I am back from a trip to Hawaii; I flew back last Sunday, just in time for my Monday class. That isn’t a best practice but it all worked out ok.
I was in Hawaii to see my daughter Claire compete in the Ironman World Championships in Kona. She did great, surviving (the most important thing) and finishing 5th in her age group. Amazing.
The experience was an immersion into the remarkable Ironman brand, both the power and the challenges.
The Ironman is a remarkable competition. First run in 1978, the race includes a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike, and then a marathon, or 26.2 miles of running. Each part is difficult; I don’t think I’ve ever biked 112 miles in a day, and I’ve only done one marathon. Put them together and you have an event that borders on absurd.
At Kellogg, we define brands as the associations linked to a name, mark, or symbol. What are the associations around Ironman? I suspect they include challenge, endurance, achievement, discipline and fitness. Some might add crazy to the list, and that would fit, too.
Ironman is an incredibly strong brand. In particular, it excels in three dimensions.
First, Ironman has high awareness. All over the world, people have heard of the Ironman race. Few have actually done it. but many people know about it.
Second, the associations are crystal clear. Ironman is what it is. The brand is exceptionally well defined. It is a tough, distinctive brand. There is nothing funny, relaxing or casual about Ironman.
Third, Ironman has customer advantage. This is a critical consideration for any brand. Customer advantage means that customers value the benefit you provide, are willing to pay for it and see you as best as providing in. For Ironman, customers are the athletes, and they clearly value the challenge. They also are willing to pay for it. Participants travel to races, invest in remarkable equipment and pay large entry fees.
There are competitors, but none have the power of Ironman. Name just one other triathalon with those distances. I’ll wait.
A powerful brand creates all sorts of advantages. It drives search and social activity, shifts perceptions, differentiates, attracts partners, creates trust, and builds loyalty.
People use strong brands for self-definition, too. I used to think that Harley Davidson was the most tattooed brand. After a few days in Hawaii I’m now thinking Ironman should get that honor.
While Ironman is a strong brand, managing it is likely a huge challenge.
One issue is ensuring that the brand experience is positive and consistent. It isn’t easy to organize one of these races; the race goes on for 17 hours. How many towns will let you close streets for that long? How do you organize something like that, and deliver a consistent experience?
There is also the risk that something bad could happen. When you push people that hard, some will struggle. I was at the finish in Kona. Participants crossed the line and then were met by two assistants and a medical person. In seconds, they were escorted away, down a covered walkway. I suspect this was designed with care, to ensure that when people collapsed, as many did, they were out of sight. The Ironman isn’t supposed to be like Nascar, where some people show up to watch the crashes. My daughter collapsed after she was helped down the walkway and ended up in the medical tent. She is fine, but the medical tent was quite lively.
Another challenge is finding growth. The Ironman race series is owned by World Triathalon Corporation, which was purchased by Advance Publications in August 2020. There is no question that Advance is looking for growth.
But how much can you build Ironman? Finding new locations is difficult and there is a long lead time. Capacity on races is capped. Pricing is an opportunity, but at some point that runs out.
The easiest way to build Ironman is to expand into shorter races that are logistically easier and more accessible. In 2005, for example, Ironman added the Ironman 70.3 race, featuring a 1.2 mile swim, a 56 mile bike and a 13.1 mile run.
But expanding further could damage the brand. Ironman has experimented with 5150 races (a 1.5 mile swim, 40 km bike and 10 km run). Is this consistent with Ironman?
One could go further. How about an Ironman marathon? That seems odd but perhaps. How about an Ironman 5k?
Ultimately, Ironman is positioned for continued success, as long as the leaders don’t push it too far.