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Celebrity runners, Selling running shoes, Does celebrity endorsement work?Usain Bolt is a great ambassador for Puma.
July 2014

Do celebrity runners

sell running shoes?

Are customers influenced by the elite athletes that endorse a specific brand of running shoe? YAMKELA MKEBE asked some industry running experts

Anumber of big brands have their running shoes endorsed by famous runners. The world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt (Puma), the recent winner of the 2014 Boston Marathon, Meb Keflezighi (Skechers), world marathon record holder Wilson Kipsang and Olympic gold medalist Haile Gebrselassie (adidas), double Olympic champion Mo Farah (Nike) and South African marathon record holder Gert Thys (Mizuno), are just a few examples of the many runners who endorse major running shoe brands.

These athletes don’t come cheap. Companies therefore spend a huge amount of money in endorsement deals for these athletes to promote their brands, in the hope of selling more shoes.

How often do customers request a certain brand in a retail store because it is endorsed and worn by a celebrity? Or is the benefit less tangible — does the brand’s relationship with a celebrity runner lend credibility that establishes it as a serious running brand in the minds of consumers … and therefore grow market share?

“Having the current marathon world record holder (Kipsang) wearing adidas is a big boost in terms of credibility.

“This puts us at the forefront of innovation and design in the eyes of our consumers and keeps us staying true to our motto of only the best for the athletes,” says Gugu Ntuli of adidas SA.

Raise awareness

Ethiopian Gebrselassie and Kenyan Kipsang are adidas athletes who have well decorated running careers. While not all sales are derived from adidas top end footwear, it has a trickle-down effect when beginner runners or young kids are faced with choice of which brand of shoe to purchase as their first running shoe, Ntuli adds.

When Kipsang met and congratulated the winners at the finish line during the 2014 Two Oceans marathon, he was swamped by finishers who wanted to have their photos taken by him. And he was happy to share the reasons why he ran in the Adios Boost when he won the London marathon.

“They (well-known runners) do contribute to sales by raising brand awareness and giving the brand credibility,” says Donovan van Gelder of Rebel Elite Fitness, local distributor of Inov-8 running shoes. “Top athletes also push the product to the limit of performance and provide excellent feedback.” The brand is sponsoring Carla van Huyssteen who is the Xterra SA, Cross-Triathlon and Warrior Obstacle race champion.

“We choose to be involved with real athletes rather than celebrities so that the consumer can see the product being used in the arena that it is made for, and in a manner for which it was intended,” says Van Gelder.

Another representative from a prominent brand agrees that well-known runners have a positive contribution to the brands. “Celebrity runners are a great asset to further your brand awareness, as well as adding credibility to the brand name,” says Katharine Tromp of New Balance SA.

The brand decided to change their philosophy and start working with athletes. “In the past few years we have changed our viewpoint as a brand from an endorsed by no one philosophy to signing global athletes,” says Tromp.

Help develop product

Nike has the world champion distance runner on their books: Mo Farah. The runner has been running in the Nike Air Pegasus shoe for most of his career. The shoe has been in existence for over three decades.

It is really important to have a training shoe that is very well cushioned, as light as possible, but gives you that support you need, said Farah, promoting the Nike Air Pegasus as his favourite running shoe.

Nike’s elite athletes help the brand to share ideas of what they are looking for in a running shoe, says Seruscka Naidoo of Nike SA. “Runners of all levels know that success takes time and a lot of hard work. The Nike design team works very closely with elite athletes, who provide insights on what they want to experience from a running shoe.”

Some of the elite athletes the brand is working with include Galen Rupp, Allyson Felix, Paula Radcliffe, Mercy Chereno, Bethwell Birgen, Charne Bosman, Ludwick Mamabolo, and many others.

“With our athletes, we are able to inspire our everyday runners, as they emulate to train or run as the professional do. The brand campaigns we embark on can include messages from our athletes encouraging the everyday runner to challenge himself,” explains Naidoo.

Everyday runners want to be informed on the best training advice, nutrition and diet, as well as wearing the right product. “If the product innovation insights from Nike athletes like Farah are shared with them, they are encouraged to go further.”

Prove products work

“Performance athletes provide legitimacy to the products they use,“ says Brett Bellinger of Puma SA. “Iconic athletes like Usain Bolt and closer-to-home-soil performers like Richard Murray, Dan Hugo, Bradley Weiss, Wian Sullwald, Henri Schoeman and others provide us with a vital testing platform for our top products but also an ideal representation for what the brand stands for in terms of performance.“

“Bolt espouses Puma brand values and transcends his sport,“ explains Bellinger. “He sells running shoes for sure, but he also generates general brand sales. He is at the top of his game, a global icon and he has fun doing what he does. These values are true for Puma as a brand as well.“

Bellinger continues to describe these athletes as assets to the brand. Not only are they great names to have your brand associated with, “their perfmances allow us to prove that our products work“.

Sacrifices inspire

“If the celebrity is credible, influential, shares the same values and ethos of our brand and will assist us in driving brand and product awareness — and ultimately sales — we will no doubt look to align ourselves in a partnership,” says Paul Copson of Brand ID, local distributor of Mizuno running shoes. Celebrities are at the top of their game and had to make specific sacrifices in their life in order to gain their celebrity status — sometimes not always positive, but sacrifices all the same — and therefore consumers try and emulate what they wear, he explains.

Mizuno sponsors Gert Thys “a legend in road running here in South Africa, a guy who has sacrificed everything in his life for his love and passion for running,” says Copson. “He is an inspiration to the younger elite marathon runners, who aspire to breaking his record. He is respected by the local running fraternity and media for his successes and willingness to push his limits at his now mature age.”

Thys is also a fantastic asset in helping Mizuno identify future potential running talent and he is a great running product spokesperson, he adds. Celebrity runners help sell a brand when they talk of real life running experiences, which fellow runners relate to, he believes. “Their achievements, knowledge, and relentless passion to achieve are inspirational — allowing our brand to become synonymous with achievers, and result-driven runners, who seek the best in their running footwear and apparel.”

Besides, an association with celebrity runners enabled Mizuno to gain strong media exposure, both above, and below the line, he concludes.

Not real celebrities

“I am not sure that top runners have such a high profile that people would say I need to wear the shoes that so and so is wearing”, says Brian Kerby, MD of Asics SA.

“Every runner is different and I think runners understand that there is a shoe that is for them, irrespective of who else wears it. Despite the fact that some guys are winning the Two Oceans Marathon in racing flats, nobody will say I need to be running in racing flats, because they’ll be injured in five minutes.”

He believes most runners are more influenced by their fellow runners and what they are wearing and saying, than some guy who is winning races. Asics therefore rather do talks at clubs to inform the runners about the benefits of the brand, because an informed consumer is also going to make a better purchase choice. “We believe it’s going to be our brand,” he says.

Retailer perspectives

Well-known runners do manage to attract the attention of customers and make them associate with the brand they are wearing, says running store specialist Stein Steinbach of Run-A-Way Sport. “More people now associate a brand with a celebrity or well-known runner — for example, Mo Farah with Nike or Usain Bolt with Puma.”

But, he believes that South African endorsements are more valuable for selling shoes than that of international celebrity runners. His customers have, for example, asked for a particular running shoe endorsed by a well-known South African runner — he remembers customers asking for the shoes worn by Stephen Mokoka (adidas) and Elroy Gelant (also with adidas). These are both South African long distance runners who have participated, and done well, in local and international races.

Steinbach believes it is because local runners can easier associate themselves with South African elite athletes.

Another running specialist retailer, Zane Ebrahim of Durban Runner, disagrees. He believes that international celebrity endorsements are more valuable than South African sponsored athletes. This is because he believes athletes who participate on the international stage have a better chance of giving exposure to the shoes they are running in. “Television plays a huge role (in brand awareness) and is a platform for a brand to expose their running shoes during the televised races.”

Well-known runners can play a role in selling the running shoes they endorse, but this does not work for every runner. “Endorsing celebrity runners does have some credibility, and exposes the brand to the masses,” says Ebrahim. But, it is very rare for a customer to come into their store to ask for specific running shoes endorsed by an elite runner … only about 5%, or maybe, 10% of customers ask for running shoes worn by a well- known runner.

People are more interested in the brand than the runner who runs in the shoe. “We also advise customers on the running shoes that will work best for them.” You might find that a customer will want a certain shoe, which is worn by a celebrity runner for a different race distance that will not be suitable for the one that the customer needs, he adds.

There are few South African runners that consumers can relate to, says Werner Koegelenberg of running specialist store The Athletes Foot. “In the running market I do not believe there are enough well-known runners that local consumers can identify with. Expect maybe the younger trail runners that aspire to the like of Ryan Sandes.”

However, their store does occasionally have customers asking for shoes worn by a particular well-known runner — for example, local heroine Zola Budd, who distributes Newton shoes in South Africa.

While celebrities help to build awareness for a brand in general, endorsements don’t add value to running footwear sales, says a spokesperson for a major sports retail chain. “In running, we rarely have instances where specific styles are asked for as a result of “celebrity” marketing. This has much more of an impact in team sports — where kids will come and ask for the specific boot that a celebrity plays with.”

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