Chris Stewart  /  AP
Ironman triathlete Normann Stadler of Germany competes in the 2010 Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. Automakers are starting to support these races with sponsorship dollars, hoping to reach a more dedicated and motivated group of car consumers.
By contributor
updated 11/12/2010 2:09:27 PM ET 2010-11-12T19:09:27

“If you think you’re going through hell, keep going!” That’s a popular sign held by supporters at endurance sports events such as this fall’s Ford Ironman Florida and the New York City Marathon, exhorting competitors to persevere.

Big car companies are hoping that the camaraderie forged by the hellish fires of these competitions applies not only to competitors, but also to companies that support the racers through their sponsorship dollars.

That’s why Ford is the title sponsor of the Ironman triathlon series, Dodge is the title sponsor of the Dodge Rock ‘n’ Roll marathons in Virginia Beach and Los Angeles, and Nissan is a supporting sponsor of events like the New York City and Marine Corps marathons.

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Exclusive competitions like the Ironman triathlons include about 2,500 competitors, and even huge events like the New York City Marathon have around 40,000 participants, which is still far fewer people than the number of people attending a single college or NFL football game.

So why are carmakers increasingly targeting this audience with their marketing dollars? There are three primary reasons, according to Scott Dickey, president of the Competitor Group, the company that has arisen as a promoter of major events such as the Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon race series.

First, the attractive demographics of the competitors as potential customers; the idea is that the aggressive, focused nature of such competitors makes them natural “influencers” of other potential customers. Other factors are the intensity of participation in the sport, which Dickey says forges a strong bond between participants and the companies that back the sport.

“[It’s] a highly educated affluent audience that in many cases has a strong disposable income,” Dickey explained, adding that individuals who participate in these sports are seen as “key influencers” — they are highly motivated individuals who are early adopters. They are “pacesetters” who influence others in their own social circles, he said.

Then there is the matter of actually marching through hell rather than cheering from the bleachers for others to do it.

“There’s a huge difference between being a participant and being a fan,” Dickey said. “You’ve made a personal commitment to running a half-marathon, a 10K or an Ironman and it’s a pinnacle in your life. You’ve made sacrifices to get to that point, and you are much, much more acutely aware of the brands that are supporting you in getting to this point in your life.”

That means an endurance sports participant is much more likely than a mere spectator to become a customer, Dickey asserted.

“I think what is unique about doing these kinds of events is the passion and enthusiasm [of the athletes],” noted J. Schaffer, promotions manager for Nissan. “You don’t decide to take part in a marathon the day before. You have to train for six to eight months in advance.”

This dedication is why even stingy, cash-strapped carmakers are increasingly opening their wallets to back these races.

“It is not super-cheap to be partners in this space,” acknowledged Jim Peters, manager of Ford and Lincoln brand content and alliances.

Endurance, or active sports such as running, biking, swimming, and triathlon, which is a combination of all three, are gaining popularity with car companies, not only because of the attractiveness of their participants as potential customers, but also because these sports are themselves growing rapidly. And so backing these sports as they grow in popularity allows these companies to bond with consumers.

Next year 450,000 runners will enter Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon series events promoted by the Competitor Group, according to Dickey, and the company will conduct 20 events, up from 14 just a few years ago.

The 25 Ironman 140.6-mile triathlons held worldwide are so popular that competitors typically have to enter during the race weekend for the next year’s race because many of them sell out a year in advance.

Because of the huge demand for the events, World Triathlon Corporation will conduct 49 half-distance 70.3-mile events in 2011, up from just 17 races when it launched that series in 2006. Next year the company is adding 16 Olympic or international distance races under the Ironman banner that are just 32.2 miles in total length.

The number of people participating in these events is still a fraction of the number that attends traditional sporting events as spectators, but carmakers argue that the athletes are more influential in their communities.

“We have been able to take a group of people and turn them into ambassadors to get the message out,” Peters said.

The growing popularity of the events combined with the powerful emotions of completing them makes backing athletes ideal for carmakers.

“I’ve worked for the NBA and Disney, but I’ve never seen anything like that personal moment of success when a person crosses a finish line,” said Dickey. “It’s a very powerful proposition.”

Ralph Gilles, chief executive at Dodge, decided to find out for himself what runners think by participating as one of a team of 30 athletes who trained together for the Dodge Rock ‘n’ Roll Half-Marathon in Virginia Beach over Labor Day weekend.

“I’ve had multiple people come up to me and tell me, ‘I’m going to think about Dodge now,’” he said. “They’ve never really considered us before and love that we are participating in what they love.”

The company even used the event for the public unveiling of its new Durango crossover SUV, which was an unorthodox alternative to the usual auto shows and press conferences. The approach paid off, said Gilles. “This has exceeded my expectations,” he said.

Similarly, Ford says it has seen consideration of its products grew by 8 percent among Ironman triathletes since the company began sponsoring the series in 2006, according to Peters.

Ford highlighted the upcoming 2011 Explorer crossover at the Ironman Florida, and it has branded the Edge crossover as the “official vehicle of Ironman” for this year. But while SUVs are logical transportation for the 25 to 44-year-old, married demographic of Ironman triathletes, and they have the space for transporting bikes and other gear, the emerging crop of green cars is of greater interest to these competitors.

That just the sort of feedback Nissan was hoping to hear, as the company used the Leaf battery-electric car to pace the New York City Marathon.

“We are pleased with what’s happening with the program right now,” said Schaffer. “It’s hard to find things that work effectively and we think we’re on to something.”

So even if the races seem hellish at times to competitors, it looks like automakers have found a heavenly marketing opportunity for their cars.

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