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The world’s best-selling sports watch is on display in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. It is one of the first products sold thanks to a sports marketing strategy.
The best partnerships are those that put sponsorship at the core of their marketing strategy. By leveraging its ties with Ironman, Timex created a product that ended up becoming iconic.
In 1984, Time took an interest in the endurance sports category and collaborated with athletes to develop a new digital watch called the Timex Triathlon. In 1986, after the marketing director at the time sold 1,500 watches to athletes at the Kona IRONMAN race, Timex jumped at the chance to acquire the usage rights to the IRONMAN name. The company then created a triathlon watch inspired by the 1984 model. Sales went through the roof for both models, and every version of the Timex IRONMAN after that quickly became a bestseller for the brand. The watch stayed at the top of the sports category year after year, even thirty years later. The first IRONMAN licence agreement remains the foundation of this partnership and is still used today. It is also the most important licence agreement to date, as nearly 500,000 Timex IRONMAN watches have been sold around the world every year since 1986.
The partnership never lost its relevance over time and contributed to the sales success of the watch models that bore its name. In 2002, a Canadian athlete who made an astonishing comeback is reported to have pointed at her Timex when she crossed the finish line in first place and said, “Takes a licking and keeps on ticking,” which went on to become the company’s slogan.
How is an affordable watch perceived when high-level sports and professional personalities endorse it? Beyond the functional benefits that triathletes love about the watch, the image of IRONMAN evokes rock-solid durability. It is a symbol of honour for anyone who wears it.
The success of this partnership is due in part to the fact that Timex was a precursor in this category. It maintained its leadership position and stayed relevant thanks to various innovations and multiple iterations of the product. The watch was also designed and improved over the years with the IRONMAN athlete in mind. For the elite circle of athletes who successfully completed the rigorous race, the object was much more than a watch. It was a symbol that had power far beyond the small group of athletes. That’s partly why we saw the product gracing the wrists of stars and politicians like Bill Clinton. Despite its affordable price, the watch was never considered to be a low-end product. Its reputation always transcended socio-demographic groups.
What’s more, the partnership helped to shape Timex’s brand image, with the IRONMAN brand conveying a strong impression of robustness and dependability.
What can we learn about this iconic partnership? Co-branded products and promotions in the sales network that leverage the sponsor brand are interesting strategies, as few sponsors avail of such rights, even if they are often written into the contract.
It’s important to note that this sponsorship played a key role in solidifying Timex’s brand image. Research has long identified the phenomenon of image transfer in sponsorship. That can be an effective driver to shift a brand’s attributes. Lastly, this was one of the first partnerships to launch this kind of initiative in the sporting world, with a product under licence that has stood the test of time.
Despite the challenges that Timex is facing, the partnership remains as relevant today as it was back in the 1980s, as it gives the company a competitive advantage that it’s difficult for other brands to recreate. Their expertise in sports watches and their ability to innovate are assets that they continue to draw on, which is exactly what the company did when it launched the Timex IRONMAN One GPS+, the first smartwatch that doesn’t need to be connected to a phone.
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