The importance of a name cannot be overemphasized. That being said, it’s also of import to note that like a lot of other equally, or just about as important things, a name is not given the amount of concentration it deserves. Coming up with a brand idea, relatively speaking, is easy. Keeping up with the original idea and not succumbing to initially unforeseen agents of derailment, is where the work comes in. Once a brand idea is given life, if not carefully directed, it quickly picks a path of its own and, more often than not may yield unsavory results.
The creation story of a brand idea is as convoluted as it is simple. A contradiction, yes, but the greatest things usually start out that way. Now, at the beginning, one thing is usually supremely clear; the vision for the brand. It’s a light at the end of an uncertainty-riddled tunnel, and usually the only thing the visionary can see. What happens after the idea has taken root and grown however, is akin to fitting gloriously bright light bulbs in aforementioned tunnel. Suddenly, the light at the end isn’t all that visible anymore, not singularly at least, and therein comes the potential derailment.

In less figurative terms, it usually happens thus. A breakout product emerges in the market. It’s new and fresh, a break from the norm and after a tentative reception, it amasses a customer base which, though small, is usually loyal. By and by, it starts growing gradually, spreading via various means, and steadily becoming a household name. Now, it’s no longer small time, it’s fairly popular and more work has to be put in. Before long, it attains mass exposure and appears in big retail stores all over the place. Now it’s just another item amongst many and its initial customers have most likely fallen off by the wayside.

To be very honest, being a common feature in retail stores is not a bad thing, if that was your original idea. If, however, your initial target was to be something more recognized, and not just to be another easily forgotten name on a shelf, then you can see how this can be a real problem. A name can, in a few seconds, pass across a message, that even a verbose speech concerning a lesser known product, most likely would not. Humanity’s attribution bias can be a very strong tool if one is able to bend it in a favorable direction.A quick example to cite would be the Nigerian Sugar producer, St. Louis.

This name can and will be recognized by every true Nigerian as the face of sugar, nationwide.Other brands have attempted to enter the sugar business including the business magnate Aliko Dangote. The name “St. Louis” is associated with sugar and just that, whereas when you think “Dangote”, you instantly think cement alongside a myriad of products. St. Louis has grown, and planted its roots deeply in the minds of Nigerians and the attribution bias has placed it on a pedestal in the sugar making business. It would take a whole psychological overhaul to topple it down from its kingly their position.

All that being said, we can now briefly turn to the issue at hand, the World Triathlon Corporation. The WTC is probably not known by a lot of people, but their frontline brand, Ironman, must have at least been heard of by a vast majority. This brand vision is a prime example of one whose tunnel was lit beyond imagination ergo, blurring the initial path. Originally held in Kailua-Kina, Hawaii in the late 70s, the Ironman event has since grown into a jumbo merchandising endeavor. That growth, however, has not been without its own drawbacks and as it seems, the initial intention behind its inception, has been lost, or at the very least, forgotten. The question being asked here now is, what exactly is the Ironman name?

The WTC has, right from time, used the Ironman as both a brand and a product. This is not an anomaly as other companies have done it as well, for example, Coca-Cola and Guinness to name a few, so it’s not entirely unusual. Also, they have given sports a one up with their plan to create an Olympic series of races after already previously creating a shorter distance variation from the 140.6 mile, with the 70.3 mile race. This was a smart move and garnered a new set of participants for them.

“What happened then?” you ask, and I’m pleased to answer that. The derailment came in the form of a seemingly small thing such as naming the shorter distance race, “Ironman 70.3”. This created a totally unnecessary distinction within the already popular name. Now, hearing that one participated in the Ironman, no longer brings about an “Oh, that’s lovely” but rather brings about an “Oh? Which one?” To put this in perspective, imagine asking for a Coke at the store and getting asked if you want a ‘Coke Fanta’ or a ‘Coke Sprite’, weird right? Exactly.

The WTC seems to be taking the popularity of the Ironman for granted and this is beyond self-sabotaging, objectively speaking, as it will only work against the organization who heavily benefits from this particular endeavor. This lack of accord between the WTC and Ironman was shown recently via two marketing errors. Firstly, they attempted to sell special access to services through a program with little actual value and then placed the price $1000/year. Secondly, they showed a blatant lack of real control of the brand when the 2010 Miami Ironman 70.3 ran out of water early in the race, changed the run route and then directed cyclists through a traffic-congested streets with almost no supervision. In response to questions related to this, the WTC claimed it wasn’t their fault and blamed a local race director they sold the name to for the race. The brand in its pursuit of mass exposure and extra merchandising opportunities has lost its core customer base who are now searching for other events unrelated to Ironman trying to get the true triathlon experience. This was something Ironman used to offer, but has since lost sight of.

How can they redeem themselves? Well, while some damage has already been done, going the Coca-Cola path is one way towards redemption. Individual brands, representing the various distances, should be made and handled as such. This will emphasize the differences customers can expect in the events, and allow each group of athletes have a specific niche they are associated with, within the umbrella name. No one wants to keep explaining that they didn’t actually do “Ironman Ironman” but rather, participated in a shorter version, a half version. It’s a bit demeaning and should not have to happen.

Hopefully, the solution is underway. Upon inspection of the name and logo for the new Olympic distance races, its clear they are not calling it “Ironman” but instead, have cleverly named it “5I50 Triathlon Series” (Note how the ‘I’ from Ironman has replaced the “1” in 5150). Another thing they should do forthwith, is give the 70.3 mile race a different name. There should be no such thing as a ‘half Ironman’, period.

This brand has grown a lot from the local event it was back then in Hawaii. Hopefully, the mistakes that have been made already would act as a splash of cold water on the faces of the WTC, waking them up to just how much they need to stick to the core values of Ironman.