Selling The Brand 'You'
It all began with a simple declaration: “I am
going to get a corporate sponsor.”
I was on the Wiouwash Trail in Oshkosh, Wis., where I was playing catch-up with my much faster running friends. We were all training for upcoming marathons. They laughed, thinking I was just being funny. I mean, who would sponsor a middle-aged, doughnut-inhaling, lazy runner?
Fast-forward to the 2004 New York City Marathon, where I am posing at the start line for a photographer from Sports Illustrated. With my running shirt and leggings covered with logos, I look like a lost NASCAR driver. I’ve already been interviewed by Runner’s World, Her Sports and WNBC-TV in New York. I’ve appeared on NPR’s Michael Feldman’s Whad Ya Know? And more than 70 media companies picked up a story about my nutty quest for corporate sponsorship including the New York Times online and USA Today.
Like running a marathon, my journey from nondescript back-of-the-pack marathoner to bona fide corporate- sponsored athlete was long and filled with unexpected rewards. And lessons for selling The Brand of You. A few thoughts from this nutty ride:
Name Your Motivation
I’d like to say that my quest for corporate sponsorship was born of noble intents. Being a five-hour marathoner, I’d love to say I wanted to give a name and a face to those runners who will never suffer the agonies of coming in second or, really, in the top half. But I can’t.
I had been laid off as the media relations officer and online magazine editor for a technology company. And the fact was, I no longer could justify my $90-runningshoe habit, not to mention the race entry fees and travel expenses. Although I already had made the lottery for the New York City Marathon, the idea of spending money for a long weekend in the Big Apple just to run a race seemed fiscally frivolous.
Bottom line, I wanted to be like Mike or Mia or Serena and get corporate swag.
My mercenary ways became crystal clear when I told my friends that I entered a writing contest for free running shoes. I had to answer the question: “Why do you run?” My entry read: “So the woman I see in the mirror looks like the woman I see in my mind.”
My friends fell silent, pondering the weighty truth of my words. Then they chortled with disbelief. One said, “You do not! You run for doughnuts!”
For me, that was a seminal moment. She was right. I completely forgot my personal motto for life: “Running for donuts ...and world peace.” (I even wear a sign bearing my motto at my races.) Too late. I had already submitted my entry. And I’m happy to report I won. Got myself two pairs of shoes.
Take Stock Of What You Have To Offer
I am a writer, a journalist with almost 20 years of professional experience. I’ve worked for several major publications, including The Miami Herald and People. When my husband secured a tenure-track job teaching at the University of Wisconsin- Oshkosh, we moved from Miami to Oshkosh, where I telecommuted for a technology company in an ill-fitting, ill-defined job. Then my job was eliminated.
I was given a non-choice. I could take a different job, but I’d have to move to California. I opted to teach a couple of classes at the university and freelance. Although the loss of steady income was a major blow to my family’s overall financial health, it provided me a much-needed kick in the rear about what I really wanted to do. I wanted to get paid to write about something I cared about.
Since I had already established that I also wanted free stuff, I had to devise a plan to get from here to there. One of my friends gave me this quote by German writer Goethe: Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.
Thus, my bold declaration: I am going to get a corporate sponsor. Becoming a top-flight athlete was not an option. I knew my limitations. But I decided my limitations were my selling points: I am a slow marathoner. By the time I would cross the finish line, the winners could have run the course twice and stopped for a sit-down dinner.
What could I offer? I wrote a handful of letters to athletic apparel companies, telling them that they should sponsor me because I’d give their company more bang for their marketing buck. I could guarantee them more than twice, maybe even three times, the exposure the world-class runners can.
In my letters, which I addressed to the CEOs or the highestranking marketing officer, I wrote that I could be a slow-moving billboard for them. Two companies – Asics, a shoe and apparel company from Irvine, Calif.; and Horny Toad, an active wear company out of Santa Barbara, Calif. – bit and sent free stuff.
I gave my pitch in person at Movin’ Shoes Fox Valley, a local specialty running shoe store in Oshkosh. By the time I finished with Ross McDowell, the owner, I was holding a bag full of free stuff from his store.
Network (or use your friends)
I needed publicity. I wrote a press release about a slow runner securing corporate sponsorship, then I browbeat a friend I knew who worked for the local paper. She wouldn’t write the story, but promised to pass it on to an editor. The story was eventually assigned to another reporter, who wrote the initial story that – in a moment of great luck – was picked up by the Associated Press. More stories followed, including an editorial with this headline: “Lim reminds us of true purpose of sports.”
I laughed so hard that I cried. One of my journalism students saw me. She asked, “What’s so funny?” I showed her the editorial and said, “What is wrong with this article?” She quickly scanned the piece and said, “It says, ‘Lim is running for the sake of fitness.’ That’s not true. You don’t run for fitness. You run for doughnuts.” An A for that student.
Still, I can’t completely discount an article that describes me as “modest” and an “inspiration.” In fact, I demand that my friends be inspired when they are in my presence.
When NPR called requesting a five- to 10-minute interview on live radio, I prepared as any business executive would or should. Some people can speak off the cuff. I am not one of those people. I wrote down possible questions and framed answers that didn’t make me sound like an idiot. Since it was a phone interview, I even devised a low-tech teleprompter. I taped a copy of my Q & A on my computer monitor to prompt me if I got stuck for an answer.
Within seconds after the interview ended, the phone rang. A woman asked, “Are you the runner I just heard on the radio?” I answered, “Yes, I am.” The woman said, “I’m Lori Bishop of Coldwell Banker, The Real Estate Group, and I want to support your cause.” I thought, “Cause? What cause? I have a cause?” Then I quickly came to my senses and thought, “Yes, of course, I have a cause. I am a cause.”
In the end, I netted four pairs of shoes, six pairs of socks and full running gear from three companies. My national sponsor, Horny Toad, paid my travel expenses to New York and provided active wear. Another sponsor, the makers of Marz Teamware, a web application for businesses, paid for ad space on my leggings. I also scored a free website touting my running and writing adventures, yoga classes and dance lessons.
Several of my sponsors have since discovered that I am more than just a slow-running nutcase. I am a slow-running nutcase with skills. I am a writer. As of today, I am working on writing projects for four of my sponsors. I also joined a group of creative people in a new business venture to sell our skills as shameless self- and product-promoters.
I, effectively, parlayed a nutty quest for free shoes into fun writing gigs. And, best of all, I had a blast doing it.