Cult Brands: Rally Around the Citizen-Engaged Weekend Warrior Phenomenon

Dean Trevelino
Dean Trevelino

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cult brands runnerLet’s face it: sports are big business. The spirit of competition has always — since the Olympics in 1896 — had big businesses sponsor and market themselves along the way. As a result, these professional and amateur (i.e., college) competitors are owned and dominated by deep-pocketed marketers willing to write six-, seven- and eight-figure checks to suit up with the leagues, teams, events and even the athletes.

If you’re a boutique brand whose product is ideally suited for athletic competition or your demographic is either a sports enthusiast or an active participant, you will quickly discover you’re often priced out of even the cheapest seats.

But the world is changing. Small is the new big. Cult is the new premium. The weekend “citizen warrior” is the new brand ambassador: authentic, passionate and engaged for the thrill of competition — not the money. Corporate gigs often supplement their weekdays, but their weekends come alive with the challenge of an extreme sport.

Mud Baths and Overnight Relays

A decade ago, middle- and long-distance road races, triathlons and ironman competitions and road cycling could conclude the list of weekend sports. Fields were small and participants were seriously intense.

Today, there’s a new generation of participants and citizen-engaged competitors who sweat their weekends away in some of America’s most romantic, picturesque backdrops – Big Sur, Calistoga and Grand Teton. For the cult brand looking for an affordable, accessible marketing opportunity, playing in the dirt and running all-nighters have become industries in their own right.

Mud runs draw some 2 million participants and generate an estimated $200 million annually. Tough Mudder has a staggering 3.39 million Facebook enthusiasts, and Spartan Race has a respectable 2.9 million like-minded followers. Long-standing global brand Reebok has only 2.1 million Facebook “likes,” which might be why Reebok signed a three-year deal with Spartan Race. It offers the brand a unique chance to align with the active 18-to-40-plus demographic — people who are less likely to sit around and watch mainstream professional sports during the weekend.

While boutique brands with cash can still squeeze their way into the mud-landish category, my money is on the overnight relay. Unlike most events that last a few hours, a cult brand has the opportunity to stay front and center for two days during these sporting events. Hood to Coast, which has been in existence for 32 years, claims to be the world’s largest field of runners. The more than 1,000 teams — or in excess of 10,000 runners — has been the inspiration for a new field of extreme, citizen-engaged sleepovers (sometimes in vans and on parking lots).

Ragnar Relay Series, which is the world’s largest overnight series, has 16 events in the U.S. and got its start in 2004 in Utah. A typical Ragnar Relay draws more than 5,000 competitors and consists of 36 legs along an approximate 200-mile stretch. Most relays start in one city and finish in another, such as the Ragnar SoCal, which begins in Los Angeles and concludes at the Marina in San Diego.

Having run a few to date, I can tell you that when you get exposed to a brand in the midst of exhaustion and that brand actually performs, your sense of loyalty becomes unwavering. When the heat index hit 102 degrees in San Diego, I turned to Nuun for intense hydration around my 25th mile of the day. As a coconut water fanatic, I never paid much attention to other electrolyte options, but in the heat of the moment, Nuun became part of my small collection of “Never Say Die” brands.

Beyond Ragnar, which is the biggest and draws the most brand-name sponsors such as NordicTrac, there’s a growing calendar of overnight relays popping up across all regions of America and the world. The key is to look for event organizers who are smart in the way they market the brands. Ragnar has more than 147,000 Facebook “likes,” an active Twitter and YouTube presence, a fairly engaging and robust Web presence and an aggressive, yet tasteful, in-market presence that includes 36 stops and six super stops for marketers to promote their brands and sample their products.

Make no mistake: This is not the venue for brands to push products or for inflated snake oil salesman to infiltrate. This crowd will spit on your dog’s forehead with one eye closed while slithering through the mud under a high-voltage fence. Acknowledging that citizen enthusiasts are some of the most socially active demographics on the Web is important as a marketer. Whether they’re the Boomer youth or the aging Generation Y, they take great pride in their hard-earned status as citizen warriors, so be thoughtful in your pursuit of their allegiance.

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