Digital Marketing Redux   //   January 11, 2024  ■  6 min read

As running clubs explode in popularity, brands are tapping these groups for sampling opportunities and sponsorships

With marketing becoming more challenging, brands are constantly trying to find ways to stand out from the sea of competition. Brands are targeting walking and running groups to generate grassroots awareness, taking advantage of the rise of walking and running clubs across the country.

At the forefront are athleisure and footwear brands, which hopped on the trend early — Hoka, Outdoor Voices and On all hold running clubs. But now, there’s been an explosion of brands seeking to partner with these groups in unique ways, and reach more than just hardcore runners. The goal, for brands ranging from hydration startups to nutrition bars, is to get their products into the hands of what have essentially become social clubs.

Branded training clubs have been around for years, including the ultra popular Nike Run Club. But both running and walking groups exploded in popularity coming out of the pandemic. The trend was largely attributed to young women looking to connect and socialize while getting exercise, as the Wall Street Journal examined in a feature from March.

Now, health and wellness-focused CPGs are also looking to tap into these clubs’ popularity through sponsorships and events.

City Girls Who Walk, for example, regularly partners with retailers and brands, most recently linking with Hoka and Foot Locker on product giveaways. And in 2023, the Slow Girl Run Club hosted events with startups like athleisure brand Vuori, facial chain Glowbar and Alani energy drinks. Outdoor Voices founder Ty Haney’s latest venture, energy brand Joggy, has been hosting in-person running meetups across the country — sometimes in partnership with other CPG brands like JuneShine kombucha and specialty retailer Foxtrot.

Marathon season was a big testing ground for brands looking to tie up with runners. Modern convenience store The Goods Mart hosted its own pre-marathon event in partnership with CPG newsletter Snaxshot, featuring brands like hydration drink Plink! and nutrition bar maker Dirtbag. Additionally, Goose Island launched an exclusive beer for finishers of the Chicago Marathon in October. While these partnerships aren’t designed to exclusively be sales drivers, the way that paid advertisements or in-store promotions are, they offer a unique sampling and buzz-building opportunity among niche groups likely to be early product adopters. 

Apple brand Yes! Apples recently sponsored New York City’s TikTok famous Endorphins Running Club, by hosting a coffee social for members training for the marathon. The company handed out dozens of apples during a meetup, along with buying them coffee. Additionally, New York Marathon finishers received a New York state apple at the finish line. 

Yes! Apples recently started experimenting with these partnerships, Tenley Fitzgerald, the brand’s vice president of marketing, told Modern Retail. She explained that the company’s current channel mix contains the typical press, influencers, social media and in-store promos — but Yes! Apples hasn’t done much in the sampling realm. The goal is finding fun ways to get people talking about apples, Fitzgerald said — whether it’s sponsoring running clubs or the Cherry Bombe Jubilee, an annual conference for women and creatives working in food and drink. 

“I started at the brand during Covid so we were dark on events for a couple of years,” Fitzgerald said, though the brand did some virtual events along the way. As a produce brand, she said “we have to be top of mind and need to surprise people in where they find us.” One way is to work with running groups, which the company began in New York City during the fall. “I’m a virtual member of Endorphins and was seeing the partnerships they were doing,” Fitzgerald said. “I know the close knit nature of these groups, and that they always share tips and regiments.” This prompted Yes! Apples to reach out and offer to sponsor the club’s New York Marathon runners, who were training throughout the fall before the November event. 

It’s not just food and beverage startups that are tapping into runner groups.

Footwear insoles brand Fulton has sponsored a few different running clubs in and around New York City since launching in 2021. Fulton co-founder Libie Motchan said the company prioritized these activations for several reasons. “First we wanted to engage with our local community of runners, Fulton is a brand based out of New York City and we’ve strived to find ways to be part of our community,” she explained. 

Running clubs have been a great way to do that — particularly ones like the Central Park Track Club, Spartan Sundays Run Club and Skyline Run Club. The size of these group meets is wide ranging, from gatherings from eight all the way to 80 people. Generally, Fulton gives out discounts on orders to members, and sometimes offers gift prizes as part of races or activations the club has planned. Fulton has also begun partnering with individual runners the brand met through the clubs to create content for social media. Individual runner sponsorships are also becoming trendy among startup brands. Last summer, college-turned-pro runner Katelyn Tuohy struck a formal partnership with Olipop.

Following the event, Motchan said, “about 20% to 30% of members will buy a pair of insoles after the event.” Additionally, she said, “the sponsorships have also helped us reach over 100,000 people across social.”  But perhaps most importantly, these events allow for on-site product demos.

Sponsoring running clubs is a natural move for a brand like Fulton, Motchan said; Thus far, the company has been trying to mainly rely on unpaid marketing and UGC to grow buzz. Runners are power users of insoles, Motchan said, and will likely already have knowledge of or experience with them that doesn’t require educating them on the product as the typical new customer. “Runners go through shoes and insoles quickly, so they are great customers, they’re also super loyal when they find something they love so they are great brand advocates,” she said. 

Katie Thomas, who leads the Kearney Consumer Institute at Kearney, an internal think tank at the global strategy and management consulting firm, said in-person sampling continues to be a big play for CPG brands This is especially the case as more and more emerging brands compete for digital eyeballs, making it harder to catch attention in digital ad campaigns. “In the scheme of a marketing budget, these events are typically not too sizable,” Thomas said. However, she added that the challenge is that while grassroots and sponsorships are effective for generating brand awareness, “they are not always as scalable or trackable as digital options.” 

For Yes! Apples, Fitzgerald said the idea is to be a part of pre-race and post-run nutrition. “Apples are such a great option for both of those,” Fitzgerald said. This makes the sponsorship feel natural to participants, she said. The company plans to continue striking partnerships with running clubs as part of its growing marketing playbook. “Hopefully that awareness snowballs into a rapport with these communities,” Fitzgerald said.

Aside from meeting new customers, Fulton is hoping these on-the-ground efforts will also boost retail expansion. “In addition, a big priority for us this year is getting on the shelves of independent and specialty running stores,” Motchan said. “They often have run clubs, or will partner with local running clubs – so by sponsoring running clubs it allows us to engage with the stores on a deeper level.”