Campaign Trail: Muscle Milk flexes mental resilience under PepsiCo banner

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Without mental strength, champions like NFL quarterback Tua Tagovailoa can’t train their bodies to reach peak performance, Muscle Milk’s latest advertising campaign contends. The injury-prone rookie is the new face of the protein beverage brand, which PepsiCo acquired in February 2019, and embodies Muscle Milk’s fresh mantra that “it takes heart to build strength.”

Though the 30- and 15-second anthem spots for “Own Your Strength” don’t explicitly mention the coronavirus pandemic, the message around mental resilience is something homebound consumers may relate to after months of social distancing. Tapping Tagovailoa, who experienced physical setbacks before being drafted to the Miami Dolphins in April, to deliver the core message aims to connect Muscle Milk with fitness enthusiasts while gyms across the country remain closed, the brand’s Senior Director Drew Palin told Marketing Dive.

“He had the mental fortitude to come back after that catastrophic injury. It’s not the product alone that got him there. It’s the heart that he has and his putting in work,” he said. “Brands that are really successful are able to leverage more of an emotional message that can motivate consumers.”

A fresh mantra

The effort is Muscle Milk’s first TV campaign in four years and includes a cable buy across TV networks for both the full 30-second clip and its shorter version. Six-second cuts will air on social, and the media weight behind the initiative is projected to generate 3.5 billion impressions through August, according to Palin. “Own Your Strength” kicks off a broader multiyear effort, he added.

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What inspired the new mantra was research by the brand’s agency adam&eveDDB that found target consumers reject the notion that fitness is solely about physique or besting someone else’s personal record. Muscle Milk and its agency aim to celebrate gym goers’ inner strength — whether or not they’re able to visit fitness centers during the public health crisis.

“For them, strength was a very personal thing that was as much about mental strength as it was physical,” adam&eve Planning Director Alistair Owen told Marketing Dive. “They were going there [and] lifting weights to stay physically healthy, but also they were doing it because it gave them a sense of self-respect and a sense of self-esteem.”

Under the PepsiCo umbrella

“Own Your Strength” is the first major brand campaign since Hormel Foods sold Muscle Milk to PepsiCo last year, joining the company’s other fitness beverage brands Gatorade and Propel. Prior to that, the protein beverage had built an established customer base, solid consumer awareness and distribution channels, according to Palin. Protein as a category has boomed in recent years, with the global sports nutrition market expected to rise 60.3% from 2018 to 2023.

“PepsiCo saw that opportunity, and as we think about what being under their umbrella creates, the biggest change and advantage for Muscle Milk will be leveraging relationships and infrastructure that Pepsi already has in the fitness community,” Palin said.

Balancing act

Despite gyms’ closures to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus just weeks after filming the video spots in Los Angeles, adam&eve and Muscle Milk pressed ahead with the campaign with minimal tweaks. Early versions of the ads featured folks working out with friends, scenes which the team swapped out with more COVID-19-friendly visuals. In the 30-second spot, a father bench presses his young daughter in their living room — representing a recent uptick in at-home exercising — though some scenes still depict people lifting weights in gyms.

“Ultimately, what we’re bringing to life here is the mindset of fitness and connecting emotionally with that consumer, whether they’re an avid gym goer or someone who bikes once a week,” adam&eve Managing Director James Rowe said.

“Ultimately, what we’re bringing to life here is the mindset of fitness and connecting emotionally with that consumer, whether they’re an avid gym goer or someone who bikes once a week.”

James Rowe

Adam&eveDDB, managing director

Longer video buys were designed to illustrate that point of view, while shorter cuts and social will explain the value proposition and product credentials to help drive purchase intent, Rowe said.

“It’s really about balancing that emotional versus rational messaging,” he added.

Return to normalcy

While the campaign’s concept of mental strength ties in nicely with social distancing and how many consumers are feeling while stuck at home, Muscle Milk decided against more directly linking its marketing to the pandemic.

“People can identify or at least relate to inner strength and ‘Own Your Strength’ in the current circumstances without hammering them over the head with COVID stuff,” Owen said.

A study in April found that 41% of consumers are ready to hear from brands about topics unrelated to the pandemic, underscoring how brands must proceed carefully with their messaging over the next few months as they try to balance consumer desire to move on from pandemic-related messaging with the need to be responsible corporate citizens during an unprecedented health crisis.

“We should support in these times, naturally, rather than sharing a specific COVID response campaign,” Rowe said. “Some brands were able to do that, but for us, we didn’t feel the need to actively respond. We’d rather let our overarching brand message do the work.”

Adam&eve commissioned a report looking at marketing more generally in order to apply insights from past recessions and guide the agency in how it should adapt its campaign strategies.

“People are craving some sort of normality,” Rowe said. “We had lots of conversations about ‘how do we communicate in this unusual time?’ For a brand like Muscle Milk, we wanted to be sensitive — especially because of the timing of our launch — while communicating this message that encourages normality in a responsible way.”

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