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Friday, July 12, 2024

The Ultra-Viral Rise of Prime, the Internet’s Favorite Sports Drink

If you were marketing a sports drink to tweens, teens, and college kids in the 19th century, you’d probably have the most success hitching your wagon to some of the era’s big names in popular culture: Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau.

“Those were the YouTubers of their day,” says Duke University marketing professor Aaron Dinin. “The popular media then, though, was essays, novels, and poetry. That’s how they grew their audiences.” Those audiences, just like the ones we see on social media today, had incredible power. They were the ears and eyeballs that spread the good word on their work and cultivated writers’ careers—ones we recognize today as literary legacies.

Dinin’s somewhat funny but remarkably resonant observation of the cultural cachet of 19th-century poetry can be directly applied to social media phenoms Logan Paul and KSI and the blockbuster sports drink they’re marketing, Prime. “It’s the same,” says Dinin. “The only thing that’s different is the technology.”

The two men who front the 18-month-old brand recently reported that Prime pulled in a whopping $250 million in retail sales for fiscal year 2022. The drink is wildly popular in the UK and across the US, with tweens bartering for it in schoolyards, parents clamoring for cases at local retailers, and even the hint of a burgeoning black market for discontinued or hard-to-find flavors. (I only learned about Prime myself when my almost-12-year-old fifth grader came home with a bottle he'd acquired by trading away a pack of soccer cards.) Prime has now captured a clutch spot in the hydration beverage market, second only to Pepsi-owned Gatorade.

The drink comes in flavors such as Lemonade, Ice Pop, Meta Moon, and Tropical Punch. It also boasts healthy-seeming ingredients like coconut water, B vitamins, electrolytes, and branched-chain amino acids, which promote muscle growth. A case of Prime at GNC sells for $29.99, though there are posts on eBay of limited-edition or discontinued single bottles selling from $20 to more than $100 each. At the same time, Prime’s parent company, Congo Brands, is building a new $8 million headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky, and has brokered Prime sponsorship deals with both the UFC and the beloved Arsenal futbol team. There’s even a Twitter feed entirely dedicated to tracking stock levels of the drink.

Prime Ministers

Prime’s rise to the top of its market has been nothing shy of meteoric. What’s interesting, though, is not that tweens, teens, and twentysomethings are fixated on the brand, but that the strategy behind it wasn’t born of fat marketing budgets and costly campaigns. Prime has built its following with nothing more than social marketing elbow grease and a deep understanding of its audience.

KSI and Paul are brands in and of themselves, white-collar boxers and internet personalities who’ve both made fortunes off of their audiences on social media. KSI’s TikTok account has more than 11.5 million followers, while Paul’s hovers around 18 million.

Paul, 28, had an expansive library of YouTube videos long before he started boxing. His first video was in 2008, capturing a series of school-aged prank phone calls to order takeout under the name “Mike Buttski.” Now, his content still aims to get laughs, but it has a subtle layer of marketing genius behind nearly every post, no matter how ridiculously backwards-hat-frat-boy his antics may seem.

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KSI (Knowledge, Strength, and Integrity) built his following by posting commentary while playing the FIFA soccer video game on YouTube. The 30-year-old’s content now is mostly music videos and behind-the-scenes snippets of his boxing exploits. The two men have faced off in the boxing ring, and their distinct personalities play well together in this latest venture with Congo Brands, which also owns hydration and supplement brands 3D Energy Drinks and Alani Nu. “If you go back through the history of audience building,” says Dinin, “the value is in the eyeballs.”

In fact, those eyeballs have done very well for Congo, KSI, and Paul. In June, the brand expanded its European footprint by launching in Denmark, Norway, Germany, and Spain. Of course, there were stunts. At a public appearance in Copenhagen, Paul and KSI asked their audience to throw empty Prime bottles at them while the duo feigned anger. The idea was to make it seem like Paul and KSI’s fans had turned on them. They posted clips of the scene to social media without mentioning that they’d set the whole thing up, making it seem very real. The public (and totally staged) pelting got a ton of attention.

“The media had a field day on this one,” Paul said on a TikTok post he made following the stunt (which was KSI’s idea), noting that the flood of news hits about the fake riot earned Prime tens of millions of free impressions. “It’s a great example of one of my favorite sayings,” Paul said in the post. “‘Perhaps if you don’t get the joke, you are the joke.’” Paul calls this type of thing a “Marketing Masterclass,” posting them on TikTok.

In another video, he explains how Prime managed to capture 100 million views for free by capitalizing on a suggestive meme that pokes fun at a Congo marketing campaign. KSI and Paul had shot a totally benign ad campaign for a new Prime flavor, Strawberry Watermelon. A photo in the campaign, depicting KSI drinking from and Paul holding the new pink bottles, was anonymously doctored into a meme to portray something pretty suggestive; not at all the actual image meant for the campaign. The meme made its way to Twitter, where @tize4PF posted the fake shot and asked, “Who directed the ad campaign for Prime, bro?” The post went viral and built some organic, and completely free, marketing. To date, the doctored post has 37.9 million views, more than 300,000 likes, and more than 14,000 retweets.

Marketing Prime(r)

Joan Driggs, VP of thought leadership and content at Circana, has been following the connection between consumers and products for the bulk of her career. Her consumer behavior analysis firm ranked Congo Brands’ female-focused Alani Nu as an industry pacesetter in 2022, and her impression of Prime’s rise is similar. What’s interesting, she says, is the comparison of media spending by different brands across the category.

For instance, she says marketing company Kantar reported that Congo’s Alani Nu brand spent $9,000 on traditional media, while its competitor Dr. Pepper Zero spent $23 million. (Alani Nu pulled in $228 million in its first year of business, which is in line with Prime’s $250 million bar.) While Driggs didn’t have data on Prime’s spend (and since Congo never responded to interview requests from WIRED for this story, or to Driggs’ when Circana approached the company about its industry award last year), it does beg the question of how much Prime is actually spending to get such stunning results, when many of the long-established brands in the space have been spending far more for far longer.

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And maybe that’s by design. Maybe part of the secret sauce is keeping the strategy somewhat mum and allowing what’s known of the brand to exist almost entirely through the social media platforms powered by Logan Paul and KSI. And while Prime’s growth is pretty remarkable, and the related buzz is undeniably impressive, Dinin points out that the brand is actually older than its January 2022 launch would suggest. “Logan Paul has been around a long time,” he says. “He registered his YouTube channel in August 2015. That’s almost 10 years. It takes seven to 10 years for the lifecycle of a company to mature. That’s an eight-year ‘overnight’ success.”

Marketing pro Ashwinn Krishnaswamy agrees. A partner at Forge Design, Krishnaswamy has a TikTok feed on which he dissects brands and their marketing plays, from celebrity gin brands to olive oil. His take on Prime? “They’ve gone head-to-head with Gatorade and Red Bull,” he tells me. “The incumbent product was forgetting about this younger generation, and there was an opportunity to create something healthier. The audience Logan Paul and KSI cultivated was a good fit for the product.” On top of that, says Krishnaswamy, Congo’s model of stocking its product on retailers' shelves itself (what’s called a direct service distribution model) has generally worked well for Congo, allowing it to control where its product sits and when, even without commanding the shelf space Gatorade has for so long.

“There’s been a late-blooming evolution in the sports drink category,” says Martín Caballero, managing editor at industry publication BevNet. “It’s morphed into a strange category known as hydration enhancement. It's another way of catching all the things that are sort of ‘water plus.’” The piece of it that hasn’t already been absorbed by Coca-Cola (with Powerade and Vitamin Water) or Pepsi (with Gatorade) has been completely up for grabs, allowing Congo to step in “with a simple proposition, one that leans more on marketing and attitude position rather than what’s in the bottle,” says Caballero.

What’s next for Prime is less about the product, and more about its reach. The company’s new Louisville headquarters is a sure sign that Congo Brands is in growth mode. Prime continues to launch new drink flavors, hydration sticks, and caffeinated energy drinks (making headlines of late with claims of dangerously high caffeine levels) meant for an older audience. All the while, challenges arise in new market distribution while Congo balances established demand and scarcity. At the end of the day, says Dinin, whatever Congo does to develop a new Prime product is irrelevant if the audience isn’t there to gobble it up. And as long as KSI and Logan Paul have anything to say about it, their audience and the collective power it has to spread (and ultimately multiply) the Prime gospel on social media will lead the way.

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