Regardless of the outcome Nike's 'Breaking2' marathon project has been a marketing success

Nike is looking to write itself into the history books with its attempt to break the two-hour marathon barrier for the first time in history, but regardless of the outcome the Breaking2 project has generated a marketing platform for its new Zoom Vaporfly shoes unlike few others.

Tomorrow morning (6 May) at 4:45am BST just north-west of Milan three of the world’s greatest distance runners will take to the Autodromo Nazionale Monza, one of Formula One’s most iconic racetracks, to attempt what it calls the ‘moonshot’ of the sporting world, to run 26.219 miles in under two-hours.

It’s never been done before, the closest anyone has ever come was Kenyan runner Dennis Kimetto in the 2014 Berlin Marathon with a time of 2:02:57. On Saturday Rio Olympic marathon gold medalist Eliud Kipchoge, two-time Boston winner Lelisa Desisa, and half marathon world record-holder Zersenay Tadese will attempt to surpass Kimetto’s feat.

The ‘Breaking2’ project has been entirely devised and funded by Nike and if one of the three runners achieves what has so far been impossible, Nike’s name will be the header for this new page in the history books.

Nike has done more than just recruit three top runners and asked them to wear some of its apparel though. The project has been over two-years in the making with a depth of research, testing and preparation comparable to that of a stunt like RedBull's Space Jump.

The US brand has consulted and recruited experts in biomechanics, coaching, design, engineering, materials development, nutrition and sports psychology and physiology for Breaking2 and promises to debut a “system of ground-breaking innovation” at Monza.

It's this degree of innovation and subsequent controversy which has generated an ocean of media attention, more than any kind of advertising could hope to achieve. Each of the three runners will wear a specially customised version of a new racing shoe, the Zoom Vaporfly Elite, for the run and these futuristic shoes will soon be available to every runner in the world.

With an emphasis on reducing weight, maximising aerodynamics and offering a responsive toe-off suited for running fast, it’s fair to say that the shoes are the most technically advanced running footwear ever created. But it’s the shoe’s midsole materials- a carbon-fiber plate and newly created soft foam- which has sparked controversy. The advanced nature of the materials gift a huge energy return with each stride, leading to questions around where to draw the line with technological assistance in sport, and whether the shoes sit within the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) regulations.

It’s all publicity for Nike though and there’s little doubt that when it releases its three commercial versions of the shoes- The Zoom Vaporfly 4%, the Zoom Fly and the Air Zoom Pegasus 34- sometime in June they will fly off the shelves.

The brand has already launched a savvy marketing campaign for the shoes too. Titled ‘Just Do It Day’ Nike is inviting customers to run a sub-25 min 5k using the Nike Running app on Sunday 14 May to unlock early access to the new Nike Zoom Fly sneaker.

Further marketing for the new shoes comes from a new stirring 60-second ad showing the three runners undergoing their intense training accompanied by The Fall’s emotionally-charged song ‘Blindness’.

The ad shows no hesitation in addressing the doubts which much of the media and sporting world has thrust Nike’s way either.

A voiceover playing over the ad says: “Breaking the two hour marathon barrier is impossible, everyone knows that. History knows it, science knows it, anyone in their right mind knows it, it’s crazy, nobody can run that fast for that long, so we’re doing it.”

The likelihood of Kipchoge, Desisa or Tadese shaving at least two minutes 58 seconds of the world record is a tall order. To put the task into context, the last three-minute improvement in the world record took 16 years.

Gavin Peters, director of partnerships at Pitch Marketing Group, said: “ There seems to be a lot of discussion around debating if this is a genuine sporting event or just a marketing stunt. It seems pretty clear it’s both – I don’t see why they should be seen as mutually exclusive.

He added: “It’s the kind of challenge that gets people who wouldn’t normally be engaged in professional long-distance running to really stop and think about what phenomenal athletes they are, and might inspire kids to look at the sport for the first time. All of which are far more positive for the sport than discussions about resetting world records due to doping, so providing it’s not a huge damp squib of an event it looks like it will be a win for the brand and a win for the sport, which might inspire more brands to take on big challenge events like this."

Regardless, pursuing the so-called ‘impossible’ is part of Nike’s DNA, it’s co-founder and renowned track coach Bill Bowerman helped his track athlete Jim Bailey run the first sub-four-minute mile on US soil in 1956, a feat which was then regarded as the holy grail of running.

There’s still pressure though, especially with rival Adidas announcing its own ‘Sub2’ programme in February, attacked to its own specially designed Adizero Sub2 shoe which is slated for release later this year.

Running is the largest money-maker for Nike with around $5bn in annual wholesale sales, and while it still commands the largest share of the running market Adidas has been closing in. The German brand’s Boost running shoe has helped the company’s revenue growth average 15% over the past two years, double Nike’s rate.

The sub two-hour marathon attempts from Nike and Adidas illustrates a new era in marketing strategies for brands who have traditionally relied on big athletes and stars to help sell products. By deepening its ties with the sport and playing a bigger role in the landmark achievements made, Nike is standing out from the pack and likely garnering more media attention than paid for advertising could grant it.

Tony Connelly

I cover media, marketing and sponsorship news within the sports industry. This includes breaking news as well as writing feature pieces with insights from experts in the sports marketing world.

All by Tony