Picking up its pace

New Balance, on outside looking in, tries to put its stamp on Marathon

New Balance employees Kelly Gray, Cristen Murray, and Courtney English cheered on runners training for the Boston Marathon near Heartbreak Hill in Newton last week. New Balance will unveil limited-edition shoes for the race and hand out goodie bags and guides mapping out the course. New Balance employees Kelly Gray, Cristen Murray, and Courtney English cheered on runners training for the Boston Marathon near Heartbreak Hill in Newton last week. New Balance will unveil limited-edition shoes for the race and hand out goodie bags and guides mapping out the course. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / April 2, 2010

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As the Boston Marathon approaches, New Balance is doing everything a running shoe company should when it sponsors one of the country’s premier races. It is plastering bus shelters, taking over a Park Street T stop, and wrapping trolley cars in its new “Run Faster Boston’’ advertisements.

Only New Balance is not the sponsor; that would be Adidas, one of the top players in the running gear industry. By covering the city before Adidas hoists its first sign around the Prudential Center, New Balance is trying to reestablish its reputation as one of the leaders in the business with its biggest promotion ever.

The company will unveil limited-edition athletic shoes for the event, outfit the staff at the Upper Crust pizza chain with New Balance gear, and host Marathon course tours on the Old Town Trolley with Marathon stars of yore such as Dick Beardsley, who finished second in the 1982 race. New Balance is also handing out goodie bags and spectator guides mapping out the course. The company will be there for runners after the event with a “Recover Faster’’ program at the Boston Sports Club and ice baths at the Lenox Hotel.

“We’re trying to show we own this town. We run this town,’’ said Kristen Sullivan, a New Balance spokeswoman. “If people walk away thinking New Balance, and not Adidas, then we’ve done our job.’’

Official sponsorships for such top events as the Boston Marathon have become increasingly expensive —and often out of reach for smaller brands like New Balance. Adidas last year celebrated its 20th anniver sary as a sponsor of the Boston Marathon by declaring its commitment to do it for another decade. Among other perks, the deal, estimated to be at least six figures — gives Adidas the exclusive rights to use the event name and logo in promotions and access to the runners.

Businesses that try to capitalize on the popularity of the event risk running afoul of the Boston Athletic Association, which oversees the Boston Marathon. In past years, the association has confiscated goods and taken down signs from rivals such as Nike Inc. that it says have infringed on the sponsorship rights. These violations included using the event’s logo or name or creating promotions near the course that cause confusion over who is the official sponsor. Nike declined to comment or detail this year’s plans.

“Shoe companies are known around the world for trying to infringe on each other’s business,’’ said Guy Morse, executive director of the Boston Athletic Association. “They know there is a fine line you cannot cross. We have to be vigilant, and we spend a serious amount of money protecting the trademarks.’’

New Balance has carefully crafted its campaign to put its stamp on the Boston Marathon without actually referring directly to the event. The billboards, with the slogan “Run Faster Boston,’’ feature a New Balance athletic shoe whizzing past images, blurred to give the impression that the shoes are going really fast, of the Back Bay, cheering crowds, and the Charles River with the Prudential Tower in the background. The “N’’ in the word “Boston’’ in the ads is the “N’’ featured on a New Balance sneaker.

Morse said the New Balance ads seem to push the boundaries of what is acceptable for a nonsponsor by drawing connections between the event and the brand.

“That’s on the fine line. It is still a free country at some level. It is taking advantage of an event they’re not associated with,’’ Morse said. “I’m not happy about it. But that’s the way it is.’’

Adidas, for its part, is confident that no one will mistake which brand is the official footwear and apparel provider for the Boston Marathon. The German sportswear giant, which also sponsors the Berlin and London marathons, is supplying the coveted Official Boston Marathon jacket, outfitting more than 10,000 volunteers and other race officials, providing the participant T-shirts, and emblazoning the Adidas logo on the runners’ bibs and on post-race blankets. Starting April 7, Adidas will put up signs inside the Prudential Center and on the street, and add advertisements along the course, including Heartbreak Hill. (New Balance began wrapping Old Town Trolleys last week.)

“As the official footwear and apparel provider for the world’s most prestigious road race, Adidas proudly supports the thousands of runners who trek from Hopkinton to Boston annually,’’ said Mikal Peveto, Adidas America’s director of running. “As with any major sporting event, many brands have a presence over Marathon weekend, but the foundation Adidas has built with the Boston Marathon is significant and clearly resonates with runners and spectators alike.’’

Having a strong showing at marathons is key for running brands to lure new consumers and maintain support from loyal customers, according to sports marketing analysts. New Balance, which built its name by offering a comfortable fit for runners in any width, had turned its attention away in recent years to focus more on its lifestyle business. Now the company is looking to marathons to raise its profile again by drawing on its running heritage.

“Our authenticity comes from running,’’ said New Balance chief executive Robert T. DeMartini. “We have to be very diligent not to shift away from running.’’

But without any official sponsorships of the premier events — the brand gave up partnering with the Chicago Marathon in 2007 — New Balance does not get access to a database of participants and has to figure out its own ways to engage runners.

“New Balance is thinking about ways in which our brand can interact with runners at everyday touch points — like in restaurants, in their hotel room, in public transportation — areas where there is a captive audience and where restrictions are minimal,’’ said Josh Rowe, the company’s running marketing manager. “We are looking to capitalize on the fact that we know Boston best — we live here, we run here. We are looking to make runners feel like we are welcoming them to our home and that we can make their experience here special.’’

Jenn Abelson can be reached at