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marketing GkoWxPDO SBI 300195186
marketing GkoWxPDO SBI 300195186

How The Great North Run Mastered Its Marketing


As The Great North Run approaches, print marketing experts Solopress look at what makes a successful marketing campaign at running events.

Key findings:

  • The Great North Run draws participants from up to 178 different nations each year, with the event set for a return this year after being cancelled in 2020 and travel restrictions making participation from abroad difficult in 2021.
  • Running events are becoming increasingly digital affairs, with the app Strava seeing a 25% increase in users year-on-year with over 95 million active users at present, whilst events like the Great North Run now have everything from training plans to results on the day available digitally.
  • However, the introduction of digital aspects into the running experience in many ways boosts offline marketing; #greatnorthrun currently has over 137,000 posts on Instagram alone, meaning companies who sponsor banners, t-shirts and goodie bags at the event are potentially reaching hundreds of thousands of users through the photos and videos shared on social media of the event.
  • Choosing sponsorships which add value to participants on the day is key for high-profile events, with the selected partners line-up for the Great North Run 2022 showcasing a range of relevant brands who are improving the event for those taking part.
  • Similarly, The Sun creating running event City2Surf has organically generated marketing opportunities for the newspaper for over 50 years, drawing up to 85,000 people to the annual event where the newspaper’s branding has become an iconic part of the race.
  • Creating opportunities for word of mouth is also essential; the Great North Run was founded in 1981 with little to no formal marketing, becoming popular largely through word of mouth, only gaining formal organisational support and accompanying PR seven years later in 1988.
  • Novelty factors can hugely boost these events, such as the Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco, where costumed runners, “salmon race” runners who run the course backwards and teams who competitively run the course linked via a bungee cord create organic news coverage and user-generated social media posts of the event each year.

Going the Distance: Marathon Marketing Lessons

With the Great North Run just around the corner on the 11th of September, the hype around the event is palpable. How does this event build up such high levels of excitement, drawing crowds from up to 178 different nations each year? Print marketing experts Solopress look at famous running events to determine what makes for memorable marketing at the world’s most infamous two-legged races.

Don’t Underestimate The Impact of Physical Marketing

In recent years, runs like the Great North Run have become increasingly digital affairs, with everything from official training plans to race results now accessed through the internet. The fitness app Strava, used to track activities like running, cycling and rowing, now has over 95 million active users. This is a 25% increase from last year, which shows the continued digitalisation of the runner’s experience as online tools contribute further to the social and competitive aspects of exercise.

However, the increased focus on digital support for runners doesn’t necessarily mean that physical marketing has lost its crown. In fact, digital trends have made physical marketing representation more important than ever. With #greatnorthrun having over 137,000 posts on Instagram alone, brands who sponsor t-shirts, banners, official products and refreshment stands at races are no longer just placing their name in front of those running the event. Photos featuring sponsors’ names are now being shared online via every form of social media, vastly increasing their reach compared to the pre-digital era.

Physical materials continue to be a core part of running events, whether it’s branded water bottles, the official sponsored t-shirt that all runners wear on the day or the posters lining the run. Printed materials take over before, during and after a race, right down to the medals that finishers receive and the printed numbers racers wear to track their time. These factors are all part and parcel of the experience on race day, and offer the perfect opportunity for physical branding which will leave a lasting impression. Finishers’ shirts and medals are pieces of memorabilia that will be fondly kept by finishers for many years, often being framed or worn proudly time and time again, making them prime real estate for marketers.

Brand Partnerships

The key to successful brand partnerships at any race or marathon event is creating opportunities in which the audience can actively engage. Amongst the excitement of the day and the dozens of brands trying to make their presence known, it can be all too easy for marketing efforts to get lost in the sea of noise.

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Understanding the needs of your audience at the event is vital. For example, the photos service offered at most running events is a staple for a reason; it’s simple, effective and serves the needs of its target audience. However, it doesn’t get in the way of runners who aren’t interested in purchasing their photos, with companies like the current Great North Run partner Marathon Photos Live finding great success in helping athletes document their achievements with professional photos on the day. 

Other Great North Run partners for 2022 also show the importance of brand relevancy and adding value to the run-day experience when landing these promotions. Whether it’s Heart Radio providing motivational music on the day, Nirvana offering accommodation packages to travellers, or Greggs with their North-East heritage providing lunch to thousands of volunteers at the event.

Other brands around the world likewise use this approach to running events sponsorship. In conceiving the idea of a fun, community-focused running event in Sydney which would grow to be City2Surf, the staff of newspaper The Sun naturally created a long-term sponsorship opportunity for the newspaper. The event presents value to tens of thousands each year with The Sun-Herald’s name lining the run route and the branding embedding itself as an iconic part of the race.

The lesson here: think about serving participants first, and the promotion of your brand will naturally follow as people appreciate the excellent service you’ve provided to make the day memorable.


Organic Marketing

In the same vein as brand partnerships, the true power of marketing any race is its organic marketing potential. Putting up TV commercials, social media adverts and billboards is great, but the true reach of your run comes from creating exciting opportunities for participants and then letting these stories spread via word-of-mouth. The Great North Run is the second-largest half marathon in the world. It was founded in 1981 by former medal-winning Olympian Brandan Foster with little to no formal marketing and became popular largely through word of mouth. Within 7 years, the event gained formal organisational support alongside accompanying marketing and PR.

Novelty factors can also play a significant role in your organic marketing opportunities. The famous Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco, run for more consecutive years than any other footrace in the world, has been sponsored and promoted by everyone from Craigslist to Under Armour over the years. However, the event’s true impact upon the public comes from the uniqueness of its activities. These range from the thousands of costumed runners who take part each year to the “tortilla toss”, where crowds of running waiting to cross the start line throw tortillas at one another, to the runners dressed as salmon who run “upstream” from the finish line to the start line. There’s also the “centipedes” division, where teams of 13 or more runners travel the course linked together via a bungee cord. 

These novelties create huge potential for organic coverage due to the fun and exciting stories which they naturally generate each year This leads to tens of thousands of social media posts, organic news coverage and thousands of participants who will be telling their friends and family stories from the event for weeks to come.

Glen Eckett, Head of Marketing at Solopress, comments: “Long-time staples on the running events scene like the Great North Run have refined their marketing strategies over the years to near-perfection. They offer a perfect blend of sponsors who make a positive difference to participants on the day, alongside creating a wealth of opportunities which encourages coverage of the event on social media and news sites. Word-of-mouth plays an important role here, with the community spirit of such events combined with novelty factors like running in costumes a powerful combination for the spread of stories and excitement surrounding the race.”

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