Running For Fun, Health And Brand Exposure

When I heard New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg talking on the radio about the “ING New York City Marathon” yesterday, it sounded a bit forced, like a Brooklyn cabdriver trying to speak “proper” King’s English. But it got me thinking that while “ING” will never become a “Kleenex” or “Xerox” for a 26.22-mile endurance contest, it sure gets bandied about a lot in the week or so leading up to what has become a huge commercial event for the Big Apple.

Sportscasters quite willingly cooperate with the sponsorship arrangement, too. Maybe one Band-Aid to our budget bloodbath would be to sell similar rights to the ubiquitous committees and study groups we create. Can’t you just hear Bob Schieffer referring to the Bud Light Bipartisan Debt Reduction Task Force on “Face the Nation”?

Some would say that there are already abundant sponsorships in some of our august study groups, albeit in a smoke-free back-room sort of way (see “Health Guideline Panels Struggle with Conflicts of Interest” in the New York Times this morning).



But let’s get back on track here: My point is that this tiny, grassroots –- well, asphalt-roots –- foot race launched by the New York Road Runners in 1970 with 127 competitors running loops around Central Park to a crowd of about 100 spectators now not only has 45,000 runners coursing through five boroughs to the delight of two million spectators (and, more lucratively, 315 million more on television worldwide) but also has become a huge branding vehicle. And it is ever-evolving.

Before we get to the event itself, let’s take a look at a marketing story that was hidden in the sports section of the New York Times on Monday. The organization that started it all, New York Road Runners, has been working on a rebranding effort for about a year and a half with brand communications specialists Doublespace, Ken Belson tells us.

A new tagline, “Run for life,” is the key component of the rebranding effort. It’s meant to draw in everyone from elite racers to kids to your grandpa, who has never run further than from the turnstile to the closing subway doors, with a “whimsical” manifesto: “Run for the rush. Run to be strong. Run to turn ‘I can’t’ into ‘I did.’ Run out of excuses. Run because staying still is lethal….”

A pop-up box at the organization’s website informs us that a redesigned site will be unveiled in early 2012 with a host of interactive features meant to entice people to the activity. A new logo will dispense with the familiar apple and may, down the line, toss out New York, too, Belson reports. And instead of signing sponsors for individual events, the 53-year-old organization would like businesses to sign on for the more encompassing fitness message year-round.

“People know us best for the marathon, but it’s always been about something more,” says Road Runners president Mary Wittenberg. “What’s vital is that the world knows what we’re doing here. The more people who know that, the more people who will volunteer, donate or help.”

In addition to title sponsor ING, New York City Marathon marketing partners include Asics, Subway, United, Timex, Coors, Dunkin’ Donuts, Motorola, Gatorade, Foot Locker, Timex, Nissan, Poland Springs, PowerBar, Emerald Nuts, Tiffany, UPS and Unilever, according to our old friend, Big League Sports’ Barry Janoff.

In a Q&A, Wittenberg acknowledges the elite runners and celebrities the race attracts but she emphasizes the egalitarian foundation of the race. “This is a pro sport. It is a national event. It is on international TV. But that is just part of it,” she says. “We have all of these stories about the human spirit, about people trying to succeed against all odds. We are trying to raise $30 million for charity. These are the types of things with which marketing partners want to be associated.”

Janoff asks:“It seems that more partners every year are breaking campaigns or launching products to coincide with the ING NYC Marathon. Would you dare to call yourself the Super Bowl of non-NFL sports?” Let’s sum up Wittenberg’s response this way: She doesn’t say no.

Writing in Ad Age yesterday, Brand Connections CEO Sherry Orel cautions that sponsoring a race should not be as mindless as handing out free samples to participants, which could, in fact, be a big waste of dollars. Case in point: All the sample shampoo bottles, branded Post-It notepads, etc., she sees in trash cans in her neighborhood following a race. In situations like that, she says, “Your brand loses its race appeal: it becomes an urban billboard that's a symbol of waste.”

But, Orel tells us that there are other venues besides the race itself to connect with the participants, such as hotels, bars and taxis. And there are other targets, such as a couple of million spectators. And there are campaigns that don’t leave any debris, too. She cites, in particular, an Asics Facebook campaign that played on huge screens on the course last year. This year, Asics is enabling runners to automatically update their Facebook and Twitter status as they reach certain milestones.

The takeaway: “Before committing to a race-day presence, brands need to know why they want to be there.”

That’s a good rule to live by. I don’t know about you, but I’m generally sick and tired of those ersatz testimonials for medical centers that tell us that Jane Doe’s strep throat resulted in her losing the use of her operatic voice because she went to a generic hospital on the one hand, but wound up singing a featured role at the Met because she saw the docs at Brand Name Hospital on the other. But a real-life scenario in a spot for New York Presbyterian Hospital never fails to grab me. In it, a surgeon suggests to a 31-year-old man who is undergoing a double lung transplant that they run the New York City Marathon together the next year. And they do.

So what are we doing sitting around here writing and reading? Let’s hit the trail –- even if it’s for just a few hundred yards to start.


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