Sports Marketing: Reaching the Tribe

Visit Manhattan’s Central Park during the early morning and you’ll see a daily ritual play out. That’s when mere mortals can witness super-humans traveling in packs. With colorful nylon apparel and pricey carbon-frame bicycles in tow, this species effortlessly zips around the six-mile path.

Active Marketing Group, a sports marketing agency based in San Diego, keeps a close watch on the quirky behaviors practiced by these and other hardcore sports enthusiasts, such as triathletes and marathon runners.

This week, Stephany Cavatoni, the agency’s director of business solutions, talked up the “tribe phenomenon” at a breakfast briefing. And what better place to pitch the concept than at the Sports Club/LA at Rockfeller Plaza in New York, a 90,000-square-foot athletic facility? After all, this is a “club” that offers group exercise classes with names like “Zumba,” “TreadTrain,” and “The Wedge.”

So what exactly is a tribe? Cavatoni draws a distinction between people who share a common interest or occupation and a full-on tribe.

Is it a spinning class at a health club? No, Cavatoni says. “But there are probably tribe members in the spinning class.”

Actually, Cavatoni and her team identified six indicators to determine whether a tribe exists: rituals, rites of passage, symbols, adornments, norms/values, and leaders.

Let’s examine each indicator and consider marketing takeaways for each:

Ritual: It’s a behavior prescribed by a group. A cyclist, for instance, might shave his legs before a big ride. That way, if he scrapes his leg during a fall, he reduces the likelihood of getting “road rash.” For triathletes, a ritual includes traveling to the venue a day early to check out the bike, run, and swim courses.

Marketing takeaway: There may be unexpected opportunities to market to a tribe’s members. A hotel, for instance, could ensure that it’s prepared to accommodate the special needs or rituals of triathletes. And, it could promote its readiness on that front. A business colleague points out that her husband, like other triathletes, insists on an oatmeal breakfast before an event. So it’s imperative that the hotel serves oatmeal or makes it possible for guests to heat water in their rooms. Without the oatmeal, a ritual can be derailed.

Rite of passage: An event that marks a change in a person’s status, such as a boy’s passage to manhood. Typically, that passage involves some pain and suffering, says Cavatoni. A tribe sports example would be a runner who loses a toenail or some other injury.

Marketing takeaway: Ensure that tribal members can find relevant information and products online to address or help endure these rites.

Symbols: Road cyclists typically take pride in their pristine $3,000-plus bikes, while mountain bikers are proud of their beat-up bikes. It’s proof the latter tribe has done time on the trails.

Marketing takeaway: Understand the nuances of tribes, even if they appear to share some similarities — like a love for two-wheel cycling.

Adornment: Spandex cycling tights for mountain bikers? Don’t even think about it.

Marketing takeaway: Enough said.

Norms and values: In the surfing community, Cavatoni observed that members of a surfing tribe typically survey beaches, noting how waves break, before heading into the waters. Once in the surf, tribe members will defer to other members so everyone has a shot at a wave at some point.

Marketing takeaway: Follow the wisdom of surfers. Look before you leap — including when marketing to a tribe.

Leaders: Triathletes, competitive runners, and cyclists look to their trainers for ways to improve performance. They seek out trainers and peers for advice before buying equipment or supplies.

Marketing takeway: Tribal leaders and members influence purchase decisions within the tribe — even more so than sports heroes like Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps or Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, says Cavatoni.

What’s more, Cavatoni recommends that marketers head to niche digital channels to engage with tribe members. That means VeloNews Interactive and other specialized sites can be more effective than the generic information available at Yahoo Sports. “[Tribal members] are going online for information they need, to connect with other tribe members,” she said.

To read more about tribal marketing, see Tessa Wegert’s column, “Tribal Marketing.”

Today’s column originally ran on October 17, 2008.

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