Last summer I started working with Erica MacVittie to reinvent the Malibu Half Marathon. Erica and her husband David had purchased and relaunched the event with a new ownership group. The event had been around for seven years, but it had never achieved critical mass. Although the route, along the ocean on Pacific Coast Highway, was beautiful, the runner experience, sponsors, and marketing hadn’t kept up with best practices. Erica hired me to increase participation, and to do that I chose to rebrand the event, get the marketing in shape, and secure new brand partners.

The results were exciting: We signed a number of new, top-tier sponsors, including lululemon, Uber, BMW and Saje Wellness. Importantly, we increased race registration significantly at a time when most marathons & half marathons are seeing declining numbers.

Here’s how we did it:

1. Rebuild the brand, starting with the foundation

a. When I begin a branding process, I refer to this 2,000 year old quote from Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger: If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.

b. It was critical that we clarify what the event, and the brand, stood for. We wanted to channel the spirit of Malibu, and filter it through a shared group experience. Malibu combines a lot of things: mountains, ocean, beach lifestyle, Bohemian energy, amazing sunsets, and more. We needed to distill all of this down to a few key messages and images. With the help of designer Ben Lee White and brand strategist/copywriter Phat Chiem, we found a visual story and language — Run Beautiful — that communicated our vision.

c. We did a couple brand strategy workshops and created a mission statement for the event owner: “We create shared outdoor experiences.” This gave us a framework from which to build the race. We used this whenever we briefed designers, hired staff, or pitched to brand partners. Every brand needs guardrails, and a mission statement is the best way to set that up.

d. This foundational brand work informed the type of brands we wanted to partner with. Our goal was to create a group of aspirational brands that all represented the same Malibu-centric values as the event. This narrowed the number of potential brands and saved us a lot of time. We were able to focus our energy on the few partners we knew would be right for the event.

Old Branding
New branding after the makeover
The medals match the rest of the creative

2. Hire a great team

You can’t do great work if you don’t have pros to help you out. So I assembled a small but very capable hit squad who could bring this event to life:

a. Meirav Sakalowsky, partnerships — Meirav and I met when she was at Nike and was the sponsor of my Santa Monica Classic 5K/10K. We see the world the same way and have collaborated on many projects since then. Meirav brought discipline and strategy to the sales process. We came on board less than 90 days before the event, and Meirav was great about cutting out the noise and focusing our limited time on brand partners who were right for us.

b. Marty Church, grassroots marketing — Marty and I have worked together on events over the last 10 years. Community management is a key part of almost any marketing campaign these days. His role was to engage with running clubs, night run crews, and shops on behalf of our event and our brand partners. I didn’t anticipate how valuable Marty would be for our partners— we offered them a turnkey sampling program well in advance of our race. Influencers and word-of-mouth is critical for any brand. Grassroots activations give consumers a chance to get to know a product beyond just the two hour window of the event. Our outreach was on point because we had good brand partners who delivered valuable content to runners. This had a double benefit of capturing new registration for the event and marketing our partners’ products.

c. Phat Chiem, brand strategy & copywriting — Phat’s agency StoryCraft is based in the same WeWork space as I am. His writing and branding skills were invaluable for articulating our brand story, social post language, email copy, and press releases. He worked collaboratively with the whole team and made everyone’s work better. I can’t overstate how important good language is to the storytelling process.

d. Danica Newon, social media — Danica (@chicrunner) is a veteran blogger, marathoner, and social media strategist. We met when I was at the LA Marathon. She was a natural to come on board freelance and take over the @MalibuMarathon accounts. Danica worked closely with Marty, our Facebook team, and brand partners to build content that spoke in our voice and brought value to our participants.

Danica and Meirav setting up the finish line festival

e. Brian Meert, Advertisemint — Facebook advertising is mission-critical, and I’m surprised that more races don’t take advantage of agencies like Advertisemint. Brian and his team are absolutely expert at the Facebook ad platform. You get nothing for free on Facebook, so a skilled team who manages ads and boosts is critical. We got into a cadence of boosting engaging posts with paid spend and placing Facebook ads with CTAs. They’re both important. And it’s critical to work with different audiences: remarketing, email addresses, and targeted marketing. We also started sharing content with running clubs and our brand partners. By taking advantage of all these opportunities, we got momentum and had a lot of success with our ad buys.

3. Brand Partnerships. Meirav and I set out to build a circle of brands that not only felt right for the event, but that also felt right together. Too many events are happy to take a dollar from any brand without understanding the message that sends to other stakeholders. For instance, how would a marathon sponsored by Tesla and Nike compare to the same marathon sponsored by Subaru and Geico? Totally different, of course. The brand partners are signals to the customers that you “get them.” Or not. In addition, an initial group of brands is a signal to other brands. Does a new partner want to join this club?

Because the Malibu Half was rebranding and restarting, we prioritized brand partners that would create compelling runner experiences. We turned down partners that were not going to bring interesting and inspired experiences. The long term success of the event will be based on runners telling their friends how amazing their day was. And the best brand partnerships create experiences that serve the brand AND align with the runner experience.

BMW test-driving cars at lululemon in Malibu

We started by asking potential brand partners how we could help them achieve their business objectives. This allowed us to align with their needs but it also gave us the opportunity to vet whether they were the right fit for our needs. This wasn’t about “choose our gold, silver, or bronze sponsorship package.”

We first approached lululemon. If they came on board, then we felt other like-minded brands would be more likely to sign up as well. And that’s what happened. We set up a partnership with lulu that included in-store packet pick up, training runs, gear raffles, and gift cards. Then we built a complementary group of partners that included Saje Wellness, Uber, BMW, Gatorade, larabar, Ekiden Coaching, Klean LA meal delivery, TheBu Kombucha, JUST Water, and Clifbar.

With each brand, we built a custom, multi-channel engagement that included grassroots outreach, social media activation, Facebook ads, and experiential marketing on race day. Saje Wellness, a highly successful Canadian brand launching for the first time in the US, embraced our event and brought most of their leadership team down from Canada to work the event and execute a beautiful activation.

The ultra-cool Saje Wellness finish line set up

4.A great race is about more than the two hours you’re on the course.”

One of the runners told me this after they crossed the finish line, and I couldn’t agree more. We tried to be thoughtful about every aspect of the race experience: communications, transportation, parking, finish festival, music, food and drink, the course, etc. Our integrated approach to both marketing and the experience helped us deliver on this idea before, during, and after the event.

For instance, months before the event, we decided that an Acai bowl would be the perfect post-race food for an event in Malibu. Sounds easy enough, but we couldn’t find a sponsor willing to foot the bill for it. So we tried to find a food truck to do it. It took us weeks of looking, but we did ultimately get a truck out there, and they exceeded their sales goal on the day. Being thoughtful about the details takes an incredible amount of time and energy. That’s why many events don’t bother with the little stuff: it’s just too much work. But your brand is the sum total of all the touch points. It’s all important.

DJ Bella Fiasco at the start

5. How did it go?

Overall, runners were very happy with the experience. We felt we achieved our goal of creating a special day for participants. As race owner Erica MacVittie said after the event, “We lived up to our mission of creating a beautiful shared outdoor experience in Malibu. The event was as transformative for me as it was for our participants.”

Hopefully, that will translate to word of mouth and another uptick in registration at the 2017 event. Furthermore, our brand partners saw value in the event, and most have already approached us about participating again next year. Ultimately, we were able to rebuild the event by maximizing our resources and getting all the pieces working together.

The impact of a running event is greater than the sum of its parts. The true opportunity here is to affect positive change in the community. If I’ve done my job right, the City of Malibu, and everyone who was touched by the event, will get some kind of lift because we made their lives incrementally better. That’s where the magic happens, and that’s why I work on projects like this.