Many businesses -- even small businesses -- partner with other brands, and with brand ambassadors, to build awareness for their own brand. Often those partnerships don't work, though. As former Bodybuilding.com CEO Richard Jalichandra told me, "The number one rule is authenticity."

For an association to work, it has to be authentic. And even then it still might not work. For every association that seems to be a magic bullet, 15 others have failed.

Seamless, unforced associations are the key: Shaq might be a great pitchman, but he isn't an obvious Shaqspokesperson for, say, Trek bikes. Sure, Shaq on a road bike might spark initial attention, but it's hardly an obvious fit.

Contrast that with BodyArmor Sports Drink's just-announced multiyear partnership with Major League Soccer (MLS) to become the league's Official Sports Drink in the United States beginning in 2020. Hydration, nutrition, performance: A sports drink is a natural fit for a professional sport.

And it's also a natural fit because many of BodyArmor's athlete-endorsers are also investors. James Harden. Mike Trout. Andrew Luck. Richard Sherman. Skylar Diggins.

And Kobe Bryant, the company's third-largest investor, whose initial $6 million stake has turned, within five years, into an estimated $200 million.

"Given all the growth we've seen at BodyArmor over the past few years," Kobe told me, "this new partnership deal with Major League Soccer -- which is the largest partnership deal in brand history -- is a just another natural step in the evolution of our brand as we continue to push for the title of No. 1 sports drink."

The MLS partnership includes a broad range of touch points: BodyArmor Sports Drink in locker rooms and training facilities, and easily visible on cups, bottles, and towels on all MLS sidelines. And as it has done in other sports, BodyArmor will collaborate with MLS to create custom content and media integrations featuring MLS players and other athlete partners.

One example: Mike Trout. When the Angels superstar was interested in becoming an investor, his father, Jeff, asked a local nutritionist to evaluate the product. After a "glowing thumbs-up," Trout was in -- and uses BodyArmor for his training and game-day regimens.

"That's why so many of our individual athletes and partners put their money where their mouth is and invest in the brand," says Michael Fedele, VP of marketing for BodyArmor. "We're not just hydrating some of the best athletes in the world. They're also our partners."

Which is not a bad gig if you can get it: BodyArmor sales were more than $400 million in 2018 and are on track to top $700 million in 2019. And BodyArmor is now the number-two sports drink sold in convenience stores.

"It's easy to see the correlation of these two brands," says Carter Ladd, VP of business development for SUM Marketing (the marketing arm of MLS.) "They've redefined sports hydration. We're trying to redefine what soccer looks like in this country. There is shared equity in our collective missions ... and we're excited about the opportunity to draft off of each other's momentum."

The partnership is also a great fit in terms of demographics and target markets. The average soccer fan in the U.S. is more than 10 years younger than that of other major sports. 

"We're the 'better for you' sports drink option," Fedele says. "Natural flavors, natural sweeteners ... 'younger consumers' enjoy it and use it for performance, and parents feel good about purchasing it because it has the right ingredients."

Even so, BodyArmor faces an uphill battle. Gatorade, the long-time official sports drink of organizations like the NFL, controls a huge majority of the estimated $8 billion sports drink market -- one reason why, over the past decade, sports drink startups have failed within two years of launch.

Clearly, BodyArmor is what Richard Branson calls a "challenger brand." Yet compared with some other American professional sports competing for entertainment dollars, so is Major League Soccer.

Which could turn out to be an advantage for BodyArmor.

"Think about our roster of partners," Fedele says. "James Harden is an investor, and has also invested in the Houston Dynamo franchise. Kobe is a major investor and a hugely enthusiastic soccer fan. Factor in the trajectory of MLS, rising attendance, expansion markets ... and then factor in the synergies between our two brands ... many of the core equities of the MLS brand correspond with ours at BodyArmor."

Competing against a brand like Gatorade will require money, patience, and extremely savvy brand marketing. 

Maybe BodyArmor's partership with MLS will turn out to have been a key step in that journey.

Published on: Sep 17, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.