GOING FASTER THAN EVER: Ironman picks up steam and sponsors for its 20th year.

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

The first Ironman Triathlon was dreamed up during a Navy awards ceremony as a way to settle a bet about whether bikers or runners were in better shape. It was promoted through a crudely created, 1/2ve-page, mimeographed form that included the rules, the race layout, and an entry form.

Fifteen people, including the organizer John Collins, entered and a dozen finished. Collins took 17 hours to complete the exhausting trio of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile marathon. The winner, Gordon Haller, took 11 hours and 46 minutes.

The next year, Sports Illustrated writer Barry McDermott, on assignment to cover a golf tournament, heard about the race and came to watch. His ensuing 10-page article gave the race its first national exposure. When Julie Moss crawled across the finish line in 1982 on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, the nation was hooked and the race’s reputation cemented.nament, heard about the race and came to watch. His ensuing 10-page article gave the race its first national exposure. When Julie Moss crawled across the finish line in 1982 on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, the nation was hooked and the race’s reputation cemented.

Today, the Ironman Triathlon bears little resemblance to its earlier incarnation. The field now numbers 1,500; more than 50,000 try to qualify for the race each year through a series of triathalons around the globe. Winners now routinely finish in less than nine hours.

The race’s marketing strategy also took to form. In 1982, the race grabbed its first partner, landing Bud Light as a title sponsor. Two years later, Timex joined the contest, creating a triathlon watch. In 1986, the company tinkered with its new watch, renaming some models Ironman. The new watches quickly outsold the triathlon watches and Timex knew it had a good thing.

“It turned out to be a diamond in the rough,” says Mario Sabatini, vp sport watch business.

Today the transformation of Ironman’s brand is almost more startling than the race’s climb to the most recognized endurance event in the world. What started as a one-day race on the remote island in Hawaii has become a year-round selling point for 15 sponsors and an Emmy-award winning TV show for NBC.

Much of the success goes to World Triathlon Corp., Ironman Properties, ((Ironman is a div. of WTC)) and Timex. WTC bought the event in 1989, and immediately set out to brand the race. Timex’s success with its watch proved to be a blueprint other companies could follow to make the Ironman name relevant to their customers.

Interestingly, that blueprint treats the race not as an extreme competition, but as a race that rewards dedication, versatility, and endurance. Companies have had the most success in using the property as a mainstream event, leaving all that extreme sports hype to skateboarders and ultra-marathoners. That also has the nice effect of including a much wider, and more affluent, audience. But with the exception of possibly the Isuzu sponsorship, marketers linking with Ironman are the type of low-cost, high-quality manufacturers who fill the aisles of Walmart and K-mart.

Timex’s line of watches retails for between $43 and $70, hardly Rolex territory. Likewise, Huffy’s Ironman mountain bikes this year sell for $170 and will be less next year. Foster Grants’ Ironman line of sunglasses, to debut in the spring, will cost $35 and below. They should change the name from Ironman to Everyman.

And that’s exactly the secret to Ironman’s marketing success. Instead of catering to the small percentage of elite athletes who compete in the events, the marketers use the race’s image to sell items to regular folks, athletes or not.

“Even the couch potato wants to look great and have a nice lightweight pair of sunglasses,” says Foster Grant vp marketing Bill Potts.”Ironman is the true performance brand” says Huffy’s director of marketing Ann Hanson. “The key is we’re targeting consumers interested in high performance.”

Ironman Properties vp marketing and licensing Ken Strominger says, “This really is everyman’s race. Ninety-five percent of the people in it have real jobs and real lives.”

Foster Grant was shucking sponsorships when Strominger called this year. “It was mutual attraction,” Potts recalls. “You could see the success Timex and Huffy have had.”

Another thing the licensees have in common is their willingness to create Ironman named products. Strominger says that part of the reason Gatorade left as official drink sponsor is because the company wouldn’t create an Ironman Gatorade drink. (The other reason was that Strominger decided against title sponsorships, effectively stripping Gatorade of its spot.)

Foster Grant is creating an Ironman line of sunglasses to debut next spring. In the meantime, the sunglass maker will use its age-old Who’s Behind Those Foster Grants campaign this fall. More than 19,000 athletes have finished the earlier Ironman races, and this year when the 20,000 person hits the tape, he or she might be used in a Who’s Behind campaign that celebrates the link to the athletic event.

“We want to get the buzz going,” Potts says. “I don’t know if it’s a campaign, but we want people to see the fire in (these athletes) eyes.” (al note: Ironic, considering sunglasses cover those eyes, huh?)

Huffy’s entering its third year with Ironman. It puts a significant amount of its spending, at least $4 million, behind the line because “there’s a lot of halo effect,” Hanson says. “We don’t view it as a one-day thing. The brand lives throughout the year.”

The bikemaker puts the Ironman name on its mountain bikes, although none of the racers uses such a bike for the open-road race. “They’re making it for a more casual audience,” Strominger says.

The granddaddy of licensees remains Timex. While the company doesn’t reveal sales figures, the line did nearly quadruple in growth between ’92 and ’95, says Sabatini. “It has become a very high, five-figure, multi-million dollar business,” he adds. The company backs that success by spending at least 40 percent of its marketing budget behind the line.

Timex started out by making the watch for the serious athlete, and then found that the same functions that made the line appeal to athletes, makes the watches attractive to more pedestrian customers. “Once we established the legitimacy with (high-level) athletes, then we could drive the volume down,” Sabatini says.

This year the company will run a sweepstakes giving away trips to this fall’s race and gear from Timex and Huffy. Consumers can enter by calling an 800 number with a UPC code off the watch box to see if they’ve won.

The promo will tie-in Huffy with an account-specific contest in Walmarts that gives away a bike for each participating store. Timex will support with TV ads and two national FSI drops reaching 60 million people.

First year sponsor Isuzu is using its sponsorship to make a big splash at the event. A perfect part of the automaker’s Go Farther campaign, Isuzu will unveil its Vehicross, the auto that’s literally a cross between an SUV and a sports vehicle.

This year, the company will select an athlete for the Go Farther award and the TV show will mark his or her progress through the race. While the racer won’t know if he or she is picked, viewers at home will be able to chart the athlete’s times. At the end of the race, the person will be given a Vehicross. The male and female winner of the race will win a year’s lease of the new vehicle.

The model will not even be for sale until spring, but the race exposure should stir up excitement, says Joe Fellona, Isuzu vp light vehicle marketing. A limited-edition Ironman Vehicross will also be for sale this spring.

Much like Timex, Isuzu senior vp and gm Bob Reilly says he hopes the new auto becomes a “technology platform” that attracts more attention to all Isuzu vehicles. The Vehicross will feature the latest in auto development, including carbon fiber door panels and a torque-on-demand traction system and the company’s most powerful engine.

(Al, a little too burned out for a cute ending. Can you help? The only thing i can think is, something about the athletes wishing they could used the car during the race. pretty lame)

Ironman has earned its reputation as an endurance sport in marketing circles as well as athletics. For sponsors, all bets are on.


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