Fox rejects that notion.

"Gatorade got a good deal, because it was the first time someone on the other side really knew their business," said Fox, who first worked for Gatorade from 1988 to '93 and who returned to the company in 1999.

In marketing circles, partnership is a word rivaled only by the dreaded "synergy" in terms of overuse.

But Fox actually makes it work, helping steer a brand that's as dominant as any (80 percent market share) in packaged goods. On behalf of Gatorade, he controls a sports marketing arsenal that includes the NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA, NASCAR, 57 Division I colleges and universities, and a cadre of athlete endorsers that started with a guy named Jordan.

"Be Like Mike," now a decade old and developed during Fox's first stint with the company, is still one of the most memorable and effective sports campaigns ever, and you can make the case that Jordan did more for Gatorade than he did for Nike, the brand with which he is inexorably tied. Regardless of the sports property, the challenge for Gatorade — and subsequently Fox — isn't so much one of brand building as it is finding the right balance of exposure at big-time events and involvement in grassroots sports so that they combine to produce an air of authenticity that's unquestioned by consumers. It's tough to remember now that there was a time when Gatorade wasn't as omnipresent on sidelines as coaches' clipboards.

With a tradition of effective and award-winning advertising, Gatorade is now viewed by the marketing community as a "best practices" shop. The sports marketing delivery vehicles invented out of Gatorade are impressive. Gatorade pioneered branded towels, cups, seat backs and, of course, its now ubiquitous coolers.

And it all falls under Fox's responsibility.

Though a veteran of some of the world's top brands, Fox is more inclined to find differences than similarities among Nike, the NBA and Gatorade. Packaged-goods marketers won't dare change color on packaging without reams of data. As generally practiced, sports marketing is a seat-of-the pants profession. Now in his second tour of duty with Quaker Oats, to which the Gatorade brand belongs, Fox appreciates the difference.

"The amount of analytical tools available to me after my years at the NBA and Nike were astounding," he said. While at Nike, the company was so emotionally tied to its athletes that discussions of their actual value to the brand were rare. At Gatorade, a discussion of a dollar spent on another basketball player vs. that same dollar spent on slotting fees or more TV ads is routine.

An unwavering belief in Gatorade's efficacy is the foundation on which all Gatorade marketing rests. Its biggest competitor is water, but it still has evidence to support its claim that Gatorade is the best rehydrator on earth. "I can say that to [David] Stern, and our [sales] reps can say it to the Wal-Mart buyers," Fox said.

That's authenticity even Michael Jordan can't provide.

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