What do you think of when you hear the term “Ironman?” Personally, I didn’t used to have a very favorable impression of Ironman. After all, I saw their name on cheap sunglasses and watches at discount retailers, and even saw them associated with earbuds (which, by the way, you aren’t allowed to use in an Ironman race). I had no idea what it took to complete an Ironman event – and I didn’t really care.
My Real Introduction to Ironman
It all began back in 2012. After a long hiatus, I decided to get back into running and bought some running shoes at a locally owned triathlon store. There, they introduced me to a brand of shoes called Zoot. I had never heard of them, and Jay explained that they were popular for triathlons. At the time, I had no real interest in triathlon, much less Ironman, but I bought the shoes and went off to start running, finishing my first 5k on the Fourth of July.
Then it happened. I had these shoes, after all, which were well suited for triathlon. So I signed up for one. I trained, learned how to swim (like, really swim), and finished my first tri, the 30th Annual Lake St. Louis Triathlon. It was a challenge. I was surprised about how tough it was, but I was suddenly hooked by this cult following. So I joined the St. Louis Triathlon Club.
At my first meeting, everyone was discussing Ironman events, speaking in tongues I’d never heard before. Numbers like 70.3 and 140.6 were being thrown out. Cities and places were being mentioned that seemed to have some relevance to everyone there but me. They had all experienced this thing and were driven to do it more. They had inspiring stories, logos tattooed on their bodies, and encouraging words for everyone in attendance. But still I thought: “I will never be doing one of those.”
In the next couple of years, I continued doing shorter distance triathlon – and continued hearing about all of these Ironman races. Could I really do one?
The Journey to Ironman
Fast forward to October, 2014. I did my first 70.3 (Half Ironman Distance) race. It was a great event put on by a local race company. But guess what? It wasn’t an Ironman branded race. I was still missing out. I still wasn’t part of that experience and conversation.
Enter the Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga race. The experience, and the brand, began to really take shape for me, and I saw what all the hoopla was about. Keep in mind, this experience started months before the race, and before registration ever opened. Here’s what happened:
- Build the Hype: Ironman contacted the St. Louis Tri Club offering our members priority entries, and allowed us to register a day early! This was huge as the event was expected to sell out within hours of registration opening.
- Engage Brand Ambassadors: Ironman does a great deal of outreach to Local Tri Clubs all over the country. These ambassadors spread the gospel, and tell everyone how Ironman events are the best.
- Social Media Engagement: Upon registration for the race, I learned of a private Facebook group where participants could ask questions and share information. Best of all, the race director was an active part of that group, probably answering the same 30 questions over a nine month period. This told me that Ironman is a very supportive brand, and invites new people into the competition.
- On-Site, Pre-Event Experience: Upon arrival in Chattanooga, I learned that Ironman had done a great job of getting the town behind the event, and made them feel really special about hosting Ironman.
- Merchandising: After I picked up my packet, I was directed to the Ironman shop and was met by a man who asked me “did you find your name on the shirt?” Turns out, all of the race participants’ names are designed into the Ironman logo on the backs of certain shirts. How can you pass up that purchase? Even my wife said I had to buy the shirt. $60 later, I realized the average purchase in the shop was probably about $200. At 2200 racers … well, you do the math.
- Volunteer engagement: I learned there were 2200 volunteers for 2200 racers, led by volunteer captains that get these folks excited and make sure we have a great race experience.
- Support everyone: Every athlete felt special as they crossed the finish line. This applies to the winner, and the last guy who made it in – who finished 1-1/2 hours after the race cutoff. His name was Raymond, and the crew knew he was nearing the chute at the end of the run. There were a few of us still packing up, and Ironman crew members approached us and asked if we would be willing to cheer Raymond in. The entire crew stopped their work, and allowed his family to run in with him, something that isn’t allowed in Ironman. Together, we cheered Raymond in. He was the last finisher – but he finished, and he was made to feel special.
The moral of the story – a brand is so much more than a logo on a pair of sunglasses, or just the name of a race. A brand is about experience. As a marketer, I know this. But as a triathlete, I’m very proud to have experienced one of the strongest brands in sports.