Why Marathons Are Hot Spot to Chase Consumers

Educated, High-Earning Runners Are Marketers' Ideal Demo, and Good News for Cities

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ORANGE PRIDE: Spectators dressed in ING's signature color cheer on runners.
ORANGE PRIDE: Spectators dressed in ING's signature color cheer on runners.

CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- With interest in marathons at an all-time high, marketers are increasingly trying to keep pace and get in front of what's considered a highly desirable consumer. Nowhere is this more apparent than during next weekend's ING New York City Marathon.

Just how hot have marathons become? Last week, the registration for the 2011 Boston Marathon was over in eight hours, and that's for a race runners have to qualify for. According to Running USA, about 467,000 runners crossed the finish line at U.S. marathons in 2009. Last year an estimated 470 marathons were held, up 5.6% from 2008.

For the ING New York City Marathon, which takes place Nov. 7, more than 120,000 people paid an application fee just to enter a lottery for a shot at running. Of that, about 45,000 are expected to finish. Last year's 43,660 finishers made the race's 40th edition the largest marathon ever.

And by all accounts, those finishers are a sought-after demo: They're highly educated, high earners and in most cases they travel and spend on hospitality. Almost a third of New York's field is from abroad.

The benefit to sponsors, said Bob Boland, a professor of sports business at New York University's Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management, is marathoners are "a pre-qualified demo: You're getting interest and commonality, as opposed to having to attract them on their own."

For ING, which became the New York Marathon's first title sponsor in 2003, the race has been an ideal way for the marketer to reach its target consumer. "The parallels between running and preparing for your financial future speaks to our customers," said ING America's chief marketing officer, Ann Glover. ING translates that attribute in its messaging, often featuring images of runners. The point is to remind those planning for their retirement that, like running a marathon, "you're in it for the long haul," she said.

From a demographic and psychographic standpoint, the marathon touches all quadrants, she said. But runners in particular are "planners and deliberate and they do their best to achieve their goals," which is the type of customer ING is trying to reach, she added.

The return on ING's investment, which it declined to reveal, has been the brand's increased presence in New York. Ms. Glover said: "Our research has shown that, following the event, there is an increase in attributes such as brand recognition and trust, interest in doing business with ING and the intent to recommend our products and services to others."

Credit: *Largest marathon ever. Source: Running USA with Athlinks (2009) and Active.com (2005-08)
Mr. Boland said ING's sponsorship is one of the better alignments in sports, based on what he calls ROO, or return on objective. "They could do a zillion commercials and never reach this kind of audience." The New York Road Runners, the 52-year-old organization behind the marathon, has extended its relationship with ING through 2013.

For NYRR, having a title sponsor was a tough decision, but Ann Crandall, exec VP-business development, marketing strategy, said the goal was to have a marketing partner that is "in sync with what we want to do as an organization." A big part of that goal is, of course, to foster an interest in running. NYRR had created school-based running programs nearly 10 years ago targeted nationwide to both underserved children and children who do not have access to physical education during their school day. After ING signed on as the title sponsor, the two created the "ING Run for Something Better" program. Since 2003, ING's contribution has enabled more than 22,000 children to access the school-based running programs. Those children have run or walked a total of over 716,000 miles.

The NYRR counts 31 sponsors among its partners this year, up from 29 last year. That field could seem too crowded, making any message potentially hard to hear. But one of the main focal points for the marathon is the Health and Fitness Expo held at the Jacob Javits Convention Center. Every one of the marathon's participants must pass through the free expo to collect their racing bibs, so the NYRR creates a huge retail experience for runners and fans of running. Sponsors get prominent placement, but the nonexclusive expo hosts 110 exhibitors looking to get in front of runners. So while official sponsor Asics has a 19,000-square-foot store on location, rivals such as New Balance and other shoe and apparel companies are also on site.

While the marathon has attracted many partners, Ms. Crandall said NYRR is selective. "Partners have to believe in what we're doing as an organization and give back to runners," she said.

And sponsors have clearly bought into NYRR's message. Subway, for example, became a first-time sponsor when it decided to use this year's marathon as a way to showcase Jared Fogle, the chain's unlikely celebrity pitchman. (See story, P. 18.)

Continue to expect more marketer participation in marathons as overall interest in the sport continues to grow. Over the past 10 years, said Running USA researcher Ryan Lamppa, there's been an average of 20 new marathons annually. Last year saw more than 30 new marathons. At some point, the number of new races "is going to plateau -- there's only so many cities. But the finisher number isn't." Almost every marathon last year sold out or had a record field. "These events have become festivals, and people want to participate." The participants not only include runners but spectators as well, who take local pride in their cities' marathons.

"Cities are embracing marathons for the economic upswing," Mr. Lamppa said. "One of the benefits of a marathon of any size is that it brings people to your city, it showcases your city, and it brings people back." The NYRR's last economic impact study, conducted in 2006, showed that the marathon brought more than $250 million into New York City's coffers.

Follow Aris Georgiadis on Twitter.

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