In the blood | How Ironman is generating awe-inspiring levels of customer loyalty

  • Ironman competitors inspired to tattoo the race logo onto their skin
  • Mass participation events allow competitors to share and boast about their achievements
  • Competitors willing to share personal data for medical or health and safety reasons

There’s a tradition among long-distance triathletes that once you complete your first Ironman race, you celebrate by having the race logo (known as the M-dot) tattooed on your skin. It’s a badge of honour.

Featuring the letter M in the shape of a human torso, with a dot above it to symbolise a human head, it’s proof that you have subjected yourself to 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling, plus a marathon – one after the other. 

If there’s one endurance sport event that inspires extreme dedication and loyalty from the athletes who take part, it must be Ironman.

Operated by the World Triathlon Corporation (part of the Wanda Group), Ironman stages 260 events across 44 countries.

Around 680,000 people take part in the company’s events (not all long-distance triathlons), which potentially requires gallons of tattoo ink.

Hans-Peter Zurbruegg is managing director of Ironman for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Even he is astounded at the popularity of the M-dot tattoo.

IMAGE: Ironman competitors are choosing to have the event’s logo tattooed on their body (Getty Images)

“Two years ago, I was in Kona [at the Ironman World Championship] and so many people there had the tattoo,” he tells SportBusiness International. “It shows the strong link to the brand. The athletes are so proud of what they’ve done. For many people, finishing an Ironman changes their life.”

Zurbruegg believes his logo is globally the most popular sports tattoo after the Olympic rings. He has no hard evidence – and Manchester United and Real Madrid may have a stake to the claim – but it’s perfectly feasible.

Mass-participation sport is more popular globally than it’s ever been. And participants don’t abandon their sport after just one event; they keep coming back for more. 

Good causes

What are the reasons for such loyalty? Charity is a major factor, with mass-participation races offering people the chance to raise money for good causes.

The London Marathon, for example, has raised more than £450m ($570m/€510m) since its inaugural edition in 1981. 

Then there’s the ease of training. All you need is a park and a swimming pool. Runners and cyclists can even train while commuting to work.

Fitness, weight loss and mid-life crisis are factors too. According to Ironman, participants in their full-length races train for between 18 and 30 hours a week, and have an average age of 42. 

But you can get fit, lose fat and assuage your mid-life crisis down the gym or on the squash court. Surely there are socio-cultural reasons for the popularity of mass-participation races?

Mollycoddled as we are in the western world, with our sedentary office jobs and comfortable homes, many of us are bored by sterile gym environments.

Christopher McDougall is author of the seminal running book, Born to Run. He believes nowadays we want sport to push us outside our comfort zones.

“We’ve taken all the emergencies out of our lives,” he explains. “So we have to create these emergencies.”

And for white-collar workers who spend their lives chained to a desk, swimming across open water or pounding the streets for 26 miles can seem like a fairly serious state of emergency. 

In the developed world, at least, we no longer hunt for our food or battle with neighbouring tribes. For several generations, most of us have avoided military conscription.

So, come the weekend, we’re searching for adventure in the form of a marathon, a triathlon or a bike race.

Destructive energy

There’s also a chemical reason why some people love endurance sport: they are called endorphins. Todd Crandell, a triathlete from Ohio, is very familiar with the joy of endorphins. He used to be a serious alcoholic and drug addict, but in the 1990s he managed to redirect all his destructive energy into the positive energy of competing in triathlons.

“I’ve had people accuse me of taking my addiction to booze and drugs, and just turning it into another addiction,” he once admitted. “I tell them ‘Yeah, well, at least it’s a good addiction’.”

Mass-participation sports also allow athletes to boast about their achievements in a way that amateur golfers, footballers or tennis players can’t. A hole in one or a shot to the top corner hardly merit a tattoo. 

Nick Rusling, CEO of Human Race, one of the UK’s largest organisers of mass-participation races, says we shouldn’t underestimate the pride that amateur triathletes, runners and cyclists have in their athletic achievements.

“They are passionate about what they are doing,” he tells SportBusiness International. “The training they do takes over their lives for a short time. They’re off the beer, they’re boring their friends, they’re certainly boring their other halves. They’re so proud of what they’re doing. If they’d joined a squash club or a netball club, it wouldn’t be the same thing.”

Levels of loyalty

The comparison between mass-endurance sports and ball sports is intriguing. Amateur golf, tennis, squash and football events rarely seem to inspire the same levels of loyalty as triathlons, running races or bike races. 

Zurbruegg says that for Ironman events across the EMEA region, around half of participants are first-timers and half are repeat customers coming back for more punishment, while Rusling says that at the annual Royal Windsor Triathlon, one of his biggest events, 40 per cent of triathletes have competed before. 

There are myriad marketing tricks that race organisers employ to encourage this repeat business.

IMAGE: Athletes prepare to start the swim leg of the Ironman 70.3 in Luxembourg (Bryn Lennon/Getty Images for Ironman)

Data capture is invaluable if they are to fully understand their customers. Fortunately, when amateur athletes agree to take part in a race where they will be pushing their minds and bodies to the limit, they understand that a certain level of personal information is required for medical or health and safety reasons. 

Rusling explains how, aside from the usual demographic details, Human Race also quizzes participants on their training plans. Are they competing for the first time? Are they planning to later upgrade to a marathon?

“You start to build up a picture for somebody,” he explains. “What is their athletic ability? What is their level of confidence or motivation to get up early and train? Can we support them in their training?” All this enables the company to market future races to them more efficiently. 

Rusling says he has learned a great deal from analysing e-commerce company Amazon’s use of customer data. Human Race currently works with Two Circles, an agency that specialises in sports data. To help with online race entries, it uses software from a provider called Active Network.

“There are all sorts of online pricing strategies,” Rusling adds. He talks about staggered pricing, early-bird discounts and the targeting of triathlon clubs, running clubs and cycling clubs. “Fundamentally, we want people to sign up for multiple events with us.”

Dedicated following

Just as in every other sphere of human activity, social media is an invaluable tool in encouraging athletes to come back for more. Mats Skott is one of the founders and race directors of OTILLO, a pan-European series of mass-participation swim-run races. He estimates that between 55 and 65 per cent of his athletes are returning customers.

The races started just 11 years ago and already OTILLO has a dedicated following online. “It’s not just about posting a picture,” Skott tells SportBusiness International. “We always try to have a story behind our social media messages with some heart in it.”

Ironman’s Zurbruegg agrees: “We’re trying to focus on athlete experience rather than just promoting the race. Race day creates so many powerful stories and images. There is that incredible emotion when people cross the finishing line. That drives the whole culture of Ironman.”

IMAGE: Athletes enter the sea for the swim leg of the Ironman 70.3 Italy race (Alex Caparros/Getty Images for Ironman)

This finish-line moment is at the core of Human Race events too. “Every mass-participation event – what have they got in common? The finish line. It gives people a little psychological spike in their life that they’ll want to repeat and talk about and share,” explains Rusling. “The events are very photogenic. Okay, you’re not looking your best after a race, but you don’t care.

You show your medal, number and timing chip on social media. It’s a journey you can share through photography.” He adds that raising money for charity increases this online community around each participant.

Race photography shouldn’t be underestimated as a marketing tool. Many of the shorter mass-participation events offer photos online for free download, knowing their event will then be promoted through social media. OTILLO offers its free through Flickr, while Ironman charges for its through FinisherPix, but still sees a huge uptake. Human Race offers free photos for some events and charges for others.

The better-known mass-participation races regularly attract athletes from abroad. Ironman, in particular, boasts a very cosmopolitan athlete roster, which means travel, accommodation and bike-transfer packages need to be offered. For its European events, it outsources this to a company called Nirvana Europe, taking a percentage of the profits.

OTILLO, on the other hand, generally leaves athletes to arrange their own travel. It stages races in some pretty remote locations – mountain lakes in the Swiss Alps, the Stockholm Archipelago, islands off the Croatian coast. Its recent event in the Isles of Scilly, an archipelago 28 miles off the south-west tip of the UK, was particularly remote.

Financial rewards

In this case, it outsourced a bus-and-boat travel package from Heathrow Airport. However, as Skott explains, OTILLO earned no money from this. Neither did it take a financial cut from the accommodation providers on the islands.

“But it will come back to us in the end anyway,” he adds. “We have a financial contribution from each destination. We want the destination to make money [from the athletes who visit]. Then we will get more support from them in the long term and ultimately we gain in the long term.”

There is one area where race organisers can reap very healthy financial rewards. That’s with race merchandise. Zurbruegg wouldn’t reveal how much Ironman earns on merchandise sales, but he is amazed at how many of his customers wear branded bags and clothing. The company normally hands out free backpacks with every race entry, which competitors then display on their backs while travelling to and from the event.

“It’s amazing how many people travel with Ironman gear around the world. That’s honestly a great promotion,” he says. At the Ironman World Championships it sells a souvenir shirt with the names of every competitor printed on it. This, says Zurbruegg, always sells out. “It’s an important piece of our business,” he says.

Human Race, whose branding is diluted across multiple events and different endurance sports, is a bit more sceptical about the value of merchandise. “It’s been explored ad infinitum, but never cracked,” says Rusling. “It’s definitely an area of loyalty, though: that badge of honour you see when people wear their finisher T-shirts.”

Back to that badge of honour again, just like the Ironman tattoo. In fact, you could argue that a race finisher T-shirt is a much less extreme form of a race logo tattoo.

Zurbruegg has completed two Ironman races in his time. He’s got the T-shirts, but he hasn’t yet taken the plunge and had his skin inked with the tattoo. His excuse? “I don’t think my wife would like it,” he says.

EXTRA: Social media

One way of judging customer loyalty on mass participation races is by analysing the number of social media followers

New York Marathon: 246,000
London Marathon: 208,000
Great North Run: 68,000
Ironman: 580,000

New York Marathon: 286,000
London Marathon: 132,000
The Great Run Company: 53,500
Ironman: 228,000

New York Marathon: 100,000
London Marathon: 41,000
The Great Run Company: 7,000
Ironman: 305,000

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