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Volume 21 No. 2
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Endurance platform reinvigorates marketing of chocolate milk

Once blamed for making American kids fat, chocolate milk has revamped its image as a health product through a careful marketing strategy across endurance sports.

The Milk Processor Education Program, which markets the U.S. milk industry, has promoted chocolate milk as a post-workout drink for athletes because it is high in carbohydrates and protein. Milkpep, as it is called, brought its messaging to athletes by signing deals with the Ironman triathlon series, the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon Series, Lifetime Fitness triathlons, Iron Girl triathlons and a handful of professional and amateur athletes.

The brand’s secret sauce, however, has been to promote endurance sports — specifically Ironman triathlons — to general U.S. audiences through earned media and strategic media buys.

“We are not bringing the masses to Ironman triathlons, we are taking Ironman to the masses,” said Miranda Abney, marketing director for Milkpep. “If [chocolate milk] is good enough for an Ironman triathlete then it must be good enough for all athletes.”

Milkpep’s endurance platform stems from a series of physiological studies in 2006 that concluded that chocolate milk’s carbohydrate-to-protein ratio was ideal for post-workout recovery.

The opportunity came at an important time for chocolate milk, which had been removed from many schools because of concerns over childhood obesity.

“We were catching some heat with the school nutrition thing,” Abney said. “There was a huge drop-off in sales.”

Milkpep pushed its message for several years through print ads and in-store promotions. In the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics, Milkpep ramped up the message through short-term deals with athletes such as Carmelo Anthony and Dara Torres, as well as with USA Basketball and USA Swimming.

It also signed deals with the Ironman triathlon series and Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon Series, which included at-race branding and product sampling at the finish line.

The company hired PR and marketing firm Weber Shandwick to oversee its endurance partnerships. Hugh Williams, a senior vice president at the firm, said he drew on his experience working with Unilever’s Ironman partnership in 2003 to create a strategy.

“Ironman is a niche sport, but there are ways to borrow the credibility of their brand,” Williams said. “People know it is a serious challenge.”

Weber Shandwick’s promotion revolved around retired Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, who agreed to train for and then compete in last year’s Ironman world championship race in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. They dubbed the promotion “Become One” and filmed 13 Web segments around Ward’s training for the race.

In each segment, Ward discussed his training as well as the recovery benefits of chocolate milk. During the shooting he slimmed down from 240 pounds to 180 pounds and discussed the challenges of eating right and training.

Milkpep promoted Ward’s Ironman training with an ambitious print media campaign, as well as television buys across tennis, NHL hockey and Tour de France broadcasts.

“We were under a million spent in TV,” Abney said. “We tried to be efficient.”

Olympian Apolo Ohno, training for Ironman, stars in this year’s promotion.

The campaign received a huge boost when NBC, which employed Ward as an NFL analyst, agreed to broadcast two three-minute segments during “Sunday Night Football.” The exposure lifted the campaign as well as the Ironman brand.

“It opened the doors for new athletes and new eyeballs,” said Carola Ross, World Triathlon Corp. chief sales officer.

For 2014, Weber Shandwick chose retired Olympic

speedskater Apolo Ohno to train for Ironman. Much like the Ward campaign, the “Mission: Apolo” campaign has continued to generate attention for the brand across mainstream channels.

Milkpep worked with its network of local distributors to make its product available at the finish lines for all of its endurance properties, which total more than 100 events.

The endurance deals range from the low-five to mid-six-figure range, and Abney said the company spends at least double that amount activating around the events. But the company is seeing results. Chocolate milk sales were up 3 percent at the end of 2013.

“For us it’s all about endurance now,” Abney said. “You don’t often get an opportunity to reintroduce a product in a new way.”

Fred Dreier is a writer in Colorado.