Sick toddlers and drunk college students unite! (Why Pedialyte’s marketing shift worked and what you can learn from the company’s approach.)

The first time I heard the word “Pedialyte,” my wife was yelling it at me.

Our daughter was less than a year old and had consumed some formula that wasn’t agreeing with her. She had started vomiting, even though she didn’t have the vomit reflex yet. Her whole head would turn red and then she’d expel some of the semi-digested crud and look up at us like, “What did you do to me?”

Amy was worried Zoe would get dehydrated and thus fall into some series of other horrifying illnesses. (We were first-time parents, so everything freaked us out. Our friends with seven kids were like, “Let her barf a bit. She’ll learn…”) Thus, I was dispatched to the closest store to get Pedialyte.

“What is this stuff?” I asked, as I struggled to understand her over the screaming child rolling about on her blanket.

“PEDIALYTE! For GOD’S SAKE. It’s (expletive) PEDIALYTE!” she screamed over the noise machine that was our child.

At first, I couldn’t find it, as I wandered around like the clueless dad I was. Still, I wasn’t leaving without “(expletive) Pedialyte,” lest I end up buried in a shallow grave in my backyard that night.

Fear of death and vomit are inspirational.

I eventually found the stuff and got home and the kid started to normalize. As she got older, Pedialyte became less important to us around the house. I would only see it in parenting magazine ads or during daytime TV shows, hawked as essentially kiddie Gatorade. The marketers had a great niche product that sold a simple idea to a key demographic: Parents who were freaked out about their vomit-plagued kids becoming brain-dead raisins.

That’s why I was amazed when I saw this article on how Pedialyte has shifted market focus to draw in a whole new generation of users: Vomit-plagued older kids, who would likely drink toxic waste if you told them it would cure a hangover.

The article notes that about three years ago, Pedialyte began targeting the “hangover market,” pitching itself as a cure for dehydration that could provide relief for those who over-imbibe. In the years before that, the “Pedialyte cure” had been passed along by word of mouth in colleges and universities across the country, so the company decided to embrace it with marketing. The company’s Twitter feed and other social media outlets focus on this premise, with images of college-aged people guzzling the beverage and tweets that respond to people asking for hangover help. It incorporated the hashtag of #notjustforbabies to brand itself as being useful for these situations.

I asked my 8 a.m. class, which usually looks like extras on “The Walking Dead,” if they ever heard of Pedialyte and at least four people woke up long enough to tell me, “Oh, yeah! That’s the hangover cure stuff!”

And it works on vomiting infants, too!

Consider the following points to help you understand why this worked for Pedialyte, when so many other shifts like this fail:

The market expansion didn’t cost the company its initial market. On far too many occasions, a company will go after a different demographic or take a different approach to grab new users in a way that undermines or degrades it original audience. When a company decides to market to a younger audience to tap the youth market, it can lose older audience members, who feel left out or abandoned.

In this case, the Pedialyte people managed to tap another demographic (hungover college-aged students/drinkers of alcoholic beverages who need hangover relief) without losing the people who initially used the product (parents of dehydrating infants and toddlers). The markets are not mutually exclusive, nor would marketing to one group make the other group uneasy. It’s not like a baby-formula manufacturer marketing its product as “the best formula for helping drug lords cut their cocaine!


The new pitch doesn’t force an identity change. Pedialyte still does what it says it does: It rehydrates people. It’s not trying to market itself now in an off-label way, like telling people they can use it to scrub rust off a car muffler or something. The identity remains the same and thus all of the characteristics and benefits of the product still apply in the marketing material. If you boil down the pitch for Pedialyte, you can simply say, “Drink this stuff because it stops you from feeling yucky when you’re dehydrated.” That’s true for infants who contracted a “tummy bug” and college students who “swear tequila never messes me up like this.”


The tone/feel for each marketing approach matches the vibe of the audience. Here is an advertisement that Pedialyte runs to target parents:


See what you have here in terms of tone and feel: Caring parent, cute kid, doctor’s recommendation, easy to use and fun flavors. It also reflects a softness with the colors, the background, the imagery and more.

Now look at the one for adults:


A half-naked college-age guy who just woke up, clearly in pain and blinded by the light of his refrigerator. The fridge is a mess of random stuff with the only color coming from the Pedialyte bottle. The images are starker, the color scheme is darker and the fonts are more utilitarian. Even though the characteristics of the product are the same (rehydration), the benefits described are different than those outlined in those in the parenting ad (kids= easy to use, less sugar, fixes the kids after they get diarrhea; adults= stop the head pounding, fix the dry mouth, defeat the hangover).

Each piece works because it acknowledges its audience, targets the people in it and then makes a reader-appropriate pitch. The parents feel safer that they aren’t giving their kids something sugary or with too much extra non-essential stuff in it. They feel comforted that it’s the number one pediatrician-approved drink. It provides reassurances for them that they are doing a good, safe, effective thing for their children. For the hangover crowd, it’s not about doctor approval or the active ingredients that make parents feel secure in their choices. The ad essentially says, “Well, you got really messed up last night. Here’s something that will stop you from feeling like you were run over by a bus.”




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