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Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant is not paid to endorse BioSteel’s “pink drink” performance sport drink, the company says.


While the Montreal Canadiens may be thankful for every save that Carey Price has made on the ice this season, it's what the TV cameras show him doing in the dressing room that interests one company with ties to the Olympic gold medal-winning goaltender.

That's where Mr. Price, among others, sips on a pink drink between periods, instantly giving greater exposure to the Toronto-based sports nutrition company BioSteel Sports Supplements Inc.

He is one of two National Hockey League players that BioSteel is permitted to have endorsing its products without an NHL Players Association licence – Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars is the other. Mr. Price is an avid user of BioSteel products, particularly the bright pink high-performance sport drink that spawned the company's signature #DrinkThePink social media campaign.

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Though the company does pay athletes connected with its product what president John Celenza describes as a "minuscule" amount, mostly for appearances, the company's stable of athletes – which currently includes Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, Canadian Olympic bobsledder Heather Moyse and 20-year-old Masters runner-up Jordan Spieth – are largely recompensed in the form of free product.

The return for BioSteel on this minimal outlay has been substantial, particularly in areas it is trying to grow into, such as the United States, where the company says it has seen a big lift since it got involved with Mr. Bryant.

"You can see [Mr. Bryant] on ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown walking into games with his BioSteel, he's got his bottle in hand and in his locker," says Mr. Celenza, a Toronto native.

"We don't pay him to do that, that's just him authentically loving the product."

The use of pro athletes to drive sales because they want to use the product, rather than dropping thousands of dollars on traditional advertising campaigns, is largely what sets BioSteel's business strategy apart from its bigger and more mainstream competition, including the PepsiCo-owned Gatorade, which currently owns that NHLPA licence, and Powerade, owned by Coca-Cola.

"Innovation is the lifeblood of growth, so if you're innovative, and you're innovative in a proper way, it can drive the company's future for years to come," says Jim Menzies, CPA, CA and a partner at Grant Thornton LLP in Toronto. "I think this is a very innovative approach, it's innovative because a, it's low cost, and b, no one else is doing it." And BioSteel's approach is especially suited to the word-of-mouth aspect of social media, he adds.

"But innovation only works if it actually fuels growth," he cautions.

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The products were originally formulated by former Toronto Maple Leafs strength coach Matt Nichol when he couldn't get certified drug-free products from his normal supply streams once the NHL introduced more stringent drug testing after the 2004-05 NHL lockout.

BioSteel was subsequently formed in 2009 when Mr. Nichol was introduced to Mr. Celenza by current Calgary Flames forward and childhood friend Mike Cammalleri, a client of Mr. Nichol's. Though the product was originally sold to pro teams and athletes only, a breakout performance by Mr. Cammalleri in the 2010 playoffs – alongside numerous sightings of the company's signature pink drink – prompted the pair to up their game and sell commercially once former Leaf-turned-fitness-guru Gary Roberts let the rest of Canada in on the secret live on Hockey Night in Canada.

The company now supplies its products to 28 of 30 NHL teams, 14 National Basketball Association teams, 18 Major League Baseball clubs and about 30 of the world's top-50 golfers. It also retails in sports and health stores, such as GNC, on both sides of the border, as well as retailers Loblaws, Sobeys, Longo's and Rexall, with more than 2,000 stores across Canada carrying the product.

It's that level of authenticity that really fuels a company like BioSteel's connection with its customers, marketing experts say. Consumers see images of athletes using the product as part of their day-to-day activities, compared with other companies' products that are part of an advertising campaign featuring athletes.

"Sports fans will say, 'He's using that because he's getting paid [to use it],'" says Robert Kozinets, professor of marketing at York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto.

"But if you see that he's not getting paid and he's using it – it must be good. So it's a quality signal."

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Getting endorsers on board who actually are clamouring to use the product is another feather in the company's marketing strategy.

"It's what we call in marketing a pull strategy and not a push strategy," says Dr. Kozinets. "A push strategy is like Gatorade or Nike advertising all this stuff; a pull strategy is you wait for people to ask for it, and it tends to be based more on technical results or some sort of measurable performance difference, or at least an ingredient difference in this case."

However, it's not without risk. When a company aligns itself with any celebrity, it exposes itself to a number of variables, which can have a knock-on effect that is not always desirable. For instance, a player in a sports supplement company's stable of endorsers who tests positive for using steroids is hardly going to shine a positive light on that company.

But companies shouldn't necessarily shy away from using spokespeople who have a bit of edge about them, such as the outspoken Mr. Bryant, whom Mr. Celenza openly describes as a "lighting rod."

"Brands that are truly authentic shouldn't be afraid of that," Dr. Kozinets says. "I'll give an example and that's Sprite using rappers; they were aware of the risks and were willing to embrace them. It's not like Pepsi signing Michael Jackson and being surprised at what they got."

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