Industry Insight

Racing to Win: How Swag Helps Top Summer Races Sprint Ahead of the Competition

If you’re like me, you’ve probably seen your social media feeds explode in recent years with pictures and status updates from friends who have discovered the upsides of running. Some people run for the health benefits; others do it to raise money and awareness for a cause. All of them work hard.

And they all love swag.

No matter what kinds of giveaways or merchandise is used to promote a race, the participants love showing it off. It’s a way of showing off their accomplishments. The best marathon and race organizers know this, which is why they strive to make sure that their promotional materials and marketing techniques all stand out from the others (and given how many marathons take place in the U.S. each summer, there are a lot of others!).

You’ve probably heard of some of the biggest competitions: IronMan, the Race for the Cure, the Biggest Loser RunWalk, and the Color Run. Why? Because their organizers know how to market them! And their organizers know how to use promotional merchandise and giveaways to attract participants and build their brands.

IronMan: “Our Participants…Generally Become Athletes for Life”

IronMan is arguably the monster of all competitions and marathons because of the endurance it demands. No matter where in the world each IronMan race is held, the course is broken down the same way: a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run.

No wonder people who finish it want items that let them brag about it.

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John Duke, Vice President of Global Sales for World Triathlon Corporation (which organizes the IronMan races), says that although participants get a t-shirt with race registration, a swag bag full of freebies isn’t a heavy focus for IronMan. “Part of the reason is the IronMan brand is a source of pride,” Duke explains. “All participants get a finishers shirt and medal and our partners will occasionally provide additional items for the race bag.”

A medal, you say? Oh, yes. As Duke describes, each IronMan race brands itself by designing and giving finishers a medal particular to that race’s flavor or theme. Believe it or not, there’s a Rock and Roll –themed IronMan that provides a medal in the style of rapper Flavor Flav’s clock medallion.

“The medal is a symbol of the accomplishment of finishing the race,” says Duke. “With IronMan, which is such a commitment, participants wear symbols for the accomplishment with pride. Some will even go out and tattoo that year’s or event’s logo on their bodies.”

Giveaways like medals and t-shirts (and more permanent marks like tattoos) aren’t the only ways that races like IronMan can promote themselves. Duke actually sees the IronMan race as one of the main products that World Triathlon Corporation offers. The other is the IronMan-branded workout gear and other merchandise that the company sells.

“The core product [our merchandise] carries our IronMan brand and consistent look and feel. Our athletes train in it and wear it around as a symbol of pride. It carries our logo and a consistent design,” says Duke. And part of that branding is making sure that the merchandise carries a reputation for quality. “Sponsors help us consistently improve the technical design and quality of our offerings.”

Of course, running can be about more than becoming the best athlete you can be.

Race for the Cure: “The Races Serves As More Than a Race but a Community”

The Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure Series is a broad name for a series of 5K races that are held in locations around the world to raise money for breast cancer research and awareness. According to Susan Tybon, the CEO of the Chicagoland area Susan G. Komen affiliate, the race started as a walk. However, the name was changed “…because it really was a race, since women fight breast cancer and those looking for a cure were racing against time.”

While you might not have known that fact, you’ve surely seen the pink awareness ribbons and other merchandise that organizations supporting breast cancer awareness like the Komen Foundation use to promote the cause. This is part of the keen marketing that the Komen Foundation uses—and it’s most apparent when it comes to the t-shirts that each Race for the Cure participant receives.

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“We put a lot of our sponsors’ logos on our t-shirts, which is really important to our sponsors,” says Tybon. “The shirts are also great marketing for the race and our sponsors since people not only save them but wear them often directly after the race and on other occasions. Directly after the race, it is wonderful seeing brunch places packed with participants in their t-shirts.”

Consistent branding is part of what makes them such great marketing materials. “The last few years we have had people vote on their favorite design, and the nation chooses the design for the year, “Tybon explains. “This design and theme is carried out consistently across all locations each year.

“However, where we can get unique is our local theme and taglines,” she continues. “This year we are using the Chicago skyline in our marketing and event materials.” Altogether, the two-fold approach creates a sense of community that covers a span not only of geography but of time. “Some people have ten or fifteen shirts they have saved from every year they ran or walked,” she says.

But what about the swag bag—the tote bag full of water bottles and bracelets that race participants look forward to?

“The purpose of the race is to raise as much money as possible for research, and it is critical we do not spend on promotional materials.” Tybon informs us. “We rely on our sponsors to help with that and not every participant gets a bag.  Survivors get a bag every year… We also give a small bag to participants that pick up their packets ahead of time.

“The survivor tent is specifically for survivors, and after the race they can go and meet other survivors and get their bag… for survivors it is not about the bag, it is the community,” says Tybon.

And communities can be built around all kinds of goals.

The Biggest Loser RunWalk: “Anyone Can Be an Athlete As Long As They Put Their Mind to It”

Even if you don’t watch tons of television, you’ve probably heard of The Biggest Loser, one of the most popular fitness reality TV shows in recent times. But you might not have known that the show inspired a series of races!

According to Christina Morlock, Director of Marketing and Public Relations for the Biggest Loser RunWalk, “Season 5 contestants Dan and Jackie Evans started running half marathons after the show. Runners would always come up to them saying ‘I’m running because of you and The Biggest Loser. You have inspired me so much!’ That got them to think, ‘Why doesn’t The Biggest Loser have a race series?’ and that was history.”

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You might think that tying a race into an insanely well-known show would mean that swag bags and promotional materials aren’t necessary. After all, The Biggest Loser’s message already resonates pretty well. “The Biggest Loser brand itself has inspired millions,” says Morlock “Our runners and walkers come in all shapes and sizes and they are some of the most positive and inspirational people you’ll meet.”

But do all those warm fuzzies mean that people who participate in the Biggest Loser RunWalk shouldn’t expect any swag? Heck, no.

“Runners LOVE swag. End of story,” Morlock tells us. (She actually punctuates this comment with a smiley face, since it was a response to a written questionnaire, and we think that’s completely accurate for how much runners love swag).

And races like the Biggest Loser RunWalk love it, too. “We will give sneak peeks of the medal and shirt to create some buzz. Plus, the women always want to plan their race day outfit with the color of the shirt.” As for branded merchandise that runners and supporters can purchase, “We try to offer different items in merchandise [than from our giveaways] to increase the demand.”

Yes, runners enjoy a distinct visual aesthetic to their race swag, as some organizers have discovered.

The Color Run: “The Happiest 5K on the Planet”

Plenty of people doubt that running can be fun. The Color Run aims to change all of that. According to its website, this untimed 5K race has only two rules:

  1. Come dress in all white clothing
  2. Finish the race covered in color

That’s right. At checkpoints along the course, runners are sprayed with different blasts of color, so that by the time they reach the finish line, they look for all intents and purposes as if they would fit right into the world of My Little Pony (which is a compliment). There’s also a huge party at the end.

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Organizers of The Color Run offer participants plenty of swag, including headbands, temporary tattoos, and medals that are the same for all participants to help build that sense of community. Really, though, the best of the branding is done with that shirt that each runner wears. “What better [way] to take the happiness of race day home [than] in the form of a color-covered shirt you can wear with pride on your next run!” says Jamie Miller, the Public Relations Manager for The Color Run.

But does that mean that The Color Run shies away from branded merchandise that supporters can buy? Hardly. In fact, the extra merchandise is designed to complement the freebies, thereby helping to build the brand. “We design our merchandise to complement our race swag – those tutus, colorful socks and party shades perfectly coordinate with our swag,” says Miller. We know people love building outfits and unifying a team with a matching element like shades or trucker hats or bandanas, so we don’t feel like our race swag decreases demand for our merchandise.”

So there you have it! Four different races that target four different groups of participants, all using a focused theme and some branded giveaways to get noticed. You can do the same for your event.

And if you’re hoping to attract runners… you should probably offer t-shirts.