Sponsorship, Athletes and Brands – The Good, Bad and Ugly

Sponsorship, Athletes and Brands – The right and the wrong

This article was actually posted in early 2014. But I’ve decided to repost it. Why? Because I’m sick and tired of seeing ultra and trail runners on Facebook and Twitter, along with brands, not disclose their relationships properly and declare things in a proper manner. It doesn’t matter if you’re a runner who gets a few pairs of trainers for free, or if you’re a fully sponsored athlete, public disclosure about those relationships is not only important but there is a moral duty to people i.e. customers of that brand. On a personal level I’ve spent 15 years of my working life guiding and advising brands as to how to do these things properly – the trail and ultra industry needs to shape up.

Why do we have sponsored athletes?

It’s simply so that the brands can communicate with you, the everyday trail runner and hopefully get you to buy more gear. It’s as simple as that. Of course, it rewards those runners that succeed and helps them further their running ambitions, but let’s be very clear about this. It’s to help sell more gear. That is fine, we’re all consumers of products, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do this.

Let’s take a step back however and look at why trail and ultra running has spawned this generation of the sponsored runner. If we look at more traditional road running, it’s quite rare to see the tribes of sponsored athletes that we see permeate trail running. Even some ‘elite’ runners (sub 2:20 marathon) struggle to get a brand to fling them a bit of free gear. Yet for some reason any Tom, Dick or Harry in trail running seems to be able to get a company to whack a few dollars behind their back. Now of course there’s nothing wrong with this, but there is a very logical explanation.

The simple reason is the trail boom. Our sport is growing hugely and the brands know this. Social media has also turned traditional marketing methods on its head and the brands are seeking more (and better) ways to reach people without the big costs of advertising.

To the credit of the brands, using the athletes as a conduit to people is a fairly clever and highly cost-effective way to shift more gear. But it’s also creating a few ripples of disenchantment too. Why? There are brands out there that are getting it very wrong. Similarly there are brands that are doing it very well and they’re the ones winning and connecting well with us, the everyday trail runner. Let’s delve deeper and look at four areas that need a bit of attention right now.

#1: Lack of transparencyQuotation-Dalai-Lama-sense-Meetville-Quotes-231550

On a personal level this drives me insane. Every time a sponsored athlete makes a post about the brand that flings them free gear on Facebook or Twitter, there is a sense of moral duty to make it known to the people they’re posting to that they are sponsored. Failure to do so is not only misleading, but in some countries is becoming a regulatory issue. It’s essentially advertising by stealth. Many of us know that certain athletes are sponsored by certain brands, but it’s essential to make your followers aware of the fact that you are financially or in any other way supported by a brand and in return you are making a post on behalf of them. A simple (*sponsored) at the end of each post suffices.

Good brands and athletes are open and honest. Brands need to invest in the athlete to guide them through proper social media guidelines, while the athlete makes their interests clear and known.

For example, providing the latest and greatest pair of running shoes to your athlete, then asking them to post a picture on Facebook of you running in them is the perfect way to declare the fact that you’re sponsored by the brand. Being sponsored is a privilege that brands and athletes must respect in view of the people they are trying to reach, us, the consumer of their products. Not declaring an interest is misleading and ultimately leads to trust being broken. You as a reader and everyday trail runner should call out brands and athletes that blatantly disregard this.

#2 Push Product, Push product, Push product

Companies are very keen to push their product in our faces. It’s what they know best and it’s ultimately how they are measured by their bosses – how many units did you help shift? There’s a time and a place for this, but for the most part, it’s not on social media through your sponsored athlete Facebook feeds. We don’t care. We know what products you have – you have a website that does that.

There's a time and a place to push your product - if you use your athletes to do it, make it engaging and declare it!
There’s a time and a place to push your product – if you use your athletes to do it, make it engaging and declare it!

Athlete fan pages aren’t designed for blatant advertising through your athletes – that’s why Facebook offers advertising. We know it’s tempting to do it through athletes because it’s ultimately free. But man it’s such a turn off. We use social media to be social. The clue is in the naming of the platform.

The greatest example of a brand that uses social media properly in trail running right now is the Salomon series of videos. There’s not a product push in sight. Instead they tell us a story related to heritage, trends and topics related to our sport. This is the language that we as consumers of products understand because we all love to tell stories.

#3 Over-zealousness

We all know them, the athletes that are simply a little over-enthusiastic about the brand them gives them free gear and race entries. It might be a bit of guilt factor. “You’ve helped me, so I must help you in return.” Hence why we see shots of athletes in gear proclaiming how wonderful it is. But is it really that wonderful? How do you expect us to believe you when we know you’re getting it for free? Do I really want to see another shot of you prancing around in your whacky coloured trainers again? Not really.

Athletes have a requirement to make a certain amount of pictures and posts as part of their contracts with brands. Athletes need to work with their brand to find interesting and inventive ways of communicating their message and product without the gratuitous and self-congratulatory shots of them running along the trail in brand new gear. Tell us a story and invite us to ‘talk’ with you. some companies and athletes do this very well. The lazy ones simply post product shots and expect us to be sponges – if anything it will turn people off. Add some value and stop being lazy.

#4 Fair is fair

We mentioned above how cost-effective it is to use sponsored athletes. Purely and simply because of the network they have. When a brand looks for an athlete to sponsor, of course they look at talent and ability, but they also look at the reach an athlete may have too. For them it’s about spreading their message far and wide. This is why you see sponsored athletes with thousands of Facebook friends and Twitter followers. Some athletes aren’t stupid in their quest for sponsorship, they know this is a factor.

You as the athlete should be aware of your ‘stock’ and what you can offer. Most brands will simply offer their athletes a certain amount of free gear and then a race entry or two. If you’re really lucky, you might get a flight to a training camp in the mountains or a flight and entry into a race somewhere around the world. In short we’re talking about a few thousand dollars’ worth of swag for the athlete. But what are you doing in return?

What’s the benefit you’re providing to the brand through the constant drive to push their message to your followers? How many people end up buying the brands product as a result of what you’re doing? It’s pretty hard to measure to be honest, but make sure you understand what your value is and how you’re helping a brand. It’s a two-way relationship.

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Dan on Twitter
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

12 thoughts on “Sponsorship, Athletes and Brands – The Good, Bad and Ugly

  1. Pingback: This Running Life
  2. I used to enjoy reading race reports but now most just wank on about the sponsored gear they use which has turned me right off.

    1. I agree 100% with Ian and dan. Product gets constantly pushed in your face via social media, including race reports. It doesn’t make me want to buy it. Tell me a story about running, not what gear you have.

    2. I agree Ian. I can understand a few lines at the end “Thank you to sponsors X, Y & Z for helping me get there” etc. but not the “Brand X stuff really did the thing because *insert blurb from website here* “.

      I haven’t had the chance often to do this but I have on occasion spoken to people who had received minor swag or discount level sponsorship. I really like it when they say things like “sponsored item X that I use is very similar to item Y and it may come down to personal preference or if I wasn’t given them I’d get Y”. Gives the athlete some credibility.

      1. It all comes down to two things… Brands not coaching their athletes as to how use social media properly and athletes who are so desperate for sponsorship they plug the shit out of everything. Either that or the lights are on but nobody’s home.

  3. Ten years ago, Athletes know they have ‘made it’ when they either score podiums (in many races) or get a mention in local papers. With the increasing participation in events, that’s become far fetch for more and more people. So for them to feel they are successful in their attempts, the new black is becoming a ‘Sponsored’ Athlete.

    The increasing competition from online retailers means they need to find a more emotive and connective way to reach other (potential) customers. They are on the perception if their retail store or brand provides products; it will drive traffic back. I dare to say there will be an exception.

    If Sponsors want to give, and Athletes want to receive, then the rest of us have to suck it up. Does it mean we have to ignore the badges on their tops smile and applaud their success? Maybe yes. Maybe not. But I think it’s obvious the word sponsorship no longer equates to an athlete’s equal athletic ability.

  4. Hey Dan,
    I really appreciate the support you and Marcus have given me over the years in this tricky and trip hazard area. Good on you for putting it out there for establishing athletes to hear.

    1. You’re a good man Brendan and cracking athlete too… Am always happy to help people as and when they want any advice. You’re one of the guys that gets it spot on and you can see the results of that in the way you conduct yourself and the way people want to learn from you too. Appreciate your kind words mate…

  5. Few have time for any brand name in a race report. It is shallow, boring and mostly irrelevant. Out in the hills, there are no billboards, just trees, clouds, rock and grit.

    I love a good trail.

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