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Is your brand worth branding?

Posted by Kelly O'Brien on October 13, 2013

Lessons from IRONMAN

I’m in Kona, Hawaii for the GoPro IRONMAN© World Championships. The merch tent is impressive, proving that nearly everything can be branded—including people.  Walking among thousands of athletes from around the world with the iconic “M-Dot” inked into their skin got me thinking, what other brand logo do you know of that customers literally tattoo on themselves? How did IRONMAN reach this pinnacle of brand loyalty and what can we learn from them?

TIME magazine recently featured a story about an employer that gave its staff a 15 percent raise if they tattooed themselves with the company logo. Not the same thing. IRONMAN customers pay $675 per race, typically a year in advance, for the opportunity to swim-bike-run a grueling 140.6 miles in one day. Then, they thank the brand again (whether they realize it or not) by buying even more logofied stuff, some even branding themselves as walking adverts.

So what is your company’s path to tattoo?

Transcending your company style guide (we all know it’s not just about a cool logo) to achieve organic customer fandom is the quest of any smart business owner. It matters. According to Gallop, Customers who are fully engaged represent an average 23% premium in terms of share of wallet, profitability, revenue, and relationship growth over the average customer. IRONMAN has built a brand that oozes passion, commitment, and aspiration and it pays. Today there are over 180 events in 20 countries and revenue around $28 million (actual revenue unavailable).

Whoever finishes first, we'll call him the Ironman. John Collins

It started 1978. As the story goes, a few friends attending the Waikiki Swim Club awards banquet got into a debate about which athletes were more fit- swimmers or runners. John Collins, a Naval Officer in attendance pointed out that Sports Illustrated declared that Eddy Merckx, the great Belgian cyclist, had the highest recorded "oxygen uptake" of any athlete ever measured, so perhaps cyclists were more fit than anyone. To settle the matter, John and his wife Judy decided to combine the three toughest endurance races on the island into one race (the Waikiki Rough Water Swim, the Around-Oahu Bike Race and the Honolulu Marathon) and issue a challenge to see who the toughest athletes were: swimmers, bikers, or runners. The friends agreed that it would be the greatest test of their endurance ever, and anyone who would finish first would be called an "Iron man."  On February 18, 1978, 15 competitors, including Collins, came to the shores of Waikiki to take on the first-ever IRONMAN challenge. Prior to racing, each received three sheets of paper listing a few rules and a course description. Hand-written on the last page was this: “Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!” 

The brand story is grassroots classic. It includes a big idea – the ultimate endurance challenge. A brand promise -- Brag for the rest of your life! A brand value proposition -- You will be an Ironman. In fact, I’m sure you can deconstruct rebuild to show a classic positioning platform. But the bottom line is this: it’s a true story. The founders connected to their customers because they were the customers. They developed an answer to a need. They created an experience from the start, not after the fact. With no marketing efforts, in 1979, just one year later fifty people showed up for the race. The rest, as they say, is history.

For the last 35 years, despite a few ownership transitions, IRONMAN has stayed true to its original legacy and its core product format and traditions remain largely unchanged. In the early days they contemplated making it a relay race to obtain more participants. In a pivotal moment, they decided against. In 1972 Julie Moss collapsed just yards from the finish. Her struggle across the finish line was broadcast worldwide, becoming an epic crescendo in the IRONMAN story.

Today, many want to be a part of the IRONMAN story. They pay and suffer to hear Mike Reilly say they are an Ironman. They even get tattooed. As someone who recently went under the needle, I pose that the brand has successfully migrated from “this works for me” to “this IS me.”  The customer has in effect, become part of the story, and the story, part of the customer.  I am an Ironman.

I promised myself the minute I finished an Ironman I would get a tattoo. Gordon Ramsay

I got my tattoo to remember the experience of my whole journey from where I started to crossing the finish line. I will cherish that for as long as I live.Hines Ward

There are rumblings about whether IRONMAN can maintain its unique brand devotion. Rapid expansion and the addition of shorter distance races including the 70.3 in 2005 and the 5i50 could prove to be detours. The ubiquity of the IRONMAN impressions in the market runs the risk of diluting the story opening the door to competitors. The temptation is understandable; demand is growing with triathlon participation up 12% last year in the US alone.

IRONMAN’s brand management strategy seems to be to invite more people to be a part of the legacy. Like the pre-marketing days in 1979 when the original participants personal stories of accomplishment tripled attendance in year two, they are profiling personal stories of competitors overcoming obstacles and personal challenges to finish IRONMAN and cultivating ambassadors. Online social sharing of course, but even the merchandise tent has ample video looping tear-jerking, inspiring, wallet-emptying stories.

Whether or not the palpable IRONMAN story can withstand the brand’s expansion is yet to be seen. Maybe it’s because I am in Kona where it all started, with the legends themselves walking about, or maybe it’s because the newest IRONMAN in the US series, Chattanooga, sold out in 3 minutes for its inaugural in September 2014, but my bet is on IRONMAN. Then again, Anything is Possible®

What is your brand’s true story?

How do you benchmark business decisions against it?

What need are you responding to?

What crescendos does your brand story have?

What is your brand experience?

How do you invite your customers to be a part of your legacy?

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