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An Olympian's Shoulder: Best Ad Space Ever?

A small marketing firm paid $11,000 to put its Twitter handle on pro runner Nick Symmonds's left shoulder. Crazy or brilliant?

Symmonds will sport the Twitter handle at competitions in the U.S. and also at the London Games.

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Mike Wisniewski, a newly minted social-media strategist for sports marketers Hanson Dodge Creative, was confident he could shake up the 30-year-old firm with a media buy only two and a half inches wide.

In January, Wisniewski spent $11,100 on eBay to display Hanson Dodge’s Twitter handle on the left shoulder of professional runner Nick Symmonds, who is bound for the London Olympics later this month. Symmonds is sporting a temporary tattoo with Hanson Dodge’s Twitter handle at races across the U.S. before showing it off at the Olympics.

Predictably, the deal produced some snarky headlines, such as “Olympic Athlete Sells Arm on eBay for Nearly $12K,” all of which generated some immediate notice for Hanson Dodge.

But Wisniewski says the partnership goes beyond quick and dirty stunt marketing.

“It was exactly the type of thing I was looking for,” he says. “I knew this could have real legs for us.” The partnership has already jolted Hanson Dodge’s view of unconventional marketing strategies. And for Symmonds, who has long expressed his frustration with the sponsorship rules of his sport’s governing bodies, it provided a new line of revenue and a new platform for exposure.

Shaking things up

At first, Hanson Dodge co-founder and CEO Ken Hanson wasn’t sure that sponsoring a patch of a runner’s arm really fit his company’s image. His company is a prominent athletic-lifestyle marketing firm (and an Inc. 500 alum), with 60 employees and clients such as Wilson Sporting Goods and Trek.

“We’re a business-to-business brand, so we don’t typically market ourselves like this,” says Hanson. The company has designed social-media campaigns for clients, but it typically doesn’t create them for itself. “I thought this would be a better opportunity for a direct-to-consumer brand,” says Hanson.

Wisniewski managed to convince his bosses that a deal with Symmonds could go beyond the obvious—that it could outlast the Olympics and help the company in many areas of its business. He argued that it would give the sales team a bit of extra ammo and increase the company’s online presence, as well as help generate attention-getting content for its social media.

Tim Dodge, Hanson's chief innovation officer, left, and Nick Symmonds found mutual goals within their new partnership.

 

Hanson now sees Symmonds as part billboard and part client. Symmonds, he says, “is a young businessman of sorts. He needs to build his brand, and we could help.” Hanson believes the deal will help his firm better understand its clients and could provide entrée to other athletes. 

Supporting a cause

The eBay auction was just the latest in Symmonds’s string of rebellious acts against his sport’s governing authorities. In December of last year, at the annual USA Track & Field association meeting, Symmonds spoke out publicly against regulations that he claims “cripple” the average athlete’s ability to make money beyond apparel sponsorships.

He explains: “I have a Nike sponsorship. You see the swoosh on me in every race, all over the world. I love Nike and of course am happy to be in the family. But if a mom-and-pop store also wanted to pay to support me and have their name represented on my back, I would be disqualified from most races.”

That’s partly because every race has a unique set of rules as to what can be displayed on an athlete and what cannot. The Olympics comes with its own set of rules.

Mostly, apparel sponsorships pass muster. Not much else does. So even though Hanson Dodge dropped $11,100 on its sponsorship of Symmonds, the runner will have to cover up his temporary tattoo at many events during the Games.

“This is business, plain and simple,” says Symmonds. “Athletes have very limited ways of marketing themselves. We can’t give smaller sponsors a return on investment. If Nike, Adidas, and Reebok pass, you’re stuck. You literally can’t make enough to compete.”

Symmonds is using the money from Hanson Dodge to buy an entirely organic diet as he trains for the Olympics, which he calls a “seemingly small thing that actually makes a huge difference.”

For Hanson Dodge, the deal is already starting to pay off, with some traditional media mentions and a flurry of social-media activity. Now Hanson Dodge and Symmonds are trying to move on a more comprehensive partnership. “I wanted us to collectively take a risk,” says Wisniewski. “This type of multilevel partnership could take us to the next level.”

To start, Symmonds is launching a blog for Hanson Dodge, in which he will give an athlete’s perspective on issues such as marketing, social media, consumer engagement, and branding—issues important to the company’s clients. And in the fall, Hanson Dodge plans to have Symmonds, who is also an avid fisher, hunter, and kayaker, speak at events such as the Outdoor Retailer conference, which should help build his appeal beyond running.

For Symmonds, the risk taking has already paid off. “To be honest, putting myself on eBay was risky,” he says. “I could have ended up endorsing a product that I didn’t believe in. It’s awesome that it worked out the way it did. We are a pretty great match.”

 

 

Last updated: Jul 11, 2012

NICOLE CARTER is Inc.'s San Francisco bureau chief. She was previously an editor at New York Daily News, and her work has also appeared in Consumer Reports magazine.
@nicoleckinc




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