InsightsUINo limits, no budget: How Asics built the Eternal Run campaign

No limits, no budget: How Asics built the Eternal Run campaign

How organic media and community engagement propelled a billion impressions and a line-up of awards

30-second summary:

  • In September 2019 Asics held a unique endurance race, the Eternal Run, in which a group of athletes and high-profile figures raced against themselves rather than one another
  • The campaign was run on entirely organic lines, with no paid advertising spend
  • Instead, Asics maintained constant communication with its forums and community groups before, during, and after the event
  • The campaign has been a huge success with well over one billion impressions and a string of awards
  • Fiona Berwick, Asics’ head of global marketing communications, talks us through the campaign here

A race with no finish line. That’s how Asics tagged the Eternal Run: a trial that was all about each runner’s personal capacity, rather than a universal objective. Twenty-two participants were given their own target pace, based on their performance in preliminary trials. If they fell beneath that pace three times, they were out. Or, alternatively, they could run forever.

The race was designed to promote the GlideRide shoe, which is designed to reduce ankle fatigue and so enable runners to keep going for longer (for the running geeks out there, it’s all to do with the curvature of the sole and the effect this has on the gait). 

Rather than spend millions on a glossy advertising campaign to promote GlideRide, the Asics marketing team partnered with Edelman to create an experiential proof-of-concept event. The project would prove successful in creating organic buzz within the runner community, gaining priceless brand awareness through earned channels, external news, and social media coverage which is thought to be worth four times the exposure of a paid campaign

For runners, by runners

“We want to earn the attention, not buy it,” says Fiona Berwick, who was an integral part of the Eternal Run campaign in her role as head of global communications.

“Our audience wants authenticity, that’s the key. We know that. If you want to speak to an authentic audience and get a long-term halo effect, you have to deliver.”

This is Asics’ entire mission in a nutshell. To create shoes for runners, by runners, building a self-sustaining community which will drive sales through word of mouth without conventional ad spend. That’s why Asics bought Runkeeper, a predecessor to Strava, back in 2016. It wants to tap into the global running family and become its brand of trust.

The Eternal Run campaign synced seamlessly with this mission. At the same time, the race allowed Asics to demonstrate the benefits of its technology in layman’s terms, rather than being drowned out by techno-speak.

“We wanted to cut through the science,” Fiona said.

“Asics is built on human-centric design, based around the principles of performance and protection, looking at how the body actually reacts.

“[The Eternal Run] is not just a product story on its own. We wanted to open a story around running: what you measure against, what you focus on, what success looks like for each runner. Something that elevates the product and talks about Asics’ design philosophy.

“It was about being organic. We wanted this to be driven by the running community and we wanted to get people talking. That was the starting point, really. As well as our product, how do we introduce other elements of the Asics brand? How could we make this a story that elevates and talks about Asics’ own design philosophy?”

Based on runner insight

Fiona and her colleagues decided to hold their race on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, the bed of an ancient desert lake that has become something of a mecca for US endurance runners, drawn to its crystalline endlessness. A mix of active athletes, influencers, and journalists would be invited to represent the global running community and serve as torchbearers for the initiative.

The concept wasn’t predicated on vast amounts of data. Rather, it was informed by holding conversations with runners and reading their views on forums and message boards, another tip of the hat to Asics’ core marketing philosophy.

“We based this on runner insight, runner needs, and runner feedback” Fiona explains.

“We have our own platforms like Runkeeper, which has a big audience of runners and varies in terms of markets, and we did separate research [of other online channels too].”

But if Fiona and her team really wanted to connect with the amateur runners who pound the streets every day, they needed to select a list of participants that was truly representative. Finely tuned professional athletes might not necessarily be the best ambassadors; better to recruit amateurs and former pros who could showcase the benefits of GlideRide for mere mortals.

So the marketing team assembled a diverse band of public figures including Olympic silver medallist Liz McColgan, former Chelsea footballer Wayne Bridge and Sydel Curry-Lee, a one-time college volleyball player in the US who is now an influencer. Journalists were invited from several big-name titles to take part and spread the message.

“[The recruitment] was done through the relationships we have as a brand,” Fiona says.

“Liz we’d worked with for years, for example. We put a brief together for external agencies too.

“The group was very representative. Liz is a world champion but she was 53 at the time of the race, she had five children and hadn’t run more than a few miles for several years. We had Wayne Bridge, ex-Chelsea footballer but he’s been retired for a few years too. Sydel used to be involved in sport but she never ran that much before. In fact this was the furthest she’d ever run.

“We looked at things like social media following [when recruiting the participants] but it was more about what those runners represented.”

Magnitude of the event

Prior to the race, each runner was put through a series of tests at basecamp, a giant caravan pitched in the middle of the Bonneville bed. Asics’ entire Institute of Sports Science (ISS), the R&D team based in Kobe, was brought over the event, both to analyze the participants’ performance before the race and feed them updates during the event itself, via observation on large interactive screens.

“That was our biggest logistical challenge,” says Fiona.

“Bringing everyone over to Utah – not just the R&D team, the people who do the testing, but our Runkeeper team who did the GPS tracking… was not a program that existed before. They created specific algorithms just for the event.

“The weather was a problem too. It rained the day before and the day after and that could have been a major headache.”

But the biggest single hurdle, Fiona says, was the magnitude of the event itself. The marketing team had to see their vision through; the organic, community-focused principles of the campaign had to be respected.

“The night before the event there was a big discussion. We had a race director, ambulance crew, everything lined up, and we had a conversation around how to approach this race in terms of the results we would get. That was daunting.

“Ultimately, it was about respect for the purity of what we went for and remaining true to the concept.”

Momentous success

Despite the preceding rain, the race began without delay on September 13. The benefits of Glideride soon became clear; according to Asics’ research, participants experienced a 24 percent increase in their expected performance. Liz McColgan ran the longest, clocking over four hours.

The action was covered by a team of camera operators dispatched to follow each runner individually. Their content, as well as being fed back to basecamp, was used to create a two-minute media film, a one-minute brand film and a 10-minute documentary to ensure maximum coverage.

The footage is momentous, all slow-motion close-ups and epic backdrops, set to a soundtrack of murmuring minimalism. There are no banging beats or head-spinning cuts; the film is more like a nature documentary than a top-level athletic event.

To share this content and create buzz around the event, Fiona and her team stuck true to their original goal of community-driven, peer-to-peer distribution. Not a penny was spent on paid advertising to raise awareness. As well as sending their content to the news media (and urging the journalists in attendance to share it) the marketeers used Runkeeper and Asics’ social media channels to generate the main stream of publicity. Then it was onto forums and chat groups, using the voices of athletes and participants to prolong the exposure.

Looking back, Fiona says that “the biggest success was leveraging the voice of the partners involved, whether they were the runners, the retail partners, or other retail partners. That’s where we saw the biggest response.

“For example, Runkeeper was involved in running the whole diagnostic that was downloaded to the athletes who participated on the day, and that whole piece was key. Then it was about amplifying that and getting a ripple effect with our product campaign.

“We had a number of people who came to watch who were specialty retailers in the US. It really repositioned Asics in that space and brought credibility. Everyone who comes from a running background understands what we were trying to achieve.”

The results

As well as the results of the runners themselves, the marketing return was hugely impressive. The Eternal Run campaign generated 1.7 billion impressions, and surveys conducted with those who saw the footage were extremely promising. Seventy percent of those sampled said they would choose Asics over other brands (an increase of 17 points) while 81% said they would consider buying the shoes.

However, Fiona believes the true ROI of the campaign is less quantifiable. “The quality of the conversation we generated was as important as the volume, although of course we’re driven by sales, so it’s that too.

“From my channel perspective and the channel that I own, which is around communication, this is much more about driving brand image and interest. If you don’t generate that, then you can have all the data you want behind you but you’re never going to cut through.

“From an intention-driving perspective, this was about a fame-driving moment for the brand.”

Looking to the future, and to similar events, Fiona says there is still more that can be done to tap into the running community and convey the true significance of what Asics is doing.

“The science and complexity behind this were incredible and were very exciting. Did we get all that across? If you do things that are completely new, and this was completely revolutionary, it’s hard to galvanize everyone behind you right from the start. That’s the thing that could be done differently: getting the message across, via every channel. 

“The event was good and the delivery was good, but getting it out there may be an area we can focus on. You have to maximize every channel.”

However, it’s fair to say the event has generated a lasting buzz. Two years on from the impression, we’re still talking about the genius of the race. The team that put the Eternal Run together has garlanded a string of awards, including the Entertainment Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions festival.

Now, it’s about building on this success and hosting more ground-breaking experiential events. “A lot of people don’t know who Asics are, what we stand for, and what our shoes deliver,” Fiona says. Like that grueling marathon in Utah, the race to become the world’s biggest athletic footwear brand doesn’t have a finish line.

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