Asia is in the midst of a running boom. According to Run Society, Asia’s leading online running magazine, there were just 53 official running events in Singapore in 2012. This year, there will be 112 – enough for every Saturday and Sunday for the whole year. The running calendar has doubled in size in just four years. For Malaysia, there will be 153, Thailand, 69 and Hong Kong, 38. More from This Week in Asia The definition of what it means to be a runner has changed. Alternative running events, such as branded fun runs and extreme obstacle courses are a big part of the rise in events and interest. These include themed runs, such the Hello Kitty Run in Singapore and the Doraemon Run in Hong Kong; as well as party-style runs like The Colour Run where participants end the night covered head-to-toe in brightly coloured powder; or military-inspired obstacle courses such as the Tough Mudder. These events are new, exciting and inclusive in comparison with traditionally popular sports like golf, bowling or swimming. Young people need to be stimulated on multiple levels and they crave innovative, group-based experiences that can be shared on social networks like Facebook and Instagram. Community fun runs began appearing in the 1970s as an antidote to the seriousness of professional races. In 1987, Singapore instigated the National Family Fun Run, where US$35,000 worth of prizes were on offer. Party races and assault courses are a more recent concept, with the first Tough Mudder event taking place in 2010, quickly followed by the first Colour Run in 2011, both in the United States. The changing face of running is a perfect opportunity for brands to provide consumers with brand sponsored experiences. Whereas traditional races attract sponsorship deals from banks, insurance companies and other corporate sponsors, these alternative races represent a chance for brands to integrate more closely with the event, and build a stronger relationship with a wider demographic. Most runs are non-competitive and fun-based, so they attract a more diverse contemporary audience compared to traditional running events – and brands can reach specific target audiences depending on the theme of the race. ‘It’s carnage’: Freezing conditions force organisers to call early end to Vibram Hong Kong 100 For brands such as Disney, the attraction of staging these events is clear. Wearing famous Disney costumes such as Mickey Mouse and Goofy is synonymous with fun runs, so for Disney it was more a matter of embracing a natural trend and bringing it under their control. Disney doesn’t really profit as a brand if someone runs the New York marathon as Winnie-the-Pooh, but when runners attend an official Disney run at a Disney World theme park there are numerous benefits: entrance fees, accommodation packages, large attendance numbers at the theme parks, and a positive association between charity fundraising, exercise for children and community spirit. Disney also provides entrants with a virtual goodie bag – a selection of coupons, vouchers and free samples from Disney and affiliated companies. These include offers to sign up for Disney magazine subscriptions, along with health and fitness related products such as supplements and health food. Organisations that are unable to sponsor a whole event or other brands with tie-in promotions can use these goodie bags to target specific audiences for the various Disney races. For the 2014 Disneyland half marathon, New Balance included a ‘virtual queue’ that allowed race entrants to reserve their place in line to purchase their highly sought after Disney themed running shoes at the event. Extreme workout: the art of trail running in Hong Kong Many fun runs are managed by global organisations who tour throughout the world. In 2015, The Colour Run staged 225 events in over 35 countries, including Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Germany and Australia. Disney holds its events around the world at its theme parks in the USA, France, Hong Kong and Japan. “Runcations” – packages that combine a vacation with a run – represent a growing tourism segment. Queensland’s Gold Coast Airport Marathon, now in its 38th year, attracts more than 3,000 international participants contributing to the event’s expected contribution of over AUS$20m to the local economy. Sponsors included Asics, Citizen and Garmin. As part of the airport’s continuing sponsorship of the event it has secured arrangements for direct flights to Queensland with Scoot and Air Asia from Malaysia and Singapore. When global events such as Tough Mudder choose to hold their first South East Asian event in Singapore, it represents a great opportunity to bring runners to Singapore from across the region and beyond. The Music Run, sponsored by music streaming service Spotify, shows how brands can move beyond simple sponsorship and leverage digital technology to integrate with the race experience. The Music Run features speakers pumping out Spotify tunes every 40m along the route, and the runners themselves get to choose the music. Running coach designs workout plan around Pokémon Go Entrants can vote for their favourite songs before the race from a pre-selected playlist representing five different music genres. On race day the final playlists are played in five separate race zones, so entrants can choose their favourite genre to run to. Runners can increase the chances of their favourite track being chosen by playing, sharing and liking the track within the Spotify app. In future we could see further integration such as entrants being given a free one month Spotify account before the race so that they can upload their favourite running playlists, allowing the system to aggregate the most popular tracks. Mobile phone accelerometers also calculate which tracks inspire competitors to run faster. Spotify could also allow entrants to stream the final run playlist for free after the event. This integration of tech and sport looks set to continue. There are already successful running apps that combine the themes of online multiplayer games with real-world running. “Zombies, Run!” is an app that gives runners missions based on a zombie apocalypse storyline and encourages them to run with the threat of chasing zombies. Was this the last hurrah for adventure racing in Hong Kong? We could see future running events that “gamify” the race day, further integrating the mobile experience. Runners could track and share their live progress, live stream video to social networks and share images. Such integration not only provides entertainment for participants, but it also increases brand exposure on social networks during and after the race. Running has evolved in a way that no other traditional sport has, breaking away from competitive sport and embracing fun, technology and youth culture. Asia is now at the heart of this revolution and brands who want to gain ground on their competitors should grab this opportunity to give consumers truly memorable brand-sponsored experiences. Gemma Calvert is the Director for Research & Development at the Institute for Asian Consumer Insight and Professor of Marketing at the Nanyang Business School, NTU.