Last march, the World Snowboard Tour, the sport’s premier series, landed in Oslo, Norway. The brash logos of major energy-drink companies saturated the scene; the likes of Red Bull and Monster love “action” sports, a perfect marketing match for their target audience of ballistic, hypercaffeinated males.
Meanwhile, some guys from Oregon made the rounds, promoting ... water. Just water. In fact, they called themselves Drink Water. Their mission: steer the world’s half-pipe riders, and the subculture that surrounds them, away from energy drinks and toward simple H2O.
Drink Water is a modest company, at best, and calls itself a “protest through promotion.” Two Oregon-based pro snowboarders, Austin Smith and Bryan Fox, started the effort in 2011 when Smith spurned a lucrative sponsorship offer from Red Bull. (Energy-drink endorsements fuel action sports, with typical payouts ranging from $60,000 to $100,000.) Instead, the pair scrawled “drink water” on their boards as a retort to those big companies’ marketing dominance in their once-rebellious sport. Today, Drink Water sells T-shirts, hoodies, and stickers, with Smith and Fox serving as pro bono ambassadors. (Merchandise sales provide all the company’s revenues.) A lone paid employee, Aidan Payson, works in a Northeast Portland office. Stephen Fox, Bryan’s brother and a highly energetic marketing man, is the fourth member of the brain trust. A small profit turned in 2012 largely went to charities working on developing-world water-issues.
As for the enemy, Smith harbors few illusions. “I don’t think they’re worried,” he says. “Red Bull is sending people into space. We sent out three sweatshirts last week.”
On the other hand, the guerrilla-ish counterprogramming is making a mark. In Oslo, the Norwegian government’s health minister dropped by to offer praise. Drink Water now sponsors a major pro skateboarding tour, and its own branded summer snowboarding race on Mount Hood attracts some of the sport’s best. In a larger sense, even in a city rich in marketing mojo, Drink Water embodies a particular version of self-confident “messaging”: a company that doesn’t even sell its own core product.
“We’re not doing this to make a buck,” Stephen Fox says. “We structured Drink Water as a business, because we’d love it to do well. But, really, we just want people to drink water.”