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The Changing Face of Marathon Sponsorships

Posted by Ty Velde  February 9, 2014 07:46 AM

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With over 500 marathons being run annually across the United States encompassing an annualized average of 500,000 finishers (2010 – 2012) no one can really question the popularity of our sport. As more and more people look to take on the challenge of a marathon and more cities look to stage them, it's not surprising that more businesses are taking notice of the branding and marketing opportunities they afford.

As for the nature of the sponsors, one common thread for many of the major marathons is they have been mostly business that are aimed at connecting with the consumer marketplace. Chicago, London and Boston are all sponsored by financial services companies, and Berlin is sponsored by BMW. The logic of these kinds of sponsors is further confirmed when you look at the nature of marathon runner demographics in terms of income and education levels.

Therefore, I was very surprised when last fall I saw the following post in my Facebook news feed about the New York City Marathon:

TCS New York City Marathon Facebook
Needless to say, I had no idea who TCS, otherwise known as Tata Consultancy Service, was or what they did. As the previous sponsor ING was very much a household name, needless to say I was intrigued to find out more.

So who is TCS? In nutshell that they are global IT services, consulting and business solutions provider based out of India who deploy over 277,000 consultants in 44 countries across the globe.

So why would a global IT consulting firm want to sponsor the New York City Marathon? At first it seemed rather puzzling. When you look at the sponsors of the other World Marathon Majors noted above, it seems like a logical partnership in terms of why they would want to connect with the marathon community and use a major marathon as a means to further communicate their value and benefits of their brand. Therefore, how could a IT consulting firm, who’s target is clearly a B2B audience, really benefit and connect with those associated with the New York City Marathon? What I mean here is, how many of these runners and spectators are really looking to purchase IT consulting services?

However, as I started to think about many of the factors associated with staging a marathon and what they have come to represent to the world at large, the TCS partnership started to begin to make much more sense to me.

A Global Platform
These days, major marathons are much more than just a race or a regional event. They attract runners from across the globe and event coverage spans worldwide. For example of the 48,000 runners that registered to run the 2013 New York City Marathon, 40% (19,000) were international. Additionally, beyond the 2 million live spectators that watch on race day, it also attracts approximately 330 live television viewers from across the globe. Therefore as companies such as TCS look for unique ways to showcase their global reach and positioning, a major marathon sponsorship seems like a very logical match.

Technical Infrastructure
In deciding to sponsor the marathon TCS stated that one of their core goals is to make it the New York City Marathon “the most technologically advanced marathon…. in the world. Now as TCS is the business of IT consulting, their sponsorship seems like a very logical extension of their business strategy, assuming the goal can be accomplished.

With this being said, one cannot deny the technical infrastructure that goes into staging a major marathon. From timing, to applications, to offline, online, as well as social integration, the challenges are huge. Hence, for an IT consulting firm to successfully showcase its connection to providing and supporting the technical infrastructure of an event as complex as the New York City Marathon, the direct business benefits to them are huge. In short, what the marathon does provide is comprehensive platform for TCS to showcase its technical prowess and sophistication within the context of a widely watched global event. Ultimately, while we may not all be their core target, the ability for them to demonstrate that they can support, advance and attach their brand to the complex technical infrastructure associated with the marathon, is a big win for them in the eyes of those who would be looking to engage their services, whether or not they actually run the race.

Health & Wellness
As we all know, being associated with a marathon has many positive attributes, one of which is a dedication to health and wellness. Therefore, as brands and companies look to expand the scope and scale of the core values, being associated with a marathon is a great way to do so. With this being said, by sponsoring the New York City Marathon, TCS is able to actively showcase this commitment on a very grand scale. Additionally, they are also able to showcase how technology can be used to fuel health and wellness, not just simply business. As a result they are not only able to openly showcase how as a company they are supporting health and wellness, but that they also provide and support the technical infrastructure needed to do so as well. This fact enables them to extend the scope their services and also directly tie their service offerings to their health and wellness messaging/positioning.

Leadership and Influence
There is no denying the intrinsic value of tying a brand’s name to a major sporting event. My guess is that for most of us, clearly me included, this will be our first introduction to TCS. The fact that the TCS name is tied to major sporting event, in one of the world’s most prominent cities, gives it a sense of instant credibility and leadership positioning. While many may not know TCS or understand what they do, just knowing that they are the company that is the title sponsor of the New York City Marathon, gives them an immediate sense of credibility and is also a way for them to connect to a much broader segment of the population.

Beyond this, it enables them to uniquely position their brand as a leader and influencer in their space. What I mean here is that one would think that they should be focusing on sponsoring events associated with technology, but by sponsoring the New York City Marathon, it showcases that they have moved beyond this. The sponsorship demonstrates a level of confidence in their ability to step outside of a perceived comfort zone and expand their reach in what some would a consider an non-traditional or unorthodox manner, as it applies to an IT consulting firm.

A New Definition of Value

Ultimately, what the TCS sponsorship has shown me is that when comes to sponsoring a major marathon, it must be understood within the context of a “new definition of value”. Marathon sponsorships are no longer just another mass media vehicle to further the means of a consumer facing brand. Rather, based on the reach and diversity of the groups they connect with, they should be now looked as a much-faceted “platform” upon which a brand can communicate its value and extend its reach. In the case of TCS, if one were to simply equate the value of its sponsorship within the context of the number of new potential customers it may immediately connect with, it’s likely that the ROI would be quite small. However, if look at the reach it provides in terms of extending its global brand, showcasing its core business attributes (IT), defining its commitment to health and wellness, and above all presenting itself as an industry leader by aligning itself with one of world’s premier global sporting events, the picture and definition of value start to change.

In short, when it comes to a major marathon sponsorship, its clear that because of their reach and broad-based appeal, their value is being rethought and redefined from a “medium” that can be leveraged to connect with individual consumers; to that of a multi-faceted “brand platform” which global brands can use to extend their reach and influence. Therefore, my guess is that as marathons continue to increase in prominence; much like we’ve seen an increasing amount of diversity in those who run then, we’ll start to see more of the same regarding the organizations that sponsor them.

With the above being said, ask anyone who has run a marathon and they will tell you that running the actual race is just part of the experience. In reality the “marathon experience” is the sum of many parts. For runners, this is something we have realized for a very long, long time, and I believe based on what we are now seeing with TCS’s sponsorship of the New York City Marathon, same can now be said for the organizations that sponsor them.

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Look for updates, news, analysis and commentary from the following.
  • Steve Silva, Boston.com senior producer, two-time Boston Marathon sub-four hour runner.
  • Ty Velde is a 16-time Boston qualifier who's completed 12 consecutive Boston Marathons and 25 marathons overall. Ty is now training for his 13th Boston run and will provide training tips for those who train solo and outside, no matter what temperature it is.
  • Rich 'Shifter' Horgan is a 19-time Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team member who runs in honor of his father, who died of colon cancer. He will provide updates on local running events with a focus on the charitable organizations that provide Boston Marathon entries for their organization's fund raising purposes

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