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Run, Nick, Run

  • Written by Ben DeJarnette
  • Published in Tech
  • 0 comments
Controversial track star Nick Symmonds is leveraging his celebrity to grow a performance chewing-gum brand. Fans hail his marketing ploys as genius. Critics dub them shameless.


Moments earlier, two-time Olympian Nick Symmonds had launched a Herculean attack on the race’s final lap, moving from last to first and snatching his sixth U.S. title with dramatic flair. But it was his celebration that had the press tent buzzing. As Symmonds neared the finish line, he threw both arms up into a flex, revealing the logo of his business venture, Run Gum, tattooed perfectly on both biceps. “It wasn’t until the morning of the race that I decided to put them on,” Symmonds said later. “I wanted to be prepared if I won. I wanted to get that signature finish-line shot.”

The finish-line theatrics were signature Symmonds, a self-described “athlete-preneur” who is known for blurring the line between sport and business. Since founding his performance chewing-gum business nearly a year ago, Symmonds, who splits his time between Seattle and Eugene, has masterfully leveraged his platform as a world-class athlete to grow the year-old Run Gum into a quarter-million-dollar brand. His aggressive marketing tactics draw praise from fans — and derision from critics. Symmonds doesn’t really care either way. He’s more concerned about making them effective.

“Whether it’s me selling Brooks shoes and Run Gum or Justin Gatlin selling Nike shoes, it’s the same deal: If products aren’t being purchased, we don’t have jobs anymore,” Symmonds says over the phone in early June, three weeks before his tattoo gambit. “You can say I’m self-promotional. You can say I’m selling products. But that’s my job, and I’m going to try to do it as well as I can.”

It’s been more than 50 years since Oregon’s most famous athlete-turned-entrepreneur, Phil Knight, launched a fledgling shoe company with his college track coach that would become one of the world’s largest apparel manufacturers. The leap from sports to business has become anything but an anomaly, with big names like Magic Johnson, John Elway and Kristi Yamaguchi all making splashes with their entrepreneurial ventures following retirement from sports.

{pullquote}You can say I’m self‑ promotional. You can say I’m selling products. But that’s my job, and I’m going to try to do it as well as I can.     {/pullquote}

But in today’s social media world, where a branded tweet by LeBron James is reportedly worth $140,000, more athletes are looking to cash in on their athletic pedigree before hanging up their jerseys. Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova has a multimillion-dollar line of candies. Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard has a growing following for his catchy rap music. Symmonds has Run Gum. And with adoring fans following their every move — and tweet — they have a head start on the competition.

“It’s basic marketing 101 that if no one knows your product exists, there is no demand for your product,” says Paul Swangard, chief strategist for Runnerspace, a digital media hub for track and field, and a former managing director of UO’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. “There are a lot of smart, business-minded athletes out there right now who are taking advantage of their platforms.”

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Of course, that marketing edge hinges on athlete-preneurs finding a way to keep themselves in the public eye. For Symmonds that hasn’t been a problem. In addition to qualifying for two Olympic Games, the 31-year-old has published a juicy memoir, Life Outside the Oval Office, appeared on NBC’s popular American Ninja Warrior TV show, penned controversial blog posts on gun control and gay rights, and competed in the unofficial “Beer Mile” world championships — an appearance he plans to repeat this December.

 

These tactics have made Symmonds a divisive figure in track and field circles. Fans either love him or revile him — and often for the same reasons. In 2012, when Symmonds and his publicist arranged a date with TV personality Paris Hilton and then leaked it to the press, the message boards on LetsRun.com, a popular running website, exploded with reaction. Some track fans applauded the stunt (“Nick Symmonds is a boss,” according to one LetsRun.com commenter), but others had a less flattering view.

“If he thinks he is making track cool with these desperate attempts at a headline, he needs to get a grip,” one critic posted to the LetsRun.com message boards. Added another: “His story is getting old.”

At the very least, Symmonds’ detractors say, his product plugs are getting predictable. At the U.S. Championships in June, as the press corps waited for Symmonds to arrive at the media zone following his 800-meter triumph, a longtime track and field reporter was already bracing for Symmonds’ next PR ploy. “How long do you think it takes him to mention Run Gum in this interview?” he quipped.

For the record, it took Symmonds 49 seconds — and only slightly longer to stoke the buzz on social media. Later that afternoon, Symmonds tweeted out a photo of the Run Gum-branded flex to his 52,000 Twitter followers. “U.S.A. Outdoor Title number 6,” he wrote as a caption. “Not totally a fair race as I was on Run Gum.”

Symmonds says the promotions aren’t a case of narcissism. They’re just good business. His tweet received more than 500 “favorites” on Twitter, and the now iconic finish-line photo landed on the cover of Track & Field News, one of the sport’s most revered publications. “Ultimately, to build a brand you need to be in front of millions of eyes,” Symmonds says. “At the U.S. Championships, that was a well-executed marketing strategy.”

Swangard, a longtime track and field announcer who was commentating on the 800-meter race from Hayward Field’s press box, agrees. “It was a stroke of branding genius,” he says. “Nick has a platform to showcase Run Gum, and he’s targeting the fans who watch him compete.”

Symmonds has proven his knack for digital marketing, but on a warm spring evening in Eugene, his charismatic style comes across just as well in analog form. The event is an informal after-party for the Prefontaine Classic, and the crowd is full of fit-bodied runners, plus a few out-of-shape former Ducks like me.

I watched Symmonds race dozens of times during my years as a track athlete at UO. But tonight, sunglasses folded into the neckline of a blue button-up shirt, he looks more movie star than track star. An Idaho native and avid outdoorsman, he wears his rugged stubble well, part of a cover-boy look that has only heightened his marketability. A few years ago, Symmonds appeared nude in a commercial for the Nike Free running shoe, and in 2013, he was reportedly considered for a starring role in ABC’s hit reality show The Bachelor.

Despite his outsized reputation, Symmonds doesn’t come across as a pushy salesman. It’s only when a fellow athlete asks about his plans for Run Gum that he finally holds court.

“A lot of people say they don’t care what it tastes like. They just want it to work,” he explains, as a huddle of pro runners listens in. “But to get the person who only runs twice a week, it has to taste like candy. Once we can get our taste ratings up to 8 or 9, that’s when we’ll be ready to go to the next market.”

Symmonds and Run Gum may still have some work to do in that department. The fruit flavor masks the caffeine-induced bitterness for about three minutes, and then the artificial flavoring wears off, leaving behind a gooey wad that is a far cry from Juicy Fruit.

Sipping a glass of wine, Symmonds says Run Gum’s new cinnamon flavor, scheduled for release this fall, will be an improvement. He predicts that bar-goers will eventually line up to order “Fastballs” — his name for a shot of Fireball whisky with two sticks of cinnamon Run Gum dropped in the glass.

To get to that point, Run Gum will have to make the leap from niche performance product to mass-consumer energy kick. It’s no easy task — but Symmonds has a track record for defying the odds. As a high-school runner, Symmonds didn’t post fast enough times to attract scholarship offers from the NCAA’s powerhouse programs. Instead, he landed at Willamette University, a Division III school with no history of producing world-class athletes — until Symmonds arrived. The 800-meter star smashed the record at Willamette, turned pro in 2006, then compiled one of the finest athletic records in U.S. middle-distance running history, competing at two Olympic Games, winning a silver medal at the 2013 World Championships and becoming the third-fastest U.S. 800-meter runner ever.

“Nick has a winning instinct,” says Run Gum co-founder Sam Lapray, who befriended Symmonds while working as an assistant coach at Willamette. “He goes and earns his paycheck.”

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Symmonds with Run Gum co-founder Sam Lapray

Away from the track, Symmonds has been on an entrepreneurial blitz since 2010, when he and Lapray opened a Tan Republic franchise in Springfield, gambling that the perpetually gray Willamette Valley could absorb a few more tanning beds. They were right, and the duo eventually opened four stores across Eugene and Springfield before selling the franchise earlier this year.

Unlike Lapray, a longtime real estate developer, Symmonds is a relative newcomer to the business world. He grew up near Boise, Idaho, the son of a vascular surgeon and a school teacher. When I ask if he was the neighborhood lemonade stand tycoon growing up, he laughs. “No, but my dad and my mom taught me the value of a dollar,” he says. “In high school I picked up golf balls on the driving range for extra money, and in college I delivered flowers for a florist. So the entrepreneurial side was always there.”

Now in his 1oth year as a pro runner, Symmonds doesn’t have to deliver flowers anymore. He has sponsorship deals with Brooks, a running apparel company, and Soleus, a brand of sport watches, and he moonlights as an advisor and ambassador for the fitness app Sweat Mobile. He declined to disclose his annual income but said the $250,000 to $350,000 estimate reported in a New York Times article in August “isn’t far off.”

He also heads Run Gum, which will enter its second year of business this fall still decidedly in startup mode. (Neither Symmonds or Lapray claim the CEO title — they say their roles are fluid.) The company has only three employees, and its small warehouse headquarters in Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood won’t easily be confused for Trump Tower. “Concrete floors and concrete walls,” says Lapray. “There’s not even a window in the building.”

But the company’s humble home belies some big expectations. Symmonds and Lapray talk seriously about turning Run Gum into a multimillion-dollar company, a long-term play the co-founders agree begins with owning the sports- performance market. They’re already off to a strong start. The company is on pace to earn nearly $250,000 in 2015, propelled by a booming direct-to-consumer operation that accounts for more than 70% of sales. On the company’s slick website, consumers can sign up for a subscription service that automatically mails Run Gum to them every month and offers exclusive access to online webinars, blog posts and other special content.

It’s a business model Symmonds borrowed from Lauren Fleshman, Jesse Thomas and Stephanie Bruce, professional athletes who teamed up in 2010 to launch Picky Bars, a Bend company that sells gluten-free, dairy-free, all-natural energy bars. Only three years ago, the small startup was baking bars out of a home kitchen in Springfield. Now the company’s annual earnings have topped $1 million, with 45% of that revenue still coming through its direct-to-consumer sales online.

Symmonds, who used to train with Fleshman in Eugene, consulted with the Picky Bars co-founders before launching Run Gum and ultimately adopted some similar tactics, including an emphasis on social media marketing, e-commerce and subscription-based content.

The big challenge, according to Chris Schmidt, a senior analyst for market research firm Euromonitor International, will come when Run Gum tries to move beyond its niche running market and compete for the everyday consumer. In the competitive fast-energy sector, Schmidt says, products like Red Bull and 5-Hour Energy have established themselves as trusted brands, and breaking their hold on the market won’t happen overnight.

“It’s going to be hard to get shelf space in a mass-market channel. It’s one thing to get stocked at a corner store or a health-foods store, but once you’re talking about getting into 7/11 or a major grocery chain, that becomes very difficult.”

Run Gum may also run into regulatory challenges from the Food and Drug Administration, which has expressed concerns about caffeine’s health impacts on children. In 2013 Wrigley cancelled its line of caffeinated chewing gum amid reported pressure from the FDA.

Despite the hurdles, Run Gum has some trends working in its favor: Chewing gum is a less common delivery mechanism for caffeine, differentiating Run Gum from the beverages and gels already on the market; the demand for fast-energy products is expected to keep growing; and, perhaps most crucially, the company’s co-founder is an outspoken and controversial celebrity athlete who’s at the top of his game.

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FloTrack Throwdown race, Duniway Park, Portland, August 8

{pullquote}Nick has a platform to showcase Run Gum, and he's targeting the fans who watch him compete.     {/pullquote}

That athlete-preneur advantage was on full display this summer, when Symmonds landed in the national news for refusing to sign USA Track & Field’s statement of conditions — an agreement that would have required him to wear Nike-branded apparel at all “official” Team USA functions at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing. Symmonds, citing his sponsorship with Brooks, said the contract would allow USATF to classify almost anything as an official function, and he vowed not to sign it until USATF added specific language protecting athletes’ sponsorship rights.

The principled stand ended up costing Symmonds his spot on Team USA, but it earned him a whirlwind of media attention, highlighted by the recent 2,600-word New York Times story. The payoff for Run Gum was evident on Twitter. “@NickSymmonds,” one reader tweeted, “[I] read in the NYT that you chew caffeinated gum. Can you tell me the brand or shoot me the link? I’m interested in the product.”

Symmonds’ reply came within hours: “GetRunGum.com :D”

Symmonds hopes to have the contract dispute resolved before next summer’s Olympic Games in Brazil, where he figures to be one of Team USA’s top hopes for a medal in the 800-meter event. It may be the 31-year-old’s final chapter as a professional athlete, but Symmonds doesn’t appear to be daunted by the prospect. If anything, he seems ready.

Back at the Prefontaine Classic after-party, the sun disappearing behind him, Symmonds is locked in conversation with Tom Mayo, a fellow athlete-preneur and the co-founder of a successful sports-drink business. Mayo’s company, SOS Rehydrate, started in New Zealand by targeting its high-electrolyte formula to elite athletes, but it has grown into an international brand in part by capitalizing on other opportunities, including the ever-growing demand for a good hangover cure.

It’s the kind of expansion Symmonds envisions for Run Gum. That means attracting a wider range of users, from soldiers trying to stay alert in combat zones to truck drivers trying to stay awake on late-night long hauls. Eventually, Symmonds hopes to see Run Gum in gas stations alongside bottles of 5-Hour Energy.

That’s when Run Gum will be ready for a rebrand. Symmonds already has a new slogan in mind. “What do you run on?” he floats to Mayo and the group. “That’s how we market this to the masses.”


Meet the Athlete-Preneurs

1015-nick06The Company: Picky Bars, Bend

The Athletes: Jesse Thomas, triathlete; Lauren Fleshman, distance runner; Stephanie Bruce, marathoner

Origin Story: In 2010 Fleshman began experimenting with homemade energy bars to help Thomas, her husband, overcome training-induced fatigue and stomach problems. With Bruce’s help, Fleshman cooked up a gluten-free, dairy-free, all-natural performance bar that became the genesis of Picky Bars.

Launch Plan: Picky Bars topped $1 million of revenue for the first time in 2014, marking five consecutive years of growth. With two-thirds of revenue still coming from direct-to-consumer sales, Thomas says the company will look to expand its retail presence in specialty stores and natural grocers, while continuing to strengthen its D2C operation.

Parting Shot: “In 2012 we were making 15,000 bars per month out of our tiny kitchen in Springfield,” Thomas says. “We had 10 college students coming in shifts of five, working 40 hours per week. It was an absolute circus.”

 

1015-nick05The Company: Team Oberst, Bend

The Athlete: Robert Oberst, USA Strongman competitor

Origin Story: Since making the switch from nightclub bouncer to professional Strongman, Oberst has competed at three World’s Strongest Man competitions and set the American record in the log lift. The new career gave him the platform he needed to start a clothing line. “It’s something I always wanted to do,” he says. “Once I started doing well in Strongman events, I saw the opportunity.”

Launch Plan: Oberst travels to dozens of expos around the country each year and uses social media to promote the brand online. Entering the company’s second year, Oberst plans to start selling apparel at his gym in Bend and to refresh the product line. “Everything changes so fast on the Internet,” he says. “It’s important for me to come up with new products.”

Parting Shot: “The main way I do marketing is through social media,” Oberst says. “I also travel a lot. This year I’ve done close to 50 expos.”

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