October 29 , 2007

ING finds its niche in sports sponsorship


By Pete Williams



When ING Group expanded its business to the United States in 2001, the Amsterdam-based financial services company had little name recognition in this country.

To build the brand, ING distanced itself from a traditionally conservative industry, introducing quirky, humorous television commercials and a bold color scheme of bright orange with a touch of navy blue.

When it came time to consider sports sponsorships, ING again departed from the industry norm, eschewing golf, tennis and team sports in favor of the New York City Marathon, becoming the event’s title sponsor for 2003.

ING remains the title sponsor of the New York event and has quickly become the most active corporate backer in the marathon industry. In 2006, ING assumed title sponsorship with the Miami Marathon and San Francisco’s popular Bay to Breakers event. Last year, ING became title sponsor of the inaugural Georgia Marathon in Atlanta. The company also takes a non-title role with the Denver Marathon.

“We’ve zigged when the others have zagged and that has served us well,” said Tricia Conahan, who as senior vice president and head of brand marketing for ING Americas oversees the company’s marathon sponsorships. “Other companies had huge investments in just about every organized sport in the U.S., but not long-distance running.”

ING employs 120,000 people worldwide, serving 75 million private, corporate and institutional clients. Its two U.S. divisions, ING U.S. Financial Services and ING U.S. Investment Management, are headquartered in New York and provide wealth management and insurance products to 14 million customers.

ING sponsors marathons in Brussels, Belgium; Taipei, Taiwan; Amsterdam, Netherlands; Edmonton; and Ottawa, but no market has more runners than this country, which after the initial running boom of the 1970s experienced a surge in marathon popularity in the mid-1990s.

ING researchers found that more than 13.4 million U.S. adults are avid runners, defined as running 100 or more times a year. Of that group, more than 8.1 million compete in organized road races and more than 2 million reside in ING’s four marathon communities, which represent three of the nation’s eight largest markets, along with Miami (No. 16).

Of those 2 million avid runners, ING researchers found that 70 percent own an investment and prefer to make informed financial decisions. As a measure of its role in marathons, ING found that brand awareness is 15 percent higher among avid runners than it is among a general affluent audience.

Then there are the inherent parallels between investing and marathon training, such as starting small and building, staying committed and focused, and being consistent.

“As we’ve launched these races, we’ve found that the avid runner market is more interested in doing business with ING,” Conahan said. “That’s because our sponsorship creates a connection between our company and the passion runners have for that sport and for these events. That’s a great place to be for a sponsor.”

Conahan said ING spends a combined seven-figure sum for the four title sponsorships, which has helped boost prize money. The male and female winners of the New York City Marathon on Nov. 4 each will receive $150,000.

“That level of commitment would have gotten us one or two weekends on the PGA Tour and we would have been lost amid our competitors,” Conahan said. “We’re in a smaller sport, but one more aligned with our target market. We get a lot more bang for our buck.”

ING’s activation plan starts with turning the event orange, not only through signage but by creating orange cheering zones in quarter-mile stretches of races that otherwise might have little spectator activity. Fans are given orange thundersticks, “go” signs and refreshments. ING employees serve as “Street Teams,” offering refreshments and generating enthusiasm.

For the inaugural ING Georgia Marathon and Half Marathon in March, ING offered a $10,000 prize package to the Atlanta area neighborhoods that displayed the most orange. With 13,456 finishers, the event ranked as the second-largest inaugural marathon and half-marathon ever, behind the 2004 Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon in Phoenix (23,456).

Runners are exposed to the ING brand hundreds of times, from race registration to e-mail updates in the months approaching the race, to race-day signage and water stops. There’s a two-day race expo that includes an ING booth. Runners also receive ING-branded “pace bands” to track themselves during the race. Afterward, there are follow-up e-mails. The expo booth showcases ING’s financial services, which also are advertised in race goody bags and in e-mail communications.

“It’s not something we did in the first year [in New York], but now that we’re five years in, we’re looking for opportunities to open the conversation,” Conahan said.

Runners also can subscribe to training programs, with a portion of the proceeds going to ING’s Run for Something Better, a charitable component to the sponsorship that provides free community and school-based running programs in each marathon market. The program focuses on children’s physical fitness, with an emphasis on running, and contributors receive orange shoelaces. Former NHL goalie Mike Richter, who plans to compete in the New York City Marathon, is serving as spokesman for the program.

Charitable tie-ins are now commonplace in running events, fueled by the popularity of the Susan B. Komen Race for the Cure series and Team in Training, a training-based program where participants raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

“We’ve found that it’s the perfect way to give back to the community and show we understand the importance of physical fitness for our youngest generation,” Conahan said.

ING typically signs three-year sponsorship deals; it recently renewed its New York agreement through 2010. It plans to announce another major marathon title sponsorship soon.

With title sponsorship of four major marathons, ING has made it a point to encourage communication among the events, not only for sponsor activation but also to see if race directors can benefit from one another’s expertise.

That kind of interaction is perhaps more valuable in light of last month’s LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon, which was cut short when hundreds of runners were treated for heat-related illness and one runner died.

“This is not just a sponsorship, it’s a partnership” Conahan said. “Our name is on it and we’re affecting thousands of customers and potential customers and we have very friendly conversations with races about operations to make sure it’s a great experience.”


© Copyright 2007 Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal