SBJ/February 25-March 3, 2013/In Depth
How they Dew it
It’s been 20 years since Mountain Dew turned to action sports to wake up its sleepy brand. Here’s how the strategy developed and where Dew may find its next marketing trick.
Published February 25, 2013, Page 15
When Pepsi introduced it in 1992, no one anticipated it would change sports marketing and raise the profile of a series of fringe sports like skateboarding and BMX.
But that’s exactly what happened.
The phrase, along with its catchy ads, pushed Mountain Dew into the world of action sports. Along the way, Mountain Dew discovered the power of grassroots marketing, developed the first brand-produced, feature-length film (a precursor to today’s original content), and catapulted from eighth to the fourth-best-selling soda.
If you walk around a snowboard or skateboard event today, you can see the brand’s legacy in every sponsor village. Would Verizon, Samsung, Supercuts, Ford or anyone else be there if it weren’t for Mountain Dew? Maybe. But probably not.
Mountain Dew has now been involved in action sports for 20 years. Some of the most memorable names in sports marketing — Dave Burwick, John Galloway, Katie Lacey, Ralph Santana — worked on the brand during that time. They recently recalled how the brand effectively used action sports to raise its profile over the last two decades.
I. Do the Dew
Dave Burwick (former Mountain Dew manager and later PepsiCo CMO): Dew started as a country brand. It became a country outdoor brand. Bill [Bruce, BBDO’s former chief creative officer] hyper-charged it. From the late ’80s to the early ’90s, it became about action sports.
Bruce: When I came onboard, Seattle, as far as music, was blowing up with Nirvana and Soundgarden. There was a rebellion going on. MTV was playing some stuff from different athletic worlds. What jumped out at me was the idea of people just pushing themselves.
|Mountain Dew has used action sports to help the brand become the fourth-best-selling soda in the country.
Bruce: I was working on Diet Mountain Dew [in 1992]. We did [a commercial with] boogie board guys over a 50-foot waterfall. A guy BASE jumping. These guys, “The Dew guys,” were very unimpressed by this. The attitude being tapped into from the culture was “no big deal.”
Burwick: It was a breakthrough campaign because it took Dew from the 1970s, ’80s, doing it country cool, to a place in the ’90s that really connected with Gen X. It was the Dew Dudes and the “been there, done that” language.
Bruce: The idea was: How do we shoot [BASE jumping] so we make people uncomfortable? The camera has to stay far enough behind so it doesn’t trip the BASE jumper but close enough that it feels like it’s with him. Another producer who saw the commercial for the first time at the convention said she almost threw up watching it. I said, “Awesome. If this is going to make a woman in her 30s throw up, it’s going to make a teen jump out of his seat.”
Burwick: We got push-back from networks on the commercials. They wanted disclaimers. They had never shown anything like this.
Bruce: They may have put this line at the end — don’t try this at home. I still rebelled against that. It’s a guy jumping off a cliff in Arizona? Who’s going to do that?
Burwick: The campaign was so strong we decided to make it into a regular Mountain Dew campaign. It was the beginning of a rocket ship for the brand.
II. Balanced approach
Pepsi increased the brand’s marketing budget from $20 million to $40 million between 1992, when the first Diet Dew spots ran, and 1993 when the ad campaign shifted to regular Mountain Dew. The campaign started to incorporate other sports, and the brand started to support the campaign with sponsorships.
Burwick: Brand building at the time was really about TV, radio and out of home. There wasn’t grassroots marketing. We decided to go out and create some partnerships that would lend credibility to the advertising.
Bill Carter (partner at Fuse, Mountain Dew’s longtime action sports agency): Ron Coughlin was a brand manager with Mountain Dew at the time. He reached out to Fuse because Fuse was on retainer with Burton doing PR and event
Burwick: There was a “Learn to Ride” program. When first-time snowboarders came down the mountain, we handed them a Mountain Dew. We were linking that first exhilarating experience on a snowboard with our product.
Carter: They were definitely grassroots. They would write a check to Snowsports Industries America for a demo tour [the “Learn to Ride” program] where they would pull a van into a parking lot at some ski resort.
Burwick: Around that time, Ron Semiao [of ESPN] came to us. He had an idea for the extreme games — basically, an Olympics for all these sports in our commercials. We were the first sponsor.
Carter: X Games was pretty grassroots at the time. There was a major television component but it was nowhere near today.
John Galloway (former Mountain Dew brand manager and head of Pepsi’s sports division): I still remember the first Winter X Games. Each of us [sponsors] were assigned a 10-foot-by-10-foot booth space by ESPN. We got up there and said, “This is not us.” We sent our folks down to L.A. to get a speaker system to blow out this tent. We did a Mountain Dew slam race with people slamming Mountain Dew. We were seen as pretty rebellious.
Carter: The arrival of Chris Strain [as Mountain Dew’s brand manager in 1997] changed everything. Burwick was always about the balanced approach. It’s grassroots but also big media. Strain was absolutely committed to the core market.
Strain: When I came on in 1997, Coke was gearing up to launch Surge. We made a major shift from utilizing action sports because they were adrenaline-based and extreme — a metaphor for a drink that gives you a rush. We knew that wasn’t a defensible position. We had to shift and be more about individuality and style.
Carter: Strain said I want you all to be our agency focused on action sports. It’s not going to be about big properties or be about media. We’re going to make this a core brand. From that point in time, everyone’s focus was on developing a relationship with the Vans Triple Crown.
Strain: The guys at Vans contacted us. They had this vision to help grow these sports. It was more focused on the individual sport than all the sports together. The first meeting we had, we left there and said, “That’s a great idea.”
Carter: They were creating a property of 18 events, which already really existed, and they were being bundled into the Vans Triple Crown.
Strain: It would give us the exposure and ownership that we weren’t getting out of the X Games at the time.
Carter: It checked every box. There was media but it was core media. The relationships weren’t with ESPN Magazine. They were with core surf, skate, snow magazines.
Strain: It allowed Mountain Dew to get into the world of skateboarding and do it authentically and be accepted with a group that was changing themselves.
Carter: It wasn’t all roses. In the end, the property didn’t have staying power. The foundation — financially and otherwise — wasn’t going to work. But what it did for Mountain Dew was critical.
III. Flying by the seat of their pants
By the late 1990s, Mountain Dew was sponsoring three action sports properties: X Games, Vans Triple Crown and the Gravity Games. It continued to sign athlete endorsements to complement its sponsorships. The brand’s sales growth was in the double digits, far ahead of the 3 percent average growth for other sodas. Its promotions around action sports were credited with driving sales.
Burwick: The challenge in the late ’90s was that everyone jumped on that bandwagon. Everyone was copying us.
Carter: In that year, we started working for Ford on the Ford Ranger, Gillette with Right Guard Extreme Sport deodorant.
|The inaugural Dew Tour event in Louisville had executives wondering if they had developed a dud. But by the time the event rolled into Portland (below), the crowds were catching on.
Carter: It all sounds funny now. You say, “Of course you would choose specific sports and athletes.” But at the time people were just flying by the seat of their pants trying to figure out what sports and what properties and whether or not athletes would be part of the equation.
Strain: Even before then we had athletes we worked with in commercials and on-site, but it had never been put together as a formal team and articulated like that until ’99.
Issa Sawabini (Fuse partner): I remember saying, “We don’t want to call them a team. It’s not a group of baseball players.”
Steve Astephen (Wasserman Media Group, president, action sports and Olympics): When we signed athletes with Mountain Dew, a big reason why was they exposed our athletes in ways that no one else was. Putting Carey Hart in a national television spot, back in the late ’90s, that didn’t exist before Mountain Dew, and that was a big thing.
Carter: You talk about these specific moments in time, when [Hart] does a back-flip at the Gravity Games in Providence, that was news in action sports but it was also news in a wider sphere, and he was a Mountain Dew guy.
Astephen: The energy drinks also challenged them to look at another opportunity. They came in and spent a lot of money on the athlete side, not the events.
Strain: There was a desire to get more visibility of athletes at events. That was brought on by Red Bull. They were signing athletes and putting stickers on helmets. They were getting visibility even though they weren’t sponsors of events.
Katie Lacey (Pepsi director of sports marketing, 1999-2001): There was a little more competition at the turn of the century. At the X Games San Francisco, we had a normal Dew presence. Red Bull was doing a lot of sampling outside the gate. I recall the brand being alarmed at what Red Bull could do with that core positioning. It was still on the fringes but it had a core foothold.
Strain: They gave away T-shirts and caps around the perimeter. Because it wasn’t a Coca-Cola brand, it wasn’t hitting the radar for people from a senior management perspective.
Galloway: They became the more credible drink. They were the endemic brand. We were saying, “Please don’t forget about us. We’ve been here since day one.” That was a big motivation to keep pushing the levels and the integration with athletes.
Sawabini: It would have been obvious to go and sign Tony Hawk, and there were many folks who thought Tony should be signed. We pushed hard to wait and wait and wait. When Shaun [White] was ready to represent a big company [in 2004], that’s when we went and got him.
Galloway: Shaun did a ton for the brand. The truth of the matter was the brand wasn’t being consumed by the 17-year-old male adrenaline junky. More 25-year-olds were drinking it. Shaun made the brand younger. He made it more aspirational.
Sawabini: We also recommended Hannah Teter and Paul Rodriguez.
Rodriguez: They had so much history with skateboarding already. That’s really the reason I was interested. It was a time when drink sponsors were trying to get involved. The one brand that made sense was the brand that had been there a long time.
Galloway: He had a lot of street skate credibility and from a multicultural perspective it gave the brand a different look.
Rodriguez: The fact that it’s been 10 years in itself is a highlight. It’s been a collaborative effort. They’re really open to my ideas and like to hear what I have to say. It’s something I feel like they have done better than any other brand.
IV. Going to the movies
The deals with Teter and White made it possible for Mountain Dew to make a snowboarding documentary in 2005. The movie, “First Descent,” which was released in 700 theaters, showed the young snowboarders riding in Alaska with Terje Haakonsen and others. It was a breakthrough in branded content and jump-started a push by Mountain Dew to have an ownership position in action sports.
Galloway: We had an idea for a short film. One of them was to tell our story in action sports. We had a company come in and throw this idea on the table: “What if we don’t tell the story of Mountain Dew? What if we tell the story of the history of snowboarding?” The history of snowboarding and Mountain Dew, they’re sort of symbiotic.
Sawabini: We needed to do something differently. Sure we could go out and sponsor an endemic film. But this was a way to push that to the next level.
Galloway: All in on that film we probably spent in the neighborhood of $3 million. There are probably some [commercials] that cost more. The energy, the hype, the PR value was way in excess of $3 million.
Sawabini: We were out a year before the Torino Olympics. When [Shaun] won a gold medal at the same time as Hannah, that was awesome. Snowboarding was on the cover of everything.
White left Mountain Dew for Red Bull in 2007.
Galloway: Shaun came back from the 2006 Olympics and sat down with me and his agent in a restaurant in New York. He said, “I want to be the only guy for Mountain Dew.” That wasn’t something we could promise Shaun. I saw the writing on the wall.
Sawabini: Right around that time, that term “ownable” started to be the buzzword in marketing. Branded entertainment was becoming big. [Alli President] Wade Martin and [NBC executive] Kevin Monaghan were the ones who came together and said, “We should do a series.”
Monaghan: We wanted a brand that resonated with that audience. The first one that came to mind was Pepsi and Mountain Dew. We said, “No way that will happen.” They seemed very happy with X Games.
Galloway: At the time, I was a big NASCAR fan. NASCAR with the Sprint Cup hit me. This is a no-brainer. We should do this.
|The brand had only two months to turn the concept for The House of Dew into reality, but the gathering spot became an instant hit with fans as it traveled among Dew Tour stops.
Galloway: The money wasn’t there from the brand. In the end, it was such a solid idea that the money found it.
Burwick: The X Games became so commercialized and there were so many brands. We felt we needed to do something on our own.
Galloway: We wanted our activation to be big [at the first Dew Tour event]. Finally, we had space. We weren’t constrained to a 10-by-10.
Andy Cook (principal at Vivid, Pepsi’s experiential marketing agency): John said no egos. Let’s talk about what we should do. We started spinning the story. If you were 15 years old and your parents went out of town forever, what would the house look like?
Galloway: We called it The House of Dew.
Cook: We had about two months to build the thing. We had a million dollars total to buy the steel, the truck, the generators, the air conditioners. It was a beast.
Galloway: We had free Mountain Dew in the kitchen. We had a movie theater upstairs with “First Descent.” We had [rapper] Lupe Fiasco hanging on the front porch.
Cook: There were lines out the door. Usually, you’re begging media to show up. Here they were lining up to be a part of it. It was great.
V. Oh boy
The first Dew Tour event was held in Louisville, Ky., in June 2005. The idea was that competitors would collect points in skate, BMX and freestyle motocross competitions at five different tour stops. The competitor with the most points won the Dew Cup. But challenges with the first event created uncertainty about the tour’s viability.
Sawabini: Louisville is a great town but the venue was not good. A lot of people walked out of this thing saying, “Oh boy.”
Martin: Galloway wasn’t happy with one part of the look of the event — the signage around the structure [called scrim]. I remember him asking, “The scrim. I don’t know that I love that. Is that going to be there for every event?” We’d bought enough of it for the next two years. We were like, “Ugh, yeah, ahm.”
Galloway: We had been with the X Games for a number of years. They had it down to a science. Coming into Louisville and our own event, there was trepidation.
Martin: During the skate street event, I went by to see Galloway in a Pepsi trailer. I remember he was like, “Is there any way we could just make this thing stop?” There weren’t that many people there. A skater had a sticker on his helmet that said, “Dew Tour sucks.”
Galloway: I took things personally, but in the end I remember being out at night in Louisville and having a drink with Wade at a Mexican restaurant. We were still friends.
Martin: We had an all-night staff meeting [after the event]. We went and reinvented the event for [the next stop in] Denver. That really set the stage for the rest of the year because we didn’t have another event like Louisville.
Galloway: I was thrilled with where it was [when I left Pepsi sports marketing in late 2006]. By the end, we had all the major athletes. The ratings were not that huge. But we liked having it on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Ralph Santana (Pepsi vice president of sports): I came on after Galloway. Everyone recognized [action sports and the Dew Tour] was a great platform and we had great heritage. The question was: How do we move forward and keep it fresh?
Martin: We had talked about expanding the Dew Tour into the winter. They weren’t ready in 2006. We put it on the shelf and came back to it.
Santana: The first X Games I went to [was in 2007]. Our deal was up. It was and still is an unbelievable property [but] we as a brand were at a point where we wanted to move beyond being a sponsor brand.
Mountain Dew announced in September 2007 that it would end its sponsorship of X Games and become a title sponsor of the Winter Dew Tour.
Santana: It was less about X Games and more about how we move the brand forward. We’d been doing [X Games] for a while.
Martin: Their decision to leave X Games surprised us. We didn’t think they would do that.
Sawabini: The decision was 100 percent budget driven. There just wasn’t enough money to do both. In an ideal world, there’d still be money for both today.
Martin: The other big change around that time was from House of Dew, which was on-the-ground activation, to Dew
|The House of Dew gave way to Dew Underground, which created content in its own studio. Here, fans watch as Dew-sponsored skateboarder Paul Rodriguez (left) tapes a show.
Santana: No one wanted to walk away from [House of Dew], but we wanted to take what worked to the next level. We went from solely an experience at the House to putting a studio in there and using it to create content.
Sawabini: There are plenty of places where viewers can sit and watch live television. “Good Morning America.” “Today.” Whatever. Dew Underground became a content franchise within the world of the Dew Tour.
Santana: It was a Dew experience built around the local experience. Who were the local musicians? Who were local artists? What are hot spots in this town?
Sawabini: That was the root of it. We knew action sports wasn’t all about competition. We wanted to embrace art and culture. The local [skate] shops are the lifeblood of the sport. We wanted to make sure they got love.
Martin: They’ve stayed with the branded content approach for four or five years now. They’ve produced a lot of content they’re proud of.
VI. Seven to three
After six years of sponsoring the Dew Tour, Mountain Dew sat down with the team at Alli Sports, which runs the tour, to negotiate a renewal. The tour included three winter stops and four summer events in 2011, and in recent years, Alli had experimented with single-sport competitions for skateboarding in Boston and BMX in Chicago. Those events drew smaller crowds and produced fewer TV hours.
Mountain Dew was continuing to work with athletes, primarily snowboarder Danny Davis and skater Paul Rodriguez, who was featured in a national TV campaign in 2011, but the Dew Tour was the focal sponsorship in action sports.
Martin: By the end of 2010 and 2011, we recognized the marketplace had changed. We wanted to evolve the model and create more premium events.
Sawabini: The landscape was more crowded. There were snowboard events all around the world every weekend. There were more skateboard events.
Brett O’Brien (former vice president of marketing for Mountain Dew, now senior vice president and general manager of Pepsi’s Gatorade brand): It wasn’t that we said we need three. We didn’t go in with a number. We wanted to make it more accessible to athletes. We wanted to have a lot more ownership of the property. How do we do that from a Dew perspective so that as we evolve this series it truly evolves into the Dew Tour?
Heidi Sandreuter (PepsiCo senior director, sports marketing): We actually have data that shows that those that are aware of the Dew Tour are two times more likely than those who aren’t to think this is a brand for me, this is a brand that helps me express myself, this is a brand that I’m about, this is a brand I love. We know it works.
Sawabini: Alli came with the idea of the beach-city-mountain structure. It was a model that smartly embraced the ideas of action sports. It caught the majority of action sports places.
O’Brien: There was a lot of back and forth about what the right number was. We wanted something that was much more beach-ocean based. We wanted something urban based. We wanted something in the mountains.
Adam: We’re taking some risks. That’s why we’re really proud. We’re making a difficult change to do what’s right for the sport and what’s right for the athletes.
Last year marked the beginning of the new Dew Tour. It went to Ocean City, Md., San Francisco and Breckenridge, Colo.
O’Brien: We felt it was a B+. It was a short turnaround to do something a little higher end. Two, the athletes weighed in and we were able to deliver more accessibility and build some events they were really excited about. Is there room for improvement? Yes, but we did a really good job in year one.
O’Brien: Will we still be in action sports in 10 years? I have a feeling action sports will continue to evolve and we’ll be evolving right with it.
Sawabini: I’ve never been in a room where [getting out of action sports] was part of the discussion. There are lean years when you have to say, how much can we do? Should we cut? But I’ve never been in a room where they said, “Should we be doing this?”
Burwick: The challenge the team is left with is because it’s a brand at a big company they remarkably don’t have the resources of a Monster or Red Bull to go deeper into the world. They have to figure out how to keep evolving this thing and carve out new ground and connect with another generation.
Strain: They’ve got to continue to progress and impress the participants and consumers in that space. The only way to survive is continually reinvent yourself.
O’Brien: Ten years from now I don’t know what the action sports landscape is about. If it’s about youth and it’s about passion and youth doing their own thing, my bet is Mountain Dew will be there.