Pedialyte started as an over-the-counter drink aimed at rehydrating children, but the brand recently set its sights on adult sales—a successful marketing shift targeting hangovers that sheds light on the overlap between a consumer culture of "social media 'influencers'" and medicine, Kaitlyn Tiffany writes for Vox.
Pedialyte the hangover cure?
Pedialyte is an electrolyte solution manufactured by Abbott Labs created to treat dehydration caused by acute gastroenteritis, a common condition in parts of western Africa and Southeast Asia that affects a reported 2 billion people worldwide.
The solution is classified as a drug and has been sold in U.S. pharmacies over the counter since the 1960s, Tiffany writes. It's solution based on rehydration therapies developed by the World Health Organization and has been marketed in the U.S. as a way to treat dehydration in children who've experienced the stomach flu.
But in 2009, Pedialyte started trending on Twitter as a hangover remedy, with several celebrities touting the product's benefits, Tiffany writes. And while the product won't necessarily address all the symptoms of a hangover—and Abbott has never claimed it does—it can help with dehydration, according to Jennifer Williams, a research scientist at Pedialyte. The water in Pedialyte rehydrates the user, she explains, while the product's sugar, salt, and potassium content can help replenish electrolytes lost because of dehydration. While Gatorade and Powerade are often touted for their rehydration benefits, Williams argued that the beverages' high sugar content "actually makes the problem worse. It can actually dehydrate you or cause a gastrointestinal disturbance."
That said, Williams reiterated that Abbott doesn't recommend Pedialyte as a cure for hangovers. "We know that there is no cure for a hangover," she said. However, she added that we do know "alcohol dehydrates, and we know that our product rehydrates."
Leaning into an existing market
Building on the growing social media buzz, Pedialyte in May 2015 unveiled a new marketing strategy specifically geared toward adults who engage in "occasional alcohol consumption." According to Abbott, the adult market had already been expressing interest in Pedialyte, with adults accounting for roughly a third of its total sales as of 2015—an increase of 57% in adult sales since 2012. Abbott, Tiffany explains, "just decide[d] to go after it officially."
According to Eric Ryan, senior brand manager for Abbott, the marketing shift was easy. "The beauty of the product is that the benefits haven't changed—Pedialyte is still a medical-grade hydration solution backed by advanced science," he said. "We don't endorse heavy drinking or claim to cure hangovers, but our users find confidence in having a trusted rehydration solution that works."
In fact, according to Williams, the brand made no adjustments to Pedialyte's packaging or presentation when it shifted its target market—and she reviews every social media post to make sure the claims are scientifically accurate. Overall, the most significant branding changes since the 2015 shift has been the debut of two new flavors, Strawberry Freeze and Berry Frost, and the addition of "Pedialyte AdvancedCare Plus," a product that Abbott markets as having "even more electrolytes" than the original formulation.
How Pedialyte leveraged 'influencers' to shift its brand
But the way Abbott pivoted the Pedialyte brand was interesting, Tiffany writes—and it reveals a marked shift in how medicine is advertised to a changing consumer culture. According to Ryan, Abbott as part of the rebranding leveraged the already "high levels of advocacy for our product," with unpaid endorsements from "elite athletes to Oscar nominees to runway models to rap artists." But ultimately, Abbott "f]ound that our everyday consumers are our biggest influencers," Ryan said.
Shortly after the 2015 announcement, Abbott dispatched a "#PowderPackedSummer team" to 144 music festivals and sporting events around the country to market a new, powdered version of Pedialyte that, according to Tiffany, is "convenient for travel and outdoor drinking." Pedialyte also launched a traditional ad campaign and Twitter campaign called #SeeTheLyte to promote the product, targeting the millennial market.
And while, according to Ryan, the company hasn't pursued any formal partnerships to market Pedialyte as a hangover aide, it joined Instagram in February 2017 to start "laying the groundwork for a program called #TeamPedialyte," Tiffany writes. Pedialyte's social media team began commenting on posts mentioning the product and messaging posters asking if they'd "consider joining #TeamPedialyte"—and if the individual agreed, he or she would receive packages with free Pedialyte-branded merchandise, such as T-shirts, beer koozies, and fingerless gloves. The people selected to be brand ambassadors are expected to post about the products voluntarily, sharing a discount code for Amazon and recommended hashtags, Tiffany writes.
According to Mae Karwowski, a co-founder of the New York influencer agency and tech company, "This is the new evolution of influencer marketing." "It doesn't really matter the size of your following; it's that you're excited and want to post about the brand. The authenticity is really there. It's just people who are really excited about Pedialyte, not like, 'Your manager arranged this thing where you post five posts and five stories.'"
A winning strategy?
The marketing strategy appears to have worked, Tiffany reports, noting that not only have more celebrities started endorsing the product—such as rapper Vic Mensa including a Pedialyte mention in a freestyle challenge—but cooperate America has also picked up on the trend.
For instance, Mike Perro—the director of operations for PJW Restaurant Group, which owns the Pour House in Pennsylvania—said he started adding Pedialyte to a some cocktails in October 2017 as a "tongue-in-cheek way to help brunch patrons who may have drunk a bit too much the night before." (For her part, Williams said she has "no idea what would happen if you mixed [Pedialyte] with alcohol," adding that doing so might "[undo] all effort there.")
And perhaps most tellingly? Abbott reports that adult sales now make up "at least half" of all Pedialyte sales, Tiffany writes (Tiffany, Vox, 9/10).
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