At their base, sports drinks are essentially those that seek to replenish glucose, fluids and key electrolytes (such as sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium) that are lost during exercise.
But with a high-profile backlash against sugar, consumers are now often wary of these drinks: failing to understand their mission and fundamental role in replacing electrolytes.
Focusing on healthy premium hydration, therefore, is a key strategy for a number of brands: with a clean ingredients list and controlled sugar content. Partnerships with athletes and sports organisations also help elevate success.
And entrepreneurs are also finding success in honing out USPs to stand out from the Gatorade, Powerade and Bodyarmor heavyweights.
'Healthy hydration': iPRO Hydrate steers away from 'sports drink' descriptor
iPRO Hydrate is available in the UK, across Europe and the Middle East: and can be found in retailers, sports drinks, health clubs and travel locations.
iPRO Hydrate is the brand’s flagship hydration range, formulated to provide the correct level of replenishment and rehydration. iPRO Hydrate drinks are enriched with added electrolytes and vitamin C to protect the body from exercise-induced stress. Its vitamin B complex helps to boost metabolism and support the impact of high-intensity performance.
iPRO Hydrate is targeting a wide range of consumers: with its flagship iPRO Hydrate but also a Student Edition (designed to meet the UK’s school regulations as a healthier option compared to the majority of soft drinks).
“For iPRO Hydrate, we cater to sports and fitness enthusiasts seeking healthy hydration, individuals on the go in need of replenishment, and health-conscious consumers looking for alternatives to sugar-laden sports and energy drinks," Sophie Christy, Global Commercial Director at iPRO Hydrate told us.
“With iPRO Student Edition, our focus is on children and young adults, offering a healthier choice to shift away from high-sugar and unhealthy juices.
“We have established strong connections in the sport, leisure, healthcare, wellness, and education sectors, fostering brand loyalty and promoting health and wellbeing among discerning consumers worldwide.”
A key way of building the brand has been to create partnerships with various sports organisations: ranging from parkrun – an inclusive, open-to-all 5km run event held across the UK every weekend – to more elite sports groups.
“Our partnerships, including parkrun and over 50 recognised sports organisations like Cambridge Rugby Club, AFC Bournemouth, and Northampton Saints, play a vital role in building our brand," said Christy.
“Partnering with parkrun based on our shared values creates a high level of trust. This shared commitment to healthy lifestyles resonates with their community, where we're able to connect with millions of parkrunners around the world, expanding our brand's reach.
“Our sports ambassadors also provide endorsements within their own communities which adds authenticity. Fans often have deep trust in their sports clubs and their players. When they see their favorite athletes endorsing our products, it encourages them to make healthier choices, reinforcing our brand's message on healthy hydration.”
Looking outside the UK and Europe, the brand sees particular opportunities for the brand in the Middle East.
“Currently, our main focus is on the Middle Eastern market, where the sports industry is thriving, and addressing dehydration is a significant concern due to the hot climate."
The brand distances itself somewhat from being a straight 'sports drink' as the focus on hydration does a better job of explaining its mission to the everyday consumer.
"We prefer to be recognised as a "healthy hydration" drink rather than a traditional "sports drink". iPRO Hydrate contains essential electrolytes and plant-based carbohydrates, combining the best of sports and health drinks, with added vitamins for overall wellbeing," explained Christy.
"Our focus on being caffeine-free and low in sugar, sweetened naturally with Stevia extract is also what sets us apart. We're proud to be NHS & CQUIN compliant, and our strong presence in wellness and health clubs reinforces that.
"Our partnership with parkrun is built on these principles, which align with both of our values. Many consumers have reservations about traditional sports drinks due to concerns about high sugar and caffeine content, and we're addressing this with our approach to healthy hydration."
Milk in sports drinks?
Chicago's GoodSport has set itself apart by using milk: an ingredient not typically associated with sports drinks.
"Milk has a unique electrolyte profile that’s been proven to hydrate better than water and traditional sports drinks so we ultrafilter it to extract its broad spectrum of electrolytes, B vitamins and carbohydrates to create a clear, refreshing sports drink that delivers optimal hydration," explains the brand.
The brand launched in 2021, armed with a set of studies to help consumers understand these benefits.
The drink packs in 1600mg of essential electrolytes per bottle (sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride and phosphorus); glucose and galactose. It uses monk fruit extract and erythritol as natural zero calorie sweeteners.
For founder Michelle McBride, the brand is also about avoiding sugary drinks with artificial ingredients: ultimately claiming 3x the total electrolytes and 33% less sugar and calories than traditional sports drinks.
Liquid Fuel: Steady blood sugar control
Liquid Fuel – which bills itself as ‘the most versatile sports and hydration drink’ – offers a product that can be cross merchandised in the sports drink and enhanced water sets within multi-channel retail formats.
The US brand is a collaboration between veteran sports dietitian Tavis Piattoly and professional chef Kyle Coleman. Like iPRO Hydrate, it sees a wide opportunity for sports drinks in terms of consumers.
“We initially set out to focus on the athlete, especially the youth athlete market since parents are looking for better products to provide to their children to help create consistent energy and endurance throughout a tournament, game, or match," explained Piattoly.
"This is also the largest athlete market with over 60 million six- to 18-year-old kids.
“Due to the versatility of the carbohydrate, we also wanted to create a product for everyday individuals who are looking for a science-backed product that they know will support their everyday needs. Whether they are working a job that requires a lot of physical effort, burns calories, and causes electrolyte loss (i.e., military, firefighter, construction worker, landscaper) or the everyday individual, Liquid Fuel can solve their needs.”
It is derived from sugar beets as a low glycemic, RTD drink using Isomaltulose (Palatinose).
“The carbohydrate we’re using is 100% low glycemic as it has a glycemic index of 29, which means it maintains steady blood sugar control without a spike and crash like the others that use carbohydrates with a glycemic index between 80-100. This is important not just for the athlete but also for the everyday individual or even diabetic who is a looking for a refreshing drink to keep blood sugar stable.”
“For the electrolytes, we’ve included what we feel is a higher ratio of sodium to potassium than standard sports and hydration drinks since most either have too little sodium and potassium per serving or are very high in potassium with little to no sodium. We’ve added magnesium, a critical electrolyte for muscle contraction and function, which you don’t see in traditional sports and hydration beverages.
“We also wanted to stay all natural so there are no artificial sweeteners, food colors, or dyes in our product. We use stevia and monk fruit for flavoring and beet powder as a coloring agent.”
The brand first launched as an RTD drink: but is in the process of pivoting to a stick pack - partly as a way of differentiating itself from the biggest energy drinks of the market.
“We learned a lot during the manufacturing of the liquid formulation and realized how competitive this market is with the brands, especially the big 3, that control much of the market space. We’re not trying to be them or compete with them as much as focus on the purpose on the product.
“We spoke with a few large grocery store chains that said: “Hey, you have a great product, and we love the taste, BUT we can’t move shelf space because of the sales the big 3 generate”. What they did say was that if we moved to a stick pack formula, the opportunities are endless.
“In discussions with several former executives with big liquid brands and over 50 high school team athletic trainers who handle the hydration and fueling of their athletes, they all also suggested we needed either a stick pack or powdered formula for convenience. The trainers told us that if we could create a better formula than what is on the market, they would be very interested.
“It also takes much more time to manufacture liquid, and the volume that you have to produce can be intimidating to a startup. The combination of the opportunity identified with the stick pack format and the ease of production and manufacturing, not to mention the savings in shipping costs, is why we shifted our focus.”