At Bat with Gatorade's Product Placement Slugger

Perhaps the king of product visibility, Gatorade's Jeff Urban deserves his reputation as one the most powerful people in sports

After Major League Baseball's All Star sluggers took their turns in 2003's Home Run Derby, they sauntered back to the dugout where, invisible to most fans, they might have downed a cup of Gatorade. Last July, after Josh Hamilton belted 28 homers in the first round of the competition at Yankee Stadium, there was no mistaking how he toasted his record: As soon as the Texas Ranger stepped out of the batter's box, with cameras circling him, a teammate and a ball boy each offered him bottles of Gatorade and towels emblazoned with the sports drink's logo.

Gatorade's elevated product placement is the handiwork of Jeff Urban, the company's senior vice-president for sports marketing and No. 35 on BusinessWeek's soon-to-be-published Power 100, an annual ranking of the most influential people in the business of sports. Urban, who cheered Hamilton on from a stadium suite while hosting business partners from pro football, basketball, and soccer, argues that anyone in his job would probably be just as mighty. After all, Gatorade sponsors every major sports league in the U.S. and has a championship roster of celebrity athlete endorsers. "Our marketing cannon is pretty full, and it shoots pretty wide," he notes.

But those who have worked with Urban say he's being modest. "There aren't many people in the industry who have connections as well developed as Jeff," says Thomas Fox, a principal at Wasserman Media Group and Urban's former boss at Gatorade. "He's smart. He's strategic. And he's got an incredible personality."

The 45-year-old is also methodical. As an undergrad at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., Urban played baseball and thought about becoming a coach. But he realized he wasn't patient enough and, after earning a degree in physical education, enrolled in Ohio University's sports administration program with the goal of someday running a sports marketing outfit. He then took his 1986 graduate degree and, job by job, picked up the experience he figured he'd need, hopping from the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles to Miller Brewing's ad agency to USA Today's marketing department. Fox hired him away from a Chicago promotions company in 1999 to work at Gatorade.

A slowdown in sales growth

Urban starts most days at 6:30 a.m. with a 30-minute workout supervised by a personal trainer in the gym at the company's downtown Chicago headquarters. (The facility is stocked with free Gatorade, natch.) He's at his desk by 7:30 and sticks around until 6 p.m., when he takes a commuter train home. The walls and shelves of his office are full of sports memorabilia, including framed autographs of Michael Jordan, Peyton and Eli Manning, and Mia Hamm, all of whom are on the Gatorade payroll. There's also a framed photo portrait of his four kids, ages 9, 8, 6, and 4.

In one sense, Urban's job seems easy. Gatorade invented sports drinks and dominates the category with a market share of more than 80% and $5 billion in annual revenue. But sales growth at the PepsiCo subsidiary has slowed since 2006, to 3% or less annually, so Urban and his 25-person team have to get more creative. His highest-profile gambit: Gatorade Tiger, a new line of drinks named after Tiger Woods. It is Urban's less glitzy moves, however, such as Gatorade's tie-in with the Home Run Derby, that pay greater returns.

Gatorade first teamed up with MLB's derby six years ago. Urban says the brand got almost no exposure because Gatorade's presence was confined to a drink dispenser in the dugout. He began brainstorming with John Brody, baseball's senior vice-president for corporate sales and marketing. The next year, at Urban's suggestion, sluggers were handed bottles of Gatorade near home plate to drink on the sidelines while they did their post-hitting interviews for the TV cameras. "Gatorade is front and center now," says Brody. "Fans can't help but notice it."

Urban has found other ways to get more from the contest. He started a sweepstakes that offers children a chance to pass out Gatorade to the home-run competitors or to shag balls in the outfield. He also granted some of these spots to sons and daughters of key retailers or other business partners. In addition, MLB repackaged the derby, making it the main event of Gatorade All-Star Workout Day. Urban and Brody say Gatorade didn't have to pay a dime more for the extras. That's power hitting.

Business Exchange related topics:Product PlacementFood IndustrySports Marketing

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