What’s in a Name – WTC and the Ironman Brand

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It happens to nearly every popular brand whose leadership lacks an understanding of basic product and brand management. Through a company’s failure to establish and adhere to a strategic brand vision the brand is allowed to meander and grow on its own without any thought to how it ultimately might lead to its demise or at least its transformation into something unplanned.

The cycle of how to lose your way generally goes something like this. A brand starts with a spotlight product which often becomes one in the same. It then develops a small, but loyal following, gains momentum through world of mouth and marketing, becomes more popular, grows in status, appears in specialty outlets, grows even more popular, moves into even more mainstream, loses some of its cache now that everyone has it, appears at Wal-Mart, becomes a commodity and now you’re just another shelf item to the consumer. And, your original customers have now probably left you.

Now this is great if your goal is to get on the shelves at Wal-Mart or Target (fantastic goals). But it’s not so great, for example, if you originally wanted to be considered the highest quality provider of widgets which can only be found at stores like Neiman’s or Sak’s. But somewhere along the way the lure of big money associated with mass exposure is often too much to resist and companies abandon whatever strategy they have and end up just another item on the wall.

It happens to the best of us. Remember when Columbia Sportswear was considered to be a bit of a status brand? When Eddie Bauer was considered high-end? When an Ironman meant 140.6 miles? There’s not a right or wrong here, just a choice. Do you want to be Calvin Klein who sells their products in TJMaxx or do you want to be carried only in the higher end stores?

Seem like a silly conversation? It’s not. There’s value owning a status position in minds of the consumers. Which would you prefer? A Chevy or a BMW? A Baume & Mercier or a Seiko? You’d likely pick the BMW and the Baume & Mercier. But why? In truth, there’s debatably little difference in what you’re buying. They both tell you what time it is and can get you to where you need to go. In fact, the Chevy and Seiko are likely to give you a much better owners experience from reliability and cost perspective. But we still love our brands.

Don’t underestimate what’s in a name. From a marketing standpoint, a name expedites the process of communicating what you have to offer the consumer. An established brand or mark allows a company to communicate tons of information with a simple name or logo. In economic terms, this efficiency reduces the transaction cost. In marketing terms, it reduces the noise and allows for clarity of message.

A good example of this is to look at Apple. At a glance, their logo is able to communicate everything they’ve worked towards in establishing their brand. Look at the Apple logo and you’ll think of quality, iPad, uniqueness, cutting edge design, modern, reliable, expensive, Steve Jobs, iPhone, market leadership, etc. No magazine ad needed; there’s a lot of important data in that little piece of fruit.

So with that little marketing review behind us, I turn to the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC). Most people have never heard of this organization, but I bet most people have at least heard of their most popular brand; Ironman. Ironman meets all the criteria of what qualifies as a grass-roots story. As covered in How Did This Ironman Thing Ever Get Started, this small, local event held in Hawaii the late 70’s has turned into a mega marketing machine which carries its brand mark on everything from watches to running shoes. However, as the name has grown it seems to have lost its way. Is the Ironman name a brand or a product or a just an event – or all three? The fact that it’s up for discussion should tell you there is a problem.

From the start, the WTC has used Ironman as a brand and a product. This is perfectly acceptable as many companies start this way and are forever associated with their first product. Your favorite soft drink company is a good example of this. When they developed other products like Fanta and Sprite in the 40’s and 50’s, it created new brands. They didn’t sell them as Coke Fanta or Coke Sprite. Can you imagine the confusion of standing in the grocery store looking at a wall of products called Coke something. The message would be all scrambled. No doubt; there’s certainly a lot in a name.

So where did the trouble begin? The WTC did a very smart thing when they took the traditional 140.6 mile Ironman and created a shorter distance race of 70.3 miles. Much like the half marathon craze, this has opened up a whole new audience to ultra-distance triathlons and introduced a lot of athletes to the Ironman brand. And in another positive move for the growth of the sport, WTC has struck a plan to create an Olympic distance series of races.

Of course, this isn’t done out of the goodness of their hearts. The WTC is making millions off race licensing, merchandise, race entry fees and television contracts with NBC / Universal Sports. I am all for making money and kudos to WTC for taking full advantage of their opportunity. However, a funny thing happened on the way to the bank. The brand has lost its way.

Perhaps a simple lack of foresight or maybe an attempt to take advantage of the brands popularity, the WTC named its 70.3 mile series “Ironman 70.3”. So now it’s common to hear things like: What is an Ironman? What distance is an Ironman event? Why are all the events called Ironman? “Oh, you did Ironman Florida – didn’t Ethel in finance do one in Orlando last weekend?”. The Ironman name has become diluted and now communicates such little exacting information that even triathletes have to pause in a conversation and clarify what distances are being discussed. Everything is an Ironman. It’s just like the example of standing in the grocery store with every beverage labeled Coke. It’s lost its punch.

So does anyone really care? If you buy a brand; you care. For the same reason you wouldn’t swap out your BMW hood emblem for a Yugo tag, you care. And if you manage a brand you should care. The kind of lackadaisical attention that WTC has given the Ironman brand will cause it to deteriorate and that’s dangerous territory for an organization that relies heavily on overpriced entry fees and merchandise sold totally around the brand’s lofty position and strength.

This disconnect was exacerbated recently by two marketing mistakes by the WTC. First, they tried to sell special access to services through a program that had little real value and then priced it at $1000/per year (this program was pulled within a few days after a surge of complaints). Secondly, their lack of control of the brand was on full display when the 2010 Miami Ironman 70.3 ran out of water early in the race, changed the run route right before the start and routed cyclists through traffic-congested Miami roads with little supervision. The WTC’s response was that it wasn’t their fault. They had sold the name to a local race director who did a poor job planning the race. WTC offered free entry into 2011 IM 70.3 races, but I doubt that helps a lot of people who traveled there and trained for much of the year around this event.

The brand is losing its cache position in the triathlon community. I’ve already witnessed it. From hardcore athletes to weekend warriors, I hear rumblings that indicate a growing disenchantment with the brand as it wanders off into heavy merchandising, mass marketing and a lack of focus in its core customer and product; the true Ironman distance athletes. These athletes (the core customer for Ironman) are beginning to look for non-Ironman events. In essence, they’re looking for the old Ironman experience.

Some of the damage is already done, but there is a path to redemption. First thing to do is to create independent brands for the various distances (product lines) and treat them accordingly. The customers who buy Lexus expect a different experience than those who buy Toyotas. Applying the basic behavioral understanding of how we like to interact with brands, the WTC needs to recognize that each group of athletes desires to be associated with their specific event. When you use the Ironman brand for all of the races you deny everyone that enjoyment. The full Ironman distance athletes are disenchanted because the brand has been diminished by shorter distance races. Likewise, the 70.3 distance racers have to constantly explain that they didn’t actually do an “Ironman”, they did half an Ironman and so on… it’s really irritating.

Maybe the fix is in the works. I’ve seen only one version of the name and logo for the new Olympic distance races and they aren’t calling it Ironman (thank goodness). They’ve named the circuit “5150 Triathlon Series” cleverly using the “I” from Ironman instead of the number one in the 5150. Hopefully, they’ll avoid the use of the M-Dot and reserve that for their premier event the 140.6 mile Ironman distance.

The next step to redemption would be to rename the 70.3 mile races. I have no bone to pick with these races. In fact, I love this distance and do them myself. But a 70.3 is not an Ironman. I am not in the business of naming events, but I would recommend using the same logic implemented for the 5150 series. Call it something totally different and tie in the master brand in some passive way. Either way, and I’ll say it again, find a new naming convention because 70.3 miles simply isn’t an Ironman.

The Ironman brand is all grown up and lives far away from it’s Hawaiian roots. Admittedly there’s a fine line between using the brand to promote the sport and damaging it through mis-steps and overexposure. Hopefully, the 5150 series is the start of a proper way to manage such a coveted name.

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