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Ironman®: Brand + Customer Experience = Perfect Customer Strategy

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Ironman®: Brand + Customer Experience = Perfect Customer Strategy
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Transition2“While not every business needs a Loyalty Program, every business does need a well planned and executed Customer Strategy.” This is one of the loyalty mantras that I share on Hanifin Loyalty and the statement represents a guiding light on the path to innovation in the next wave of Loyalty Marketing.

For some businesses, building a brand so strong, so magnetic, so powerful is the foundation of its Customer Strategy. Achieving this summit is one of the most challenging tasks in business and, if done successfully, virtually precludes the need for a formal loyalty program, certainly one with points or other promotional currency involved.

The World Triathlon Corporation, owner and organizer of Ironman® and Ironman® 70.3 branded events, has climbed this summit, having turned a quirky and semi-dangerous undertaking in 1978 into a worldwide brand that attracts a brilliant demographic and brings tremendous economic impact to its host communities.

With the addition of the Ironman® 70.3 Series, WTC offers more than 50 events on the calendar each year and has the support of advertising partners including Ford Motor Company, PowerBar, Timex, Gatorade, Janus, and Philadephia Insurance Companies.

PlacidBikeIronman Lake Placid is the oldest of 7 US based events, and I was fortunate to be in town for the 10th anniversary race this past weekend. The compelling nature of the brand was on full display with over 2,500 registered athletes and their friends and families burning off nervous energy by shopping in the Ironman® store and patronizing local businesses.

Consider that the entry fee is $575 and that the average tri-bike sitting in the secured transition area is worth $4,000 (my estimate) and you can see that over $1.4 Million in entry fees alone were collected for the weekend and over $10 Million in two-wheeled treasure was waiting for a ride. Multiply these numbers by the 50+ events per year and you begin to understand the magnitude of the Ironman domain.

Ironman may still be a quirky and puzzling event for outsiders to grasp. Some of my friends have challenged the Ironman passion as nothing more than a mid-life crisis for over 40 types, suggesting that buying a new Corvette would be a heck of a lot easier. Others snipe that triathletes are narcissictic, type-A personalities preening their zero-body fat physiques in high-tech fabrics before the crowds. (OK, you’ve got the Type-A part correct).

Let me dispel some myths. As I volunteered at an aid station on the run course this weekend, I saw every size, shape, age, and ethnic origin of athlete pass me by. I would go so far as to say that, if seen in street clothes, many would never be mistaken for Ironman athletes.

I’ve also found that while some of the younger age brackets are the most competitive (30 -39 for instance), I have also noticed that as one moves up in age group, finish times don’t always increase, i.e. there is much more going on here than just signing up for the t-shirt.

Fred Reichheld, the Godfather of Loyalty Marketing, sketched out a continuum of business benefit resulting from adopting an enterprise approach to loyalty. At the end of the rainbow are price premiums. I would venture to say that Ironman, given the nature of the event and level of entry fee, is effective on all levels of lifecycle marketing, (acquisition, usage, retention, cross-sell) and delivers on price premiums across the board as U.S. based events generally sell out quickly after race day each year.

All the praise aside, there is always room for improvement. There is probably a limit on the number of events that WTC can stage each year in the U.S., and more emphasis on triathlon as a youth sport would help fill the funnel with future athletes. The fee structure could price out aspiring Iron-athletes from participating in the future, and the cost of Ironman branded merchandise is obscene at times, spawning a mild “love-hate” relationship with the brand. For instance, a fellow volunteer (himself a 9:44 IM finisher) commented as he pulled on a dollar-store poncho to thwart a rain shower that it would have been worth $70 if it had the IM logo on board.

ReillyWinnersThere are other iron-distance events on the calendar, but WTC has created brand-swagger and is enjoying the price premiums created with its highly emotional participants. The fact that WTC backs up the current frenzy for its branded events with tremendous athlete experience adds glue that keeps people signing up for more. Even their finish line announcer, Mike Reilly, is part of the experience. Mr. Reilly has been the main announcer at the Ironman® World Championships in Kona since 1989, and it is his unmistakable voice that welcomes athletes to the finish line.

There may be some danger to IM that it becomes an elitist event, but then again, maybe that’s what it is all about. The Ironman® distance triathlon is still acknowledged to be the most challenging one day endurance event on the planet, and “if it was easy, everyone would do it!”

I think it’s safe to say that the same applies to WTC’s Customer Strategy.

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