The most powerful brands are forged from different fires. Some point towards a visionary founder who crafted a product line to meet the needs of the times they live in — LL Bean and Eddie Bauer are examples. Others are born of a formulaic process advocated by Philip Kotler and other pillars of marketing — everything from Apple to Uber falls into this category.
The brands that evoke the highest quotient of emotion from their followers, that speak directly to the heart, are based in legend. The Ironman brand is an undeniable example of one that draws people together and creates as close to a cult-like community as any brand could hope to do.
The Ironman brand was born out of a friendly argument. US Navy Commander John Collins and his wife Judy were debating with friends over “who” were the best athletes, meaning swimmers, cyclists, or runners. Not being able to reach a suitable conclusion, a small group agreed to string together three iconic individual events in each discipline to create a crazy mega-event in Hawaii they called an “Ironman”. Collins summed up the creation with this bit of motivation to the original cast of participants: “Swim 2.4 miles, Bike 112 miles, Run 26.2 miles, brag for the rest of your life”.
A true indicator of successful brand expansion is seen when impressions are associated with all sorts of products, extending well beyond the original idea. It’s easy to find the Ironman brand on everything from Timex watches to coffee cups, creating appeal to consumers regardless of whether they would even consider training for the underlying event that inspires the logo.
Regardless of the power of any brand and the passion of its followers, there are three key missteps that can erode brand value faster than you can say “sinkhole”:
- React poorly in times of crisis
- Exhibit tone-deaf leadership
- Choose to enforce rules rather than collaborate with community
Ironman is a premium brand when defined by the demographics of its most ardent followers. The price of entry, equipment, travel, and ancillary expenses tally up to a tab that makes each race a commitment in financial terms in addition to the training required. Over time, the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), the owners of the brand, could not resist the temptation to accelerate the monetization of this desirable consumer audience. Over recent years, the evolution of Ironman as a business has clearly taken precedence over the needs of the athletes that pay the toll to keep the brand vibrant and alive. Even before the pandemic, the brand was paying the price.
Ironman traded hands in at least two significant transactions over 5 years. Dalian Wanda Group, a diversified global conglomerate based in China, acquired the World Triathlon Corporation 2015, and sold it in 2020 to Advance Publications, an American media company. The series of acquisitions seemed to accelerate the positioning of the business ahead of its customers. Race entry fees became more expensive, refund restrictions were fortified, and the quality of some merchandise available for purchase at race events declined.
The brand was severely tested during the pandemic in 2020. Large race events were among the first to be eliminated due to public health concerns and athletes immediately scrambled to understand how their substantial entry fees would be handled. The response from Ironman, the corporation, was disappointing and points to the first of the three brand-destroying factors: React poorly in times of crisis.
Would refunds be available, would entry fees be deferred to a future event, what relief would the brand provide to its vibrant tribe of supporters? The responses from Ironman were judged to fall short, leading to a class-action lawsuit filed by athletes frustrated over the lack of clarity and options.
Evidence of Tone-deaf leadership came from WTC CEO Andrew Messick. The pinnacle fail was embodied in a video that was created to communicate an update to the community of people interested in the brand, but effectively carried little substance over the course of about 4 minutes. The video went viral among the triathlon community, for all the wrong reasons. We listened to the video multiple times and could not take away anything of substance that would be described as customer-facing or “putting the customer first” in recognition of the community that was listening in.
When faced with a crisis, there are fundamental choices to be considered in crafting a response to the market and to customers. One is to adopt an emphasis on “Enforcement of rules”, relying on existing policies to advise customers that “we’d like to accommodate you, but we just can’t….we have these rules”.
The alternative is to collaborate with the community of customers who support the brand, who advocate for the brand, and who sometimes wear the brand in permanent fashion. We can’t think of many (any?) other brands that inspire their most ardent followers to tattoo the brand on their bodies, but that is exactly what happens in this community.
The calamity that was 2020 presented challenges to business in an unprecedented magnitude. Ironman exists in one of the most vulnerable parts of the economy where public health is concerned. But choices exist and what transpired with Ironman is an incredibly instructive story of how business can never put its own interests ahead of the customer and come away clean.
The Ironman story will have another chapter and change will surely come. We hope to see the brand rebound, but for now, the name will become associated with just how fragile even an emotionally powerful brand can become in short order when it violates not one, but all three of our brand eroding factors.