Governing bodies USA Track and Field (USATF) and International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) ban footwear with springs in sanctioned competitions to avoid any unfair advantages.
The ban prevents Spira Footwear from using high-profile runners to promote its brand and its patented spring technology. Spira hired Leverage Agency to raise awareness of its technology (which it says reduces impact and helps recovery) and increase sales.
Spira pledged $1 million to any runner who could win the 2006 Boston Marathon in its shoes. It had no takers, but USATF and IAAF changed the language of their rules, though the ban stood.
One week before the 2007 Boston Marathon, Spira initiated litigation against USATF and IAAF.
The team decided to use the banned status to call attention to and try to overturn the rules.
Spira CEO Andy Krafsur notes that the lawsuit "was and wasn't" part of the strategy. "It dovetailed nicely with the campaign," he says. "Our hope is to use some of the PR to convince the [governing bodies and others of] the wrongness of [the ban]. If the goal of governing bodies is to promote running, then what better way to do that than by a shoe that encourages participation? The irony here is that a shoe that is going to help make running more enjoyable is banned."
Spira's largest client (Foot Solutions) recruited several elite runners to defy the ban and run the marathon in Spira shoes.
"Marathon running and races are very dull and boring sometimes," says Ben Sturner, Leverage president. "The Boston Marathon is one of the grand slams, [and] we livened [it] up. We made it something people [talked] about."
At an April 13 press event in Boston, Krafsur spoke about the lawsuit and introduced the runners, who were photographed holding "Banned in Boston" picket signs.
"Elite runners were going to defy the ban - that was the media hook," says Randy Walker, VP at Leverage. "Another point we wanted to get across [is] that Spira shoes [help all runners] feel less sore [and] less susceptible to injury - it's not just elite runners."
Two Kenyan runners in Spira shoes led the first half of the marathon. The men's masters division winner also wore the shoes, raising questions of whether he should be disqualified (in the end, he was not). In interviews, marathon officials noted that he broke the rules and suggested that the rules be changed.
Since the campaign began, Spira's sales have increased about 20%, and several investors have approached. The day after the marathon, Spira got 5,338 orders (average is usually 300 pairs per day). The shoes runners used in the marathon sold out completely. Web site hits increased from an average of 20,000 per day to 175,000 on the day after the race.
Krafsur notes that lack of inventory impeded even higher sales. "We weren't prepared for this [and] struggle[d] to keep customers supplied," he says.
More than 100 stories ran in various outlets, including CNBC, the Boston Herald, and the AP.
The lawsuit is pending. "The issue of the ban is in their hands," Krafsur says. "They could amend the rule anytime."
Spira and Leverage will continue to raise awareness. An October "Defy the Ban"10K is slated for Texas. A protest will be considered if the New York City Marathon Expo blocks Spira participation. Spira will also do something at the 2008 Boston Marathon.
Technology sparking the unfair advantage issue is not new to sports and will ultimately have to be resolved. Spira and Leverage did a great job agitating and refusing to take "no" for an answer, which went a long way in raising brand awareness.
A great deal of this effort's success came from having elite runners wear the shoes. Having one runner win his division forced a public stance on the disqualification issue and led to marathon officials suggesting that the rule be overturned. It will be interesting to see what happens.
Regardless of the outcome, Spira's sales have already outpaced production - ideally, it will be able to balance the two.
PR team: Spira Footwear (El Paso, TX) and Leverage Agency (New York)
Campaign: Banned in Boston
Duration: March to April 2007
Budget: $15,000 (excludes professional fees)