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Marketing Pros: Jan Erik Kruse of ASICS FrontRunner

How do the world’s best sports brands cut through online noise to create meaningful connections with their audiences? We found a marketing pro perfectly placed to help us learn more.

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Here's Jan Erik - marathon runner, triathlete, father and Asics Strategy Manager. Sometimes all at once.

Jan Erik Kruse, Strategy Manager for Community, Influencer and Ambassador Marketing at ASICS Europe, knows a thing or two about bringing brands to life, having grown an engaged community that thrives on and offline in FrontRunner.

Founded in Japan more than 70 years ago, ASICS is gloablly renowned for its high quality sports and performance footwear, clothing and equipment. The ASICS brand name is an acronym for the latin phrase ‘anima sana in corpore sano’, which translates to ‘a sound mind in a sound body’. FrontRunner is an ASICS community formed around a run team of more than 700 global ambassadors.

Now in its tenth year, FrontRunner is a great example a brand having formed an authentic vertical community. FrontRunner is a living, breathing movement, that embodies the core values of the ASICS brand, and showcases its products on the best possible ambassadors.

It’s what many brands are now striving to do, but Jan Erik, and his passionate team got in there early. Let’s find out how.

asics linktree

The FrontRunner team not only runs well, but has great teeth too.

What was the influencer marketing world like back when FrontRunner launched?

We started the ASICS FrontRunner team in 2010. Back when we started no one was talking about Influencer Marketing – our first strategies were mentioning opinion leaders or referral marketing. Facebook had started, but it was still for young people and StudiVZ was the more common platform to use in Germany. Instagram would only be launched 1 year later and still would take a few years to gain importance.

It’s not often that marketing projects survive this long and I think the key in this project was that we constantly adapted, changed and improved and still stayed authentic and true to our values.

How big is the FrontRunner team today? 

We started with 50 hand-picked Ambassadors in Germany, and it is now a community that now has grown to 700 members in more than 30 countries globally. Every year we run an application phase with up to 50,000 applications.

This year 200 lucky people will be chosen. And the application phase is running until 9th of February!

asics linktree

Sometimes it really is faster on two legs.

Talk us through your content types.

We obviously have a big focus on user-generated content, it adds a layer to the brand you can’t cover with typical highlight photography, real emotions, authentic use and stories around our product. We often see that it has a much higher engagement rate.

But we also work with our Ambassadors to include them in highlight photography, create exclusive content for our key-account customers or create out-of-the box PR stories around our products. A great example of that is was our London-to-Paris, where our team undertook 10 marathons in 10 days with a new energy-saving long-distance shoe.

 What do you think is most important when engaging an audience in an authentic way?

The most important thing to remember is, that our Ambassadors know their audience best – how to tell a story and what language to use. When we are working with them, we give them as much freedom as possible.

We would never tell them what to say about a product or how to use it. We obviously educate so that they have all product knowledge and facts at hand, but then it’s their task to tell a story in their own words, as long as it is fitting the brand values of ASICS, and especially our sound mind, sound body ethos.

This is key to keep it authentic and it is one of the reasons why the project not only survived but steadily grew over the years.

Exercise, fitness and wellness are huge areas of boom on social in the last few years. Do you anticipate the growth to continue at such a pace?

Yes, especially in our biggest focus category, running, we expect steady growth over the next years. For example, in our EMEA region, only around 20% of all marathon finishers are female, whereas in the US it’s nearly 50-50. So especially the running market for women in Europe has still a big development ahead.

At the same time, not as many people focus solely on running anymore. Sport is about releasing stress to get to a happier and healthier life. So relaxation and mindfulness play a big part and this trend has a perfect fit for our ‘anima sana in corpore sano‘ brand heritage.

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No terrain too gruelling for this bunch!

How important is audience growth to you?

Growing audience is always a KPI, but not at all costs. For us, interaction and meaningful conversation are much more important. Our general awareness with ASICS is really high in our core categories, so our business focus is to drive preference and to educate our consumers about which product is helping them best to reach their goals.

"Growing audience is always a KPI, but not at all costs."

You represent a global brand – how do you ensure an inclusive tone in your content?

Our team is made up of a truly diverse group of people from different backgrounds who come in all shapes and sizes. We’re young and old, we’re beginners and professionals, from fitness coaches to sports experts, we run streets and trails.

It’s the combination of all these things that makes our community so strong, vibrant and unique. Our main goal is to support everyone around the world who loves to move. So the inclusive tone does not have to be pushed, it comes from within the heart of the ASICS FrontRunner team.

Do you do much in the way of paid social for FrontRunner?

For ASICS FrontRunner the paid media part is a really small – a five-digit number for the whole year including our application phase. But with the right content strategy, and the right partners, we have been able to reach a number of 120 million people (unique).

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Some impressive marketing stats with only a 5-digit spend on paid marketing.

What do you love most about the work you do?

ASICS is not just selling products. We are striving to get people into movement, helping them to reach a Sound Mind in a Sound Body by providing the right education, motivation, training, advice, products and technologies. ASICS is a really purpose-driven brand, which attracts the right employees and everyone together striving to get the world into movement, this is what makes it so special for me.

Within my specific area of work, I thrive on the constant development in digital marketing and especially in Community, Ambassador and Influencer Marketing. You basically have to evaluate and maybe rethink what you are doing on a quarterly basis!

"You basically have to evaluate and maybe rethink what you are doing on a quarterly basis!" Jan Erik Kruse, ASISCS FrontRunner.

What’s your approach to new platforms, like TikTok? Are they relevant for your audience?

From my side it’s definitely a yes, but you also have to choose the battles you can fight from a budget and manpower perspective. Our main platforms we are focussing on will remain as Instagram, Facebook, although a bit decreasing in importance, and we will start with Pinterest in 2020.

You’re new to the Linktree community, welcome! What made you pick Linktree? 

It’s the best way to organize links and to extend the life-time value of our content!

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We hope you’ve been inspired by Jan Erik’s insights! If you’re a keen runner, don’t forget applications for a place on the 2020 FrontRunner team close on February 9. Apply here.

Asics Frontrunner's Linktree

FrontRunner’s Linktree makes the connection between community and brand, in linking visitors to the FrontRunner homepage, as well as to shoppable collections. Having a controlled number of links means that visitors are less likely to suffer from decision paralysis, and translates into better conversion! A Priority Link drives the highest engagement to the FrontRunner homepage, and on the PRO package, FrontRunner has opted for a custom background picture that emphasizes the brand.