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celebrity


Who am I talking to please? Am I talking to you or am I talking to a mouthpiece for a brand? To me it appears that it’s becoming harder to distinguish.

We all know about sponsored athlete – those that will be photographed and support the brands that provide them with the required cash or kit to ensure competing makes economic sense. They’ll do TV, advertising, etc while ‘on brand’. However, growing in that shadow there appears an underbelly of less visible brand development in the amateur athlete / excellent fun runner field and to me some of this seems a little less honest.

What do I mean? You see a picture on Instagram, Facebook or other platform and you ‘like’ it, share it, engage with it – that’s fine and I myself do it but usually because I enjoy the subject matter or I think it’s a well composed photograph – never do I knowingly ‘like’ brand promoting/advertising on social media. Unfortunately recent advances in brand development through new technologies mean it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference between what a person really thinks and what might be swaying them in terms of ‘the brand factor’.

To be clear I’m a not against amateurs promoting brands in a paid for manner – I just want to avoid it because I don’t like what I consider to be brand duplicity.

Perhaps I’m sensitive to this because I work in the creative industries & marketing. I’m assaulted daily by a cacophony of brand and seemingly have become rather immune to it. But I see people in their everyday lives setting themselves up as guerilla brand ambassadors and find it frightening. 

Listening to an old episode of Robin Ince and Josie Longs Utter Shambles and hearing JL had been offered £4,000 to surreptitiously drop into a radio conversation ‘how good’ an unnamed coffee house is, proved somewhat worrying. She told the podcast she had turned down the offer. Easy money turned down in favour principles – I very much approve. 

In sporting terms though I’m increasingly suspicious of my social media interactions where a terrible photograph with no content interest is receiving hundreds or thousands of likes and when you take a closer look you see it heavily tagged and heavily hashtag branded.

In the grand scheme of world problems I’m sure that nobody would really consider this a serious issue but consider that we may soon be in a position were we are faced with a constant barrage of sales no matter where we are, what we do or who we interact with – our day to day lives will be underhandedly influenced by businesses that we may not want influencing our daily life. Some would argue that we always have been manipulated by influencers but now it’s on an unprecedented scale. Billions of people vying for attention – it’s terrifying.

In a world where social media is king we are seeing people like Kate Moss start up ‘talent agencies’ where the idea is to grow brands – personally I’d rather see people grow. As a branding designer with nearly 20 years experience it frightens me how we’ve adopted this phrase to create a self marketing culture that business is now tapping into on an unprecedented scale. Phrases like ‘Brand Beckham’ or ‘Brangelina’ are only the celebrity tip of the iceberg and part of the serious issues modern society is facing. I remember a time where talent was needed not fame. 

I don’t want runners to follow this trend and I don’t believe I’m alone in that thought. Yes we have famous runners and yes we are seeing the everyday runner adopting brands and promoting them but I’m hoping the talent and desire to do the running remains and it’s not just about leaping round in new trainers to show off on Instagram. And I would always want clarity on when a runner is promoting a brand or being incentivised to talk about it – it’s the stealth element I want weeded out.

Now I can hear you ask about OMM and the hypocrisy of this blog post in light of my application to be an ambassador. Let me address that.

It’s true that I made a very public request to be considered for the 2016 OMM ambassadorship and failed to be selected. Does this make me a hypocrite? I hope not, I had very specific and genuine reasons for applying. In my defence I was quite clear in my open letter / application / blog post to them that I was an existing user of their kit and would continue to operate independently in my opinions of their kit and their events – probably part of the reason I wasn’t selected. 

I wasn’t looking for kit supplies or reward I was genuinely interested in testing and using kit for the purpose of providing support to a brand that I really love using and the running community at large.

It’s worth noting that despite not getting the role of ambassador I still use OMM kit daily and have paid for it all myself. No freebies means there’s no compromise and never will be. 

Reviewing for free or a fee? It’s the same with every review I’ve written – be it for an event, piece of kit or some nutritional aid – I’ve paid for it.

Perhaps this is why I like DC Rainmaker so much – he makes a point of being thorough, honest and as a point of principal paying for the kit (eventually) that he uses. I believe it’s one of the key reasons he retains the respect of the sports review community, it’s not just that he writes tremendous reviews.

There are people who walk this line better than others with clear indications when they are ‘on brand’ and there is no deliberate stealth marketing but it’s a very murky area.

However, to my mind, brands would always be better pouring less money into ‘sporting galacticos’ or developing ‘social media superstars’ and spending more time in building genuine relationships and connections that will offer longevity.

Sadly we all know the power of names like ‘Beckham’ or ‘AirJordan’ sell product enmasse and I don’t blame brands for bringing them on board but you can blame them for buying ‘likes’ and ‘fans’ lower down the social media strata in an attempt to inflate sales or worse create illusions, this takes the idea of member get member too far.

Sadly we’re a material society and an endorsed product will sell. That an endorsed product will sell better than one that isn’t says much about ‘today’ but the fact that a brand feels the need to have members of the public hammer home these sales messages tells much about brand greed – it just feels a step too far into dishonesty.

It’s a marketing tactic that feels insidious and underhand. Perhaps that’s why I don’t fit the mould? When I add an Altra hashtag to an Instagram post it’s because it’s a photograph of an Altra product I’ve bought and love using – it’s not because the company is incentivising me to do so.

When I was asked by Mountain Buggy to write a piece for their blog I did so willingly and without any incentive because I liked the idea of promoting the ‘parent and child running in any environment’ angle. Mountain Buggy, to their credit, left my ramblings pretty much unedited and subsequently I’ve featured on their social media feeds several times – but interestingly my original review of the Mountain Buggy Terrain was written long before they made contact.

Would brands therefore be better cultivating genuine connections in the way Mountain Buggy did with me? I’ve spoken with hundreds of people (both real and digitally) about my buggy running adventures and I do the same every time, I give an honest recollection of my time using the running buggy.

It’s not all negative though, some brands are engaging with users via social platforms to create more honest ways to sell.

As an example we have an uplift in independent running shoe retailers (Hoka at George Fisher for example recently) offering test evenings for new kit – surely this is a great way of winning new converts without it feeling like you’re buying fans. Surely the smarter brands can develop more connected, less underhand ways of marketing and yet still hit the broad spectrum they need to achieve the required sales?

I’m still an idealist I guess – I like the Star Trek idea that we do things for the benefit of humanity but I know there is almost always a commercial imperative. But I’d hope that if enough people fall out of love with guerilla marketing we might see more genuine attempts by brands to engage with their current and potential customers.

So what now? Well if I don’t add you as a social media connection, if I don’t favourite your photograph or post some witless comment then it could be because I’m no longer sure who I’m talking with (although it’s more likely it’s because I just haven’t checked my requests recently 😀). Ultimately in conclusion I’m not against marketing (my job depends on it) but I want it to be a little more transparent about how it’s reaching out to you/me/everyone and who it’s using to reach out.

Adios for now

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Watching the awesome Susie Chan this weekend head into the record books was really quite spectacular and in the heat of that great piece of running it gave thought to me about the rise of celebrity status within the running community and why I’ve always leaned towards community over the famous/infamous.

Let me explain my thinking. In days gone by your average fun runners might have looked to the track to find inspirational athletes that they could aspire to be. I remember watching people like Linford Christie, Michael Johnson, Roger Black, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram at various ‘meets’ and thinking that they were amazing – but interestingly I never wanted to be them.

From an early age I wanted to be like the only marathon runner I’d ever heard of – my dad. However, I saw this type of running as something people did for fun – not competition and perhaps back in the 1980s this was more true than it is today. So there was an immediate disconnect between say Cram and Mr. K (my dad).

Let’s paint a picture – my very Liverpudlian dad (moustache and curly mop in place) on race day would don his 5 inch shorts and very thin vest and a pair of old Hi-Tec (or whatever, probably Adidas) and go and run 26.2 miles – I don’t have memories of the races themselves, nor of him racing in his heyday, just random images in my head but the photographs and medals suggest he was pretty good. So maybe I was copying him or seeking approval when I took up running? As a child I was influenced by this very real runner and by runners like him (beer in one hand, trainers in the other). What I do know is I never thought about wanting to emulate Coe or Ovett, they were too far removed from me (in social terms as well as talent) but my dad was just a normal everyday runner and as an adult I think I appreciate better why that was important to me.

When I started running again nearly five years ago, this time to prove something to myself I still struggled to be inspired by the tremendous feats of runners like Liz McColgan, Paula Radcliffe and Steve Way they were people I could admire but not be inspired by. There remained this giant gulf between those people and what I felt I could ever achieve. However, Sue and Kirstie, two lovely ladies from SE London, who had started training for the Grim Challenge provided me with a little bit of running community and inspired me to get fit, get filthy and have fun. I recall the sense of achievement when I ran quite well that day but moreover I remember the sense of elation when I saw Big Liz, Little Liz and my two running companions. I’d found the missing piece of my running jigsaw – people.

Soon after I joined the modern era via t’internet and we saw the rise of social media as a gateway to running. This has changed the dynamic in our interactions with runners and we see the rise of runners who are both real and touching what you might describe as ‘celebrity’ as well as building ‘community’.

This seems to be especially prevalent trend in the ultra running community at the moment, people like Cracknell, Karnazes, Jurek and Krupicka are at the heart of this but also on that curve we’ve got rising stars like Tobias Mews and Anna Frost whose individual achievements have merited a deep and loyal fanbase but have a more nuanced ‘realness’ to them. We should perhaps consider ourselves lucky in the ultra community that money isn’t rife or we’d see more people wanting to rise to the top – as it stands these runners and others like them are at the top of their game because they’re exceptional athletes.

However, much like those on the track I watched as a child I still struggle to be inspired by them. I couldn’t look into a mirror and see a future Tobias staring back at me. So why the disconnect? It’s partly about the gulf in brilliance, but that’s not unusual when you’re looking at the elite, I’m not an Olympian, nor an endurance running legend but I think it’s more that I’m inspired by those I feel I could emulate with a bit of hard work. I find inspiration not in glory but in story and those that inspire me have interesting stories to tell. Perhaps this is why I enjoyed the tremendous achievements of Susie Chan this weekend because it walked that fine line between community, celebrity and talent.

So who then? I was asked recently who my favourite ultra runner was and without skipping a heartbeat I answered, ‘well truth be told there are three ultra runners who really inspire me, Dan Park, Louise Ayling and Emma Lawson‘ – not exactly household names, but exceptional runners in their own way and I’ve been following their adventures since I first decided I was embarking on a social media and running journey about four years back. Perhaps it’s their mishaps and struggles, perhaps it’s because they don’t seem invincible, perhaps it’s because I can aspire to be them and most of all it’s because they’re awesome.

So I’ll continue to watch the amazing feats of Anna Frost or Scott Jurek because they’re exceptional but I’ll save my fanboy admiration for when Joe finishes the Hardmoors Grandslam or Louise finishes the Lakeland 100 or Roz does another canal double  

How about you? Do this new generation of runners inspire you, this social media generation? Or do you find its your best buddy at your running club who is the one that inspires you to go further and harder? Or are you inspired by the classics and look to the feats of years gone by? 

Happy running

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