Is Pedialyte’s big new market just a bunch of drunks?

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Foxtrot delivery service carries booze and its recourse: Advil, sports drinks and other tried-and-true remedies to blunt the pain of the morning after. This week, after repeated requests from customers, it’ll add another hangover cure to its inventory — Pedialyte.

The dextrose-based treatment for infant diarrhea, produced by Abbott Laboratories in North Chicago, has become a go-to remedy for young people suffering from pounding headaches and stomachs pitched on tenterhooks.

“When I came to [University of Chicago’s] Booth to start business school, I noticed that everybody talked about it, or had it in their fridge,” says Foxtrot co-founder Brian Jaffee. “It’s super prevalent. I’ve noticed that it’s really gotten even more popular over the last twelve months. It went from like a funny thing to talk about to the norm. Almost everybody uses it.”

Domestic sales for the pediatric nutritional drink jumped almost 16 percent in August from the same month a year ago, according to market research firm IRI. The increase is notable not just for its magnitude, but because sales had been nearly flat for years. In 2012, they grew just 2.9 percent, barely keeping pace with inflation; in 2011, year-over-year sales for Pedialyte actually dropped.

Such growth is rare in an established product line, when sales tend to keep pace with GDP — around three percent growth annually, says Debbie Wang, an analyst for Morningstar who covers Abbott,.

“That’s a pretty noteworthy increase for a category that tends to be fairly mature,” Wang says.

Wang says that such jumps normally happen when a competitor has a crisis, such as a product recall. But Pedialyte’s only major competitor, Mead Johnson, has suffered no such setback. Nor is the market for pediatric nutritionals expanding — according to the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. birthrate is at its lowest level since tracking began in 1909.

Abbott refused to comment for this story, saying that it does not endorse any off-label uses of its products. And it’s hard to conceive of a use that’s more wildly off-label for a drink designed to hydrate infants — Pedialyte is a portmanteau of pediatrics and electrolytes — than as a hangover remedy for adults.

While the extra revenue may be welcome in the short-term, Mike Santoro, president of public relations firm Walker Sands, says Abbott is unlikely to embrace Pedialyte’s new demographic any time soon. “Take the sales, but don’t associate yourself with any of the off-brand use,” says Santoro, who likens the situation to Red Bull’s studied silence on the energy drink’s popular pairing with vodka. “Until marginal sales overtake your core sales, you should continue to focus on what your core audience is.”

But Abbott may not have much say in how its product gets cast. “Welcome to the age of consumer empowerment,” says Jean-Pierre Dube, a professor of marketing at the University of Chicago. “When you think about all the different ways brands can be hijacked now, a lot of them have to do with the fact that people can talk about brands and communicate about brands online in a very mass-reaching kind of way, and there isn’t a whole lot a company can do about that.”

The annals of branding history are full of such hijackings. In the 1970s, Doc Martens, a work boot that had been around since the end of World War II, became popular with skinheads and punk rockers. The ensuing association with violence tarnished the brand, and sales dropped precipitously. Other brands have chosen to embrace unlikely audiences. After rapper Busta Rhymes’ “Pass the Courvoisier Part Two” climbed to to fourth on Billboard’s hip-hop and R&B charts in 2002, Courvoisier parent company Allied Domecq began marketing the French cognac aggressively toward what it called the “urban market.” According to Beverage Network Publications, an industry trade magazine, sales for Courvoisier jumped 20 percent in 2002.

No comprehensive studies have yet been performed on the effect of Pedialyte on hangovers, but pediatricians say there’s good reason why it’s catching on. While nobody argues that Pedialyte is a silver bullet, many doctors say that its high electrolyte content will get the walking wounded back on their feet faster than water, which doesn’t have sufficient electrolytes to replace imbalances caused by alcohol’s diuretic disposition. In laymen’s terms, Pedialyte makes your head hurt less after you’ve been peeing too much.

“After a big drinking binge, you haven’t taken any fluids,” says Dr. Mark Corkins, a pediatric gastroenterologist and professor of pediatrics at the University of Tennessee. For his patients, Corkins prefers Pedialyte to other electrolyte-rich drinks like Gatorade because it has a lower sugar content. “The Pedialyte will make you feel better because it will help you get rehydrated faster.”

Patrick Comer is the director of operations for Stout Barrel House and Galley, a 5,000-square-foot bar and restaurant in River North. He cracks open Pedialyte about a dozen times a year for severe hangovers, and he’s recently started seeing customers coming in on Sunday morning with a bottle in hand. But he’s not about to put it on the drink menu or use it to mix cocktails. “Pedialyte is a little odd to serve to adults in a bar setting,” he says.

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