King of the Road: 7 Qs about Self-Branding for Sports Marketing with Pro Cyclist Ted King

Posted on May 11th, 2011 by Chris Lyman

New Hampshire’s Ted King was the first American to sigh with Liquigas-Cannondale, Italy’s powerhouse pro cycling team (think the New York Yankees of bike racing, or in Ted’s case, playing for the Boston Red Sox). Ted has ridden many of the world’s most esteemed races, and currently has his sites set on the Amgen Tour of California starting May 15th in Lake Tahoe.

Aside from a life on the road, Ted also has a popular blog, writes for a number of top cycling media outlets, and is a budding entrepreneur. We caught up with Ted for a cup of ‘sports self-branding’ java and how he puts the pieces together so successfully.

Q: How do you perceive yourself as a brand?

A: That’s a tough question to answer while trying to maintain humility. My guess is that it has to do with having my name directly in the heart of it, iamtedking. Truthfully this whole brand has unfolded in a very unexpected and the most organic fashion possible. iamtedking started simply as an email address which then segued into a blog to keep the family and friends back home apprised of what professional bike racing is about. That gained noteworthy popularity – especially when I made the international jump to the European pro peloton – and started to get requests from my reading audience to create some t-shirts. I tried out the iamtedking shirt idea, but then accurately added the “not” to really target my audience… that is, virtually everyone on earth besides me!

Lyman PR: “Everyone on earth besides me” seems like a sustainable market.

Q: Now that you have a brand established, how do you see it evolving?

A: From the merchandise standpoint, I really want to tackle coffee. Coffee and cycling go together like two peas in a pod and I’m especially obsessed with the delicious black bean. On a broader scale, growing the audience is a fairly obvious goal as well. I was a relatively early adopter of Twitter and was among the original Facebook crowd back when it was just open to snobby private New England colleges (Middlebury College, yeaa!). It’s anyone’s guess what direction social media will go in the coming years, but I’m sure I’ll be right there along for the ride.

Lyman PR: Our money is on Twitter, Facebook and coffee all sticking around for a while.

Q: Do you consider yourself a sports blogger or a sports figure that writes about a sporting lifestyle?

A: Definitely the latter. I’ve never been the type of writer to target what I call the “cycling nerdery” aspect of the sport. Like I said earlier, my site started simply as a way of keeping the folks back home up to date on my life as it pertains to the cycling world. But that crowd is not necessarily among the typical cycling demographic, so instead of speaking about training numbers and obsessing over specific intervals, I’ve focused on photography or the world travel aspect. Additionally, as much as I don’t like the word, I consider myself a foodie. So I have a blast stewing over recipes, taking photographs of the meals I’m lucky enough to try throughout the globe, and sharing that with the reading audience.

Lyman PR: Visual imagery is important and often overlooked, while the lifestyle aspects of food and travel provide a variety of reasons for readers to tune in. Plus, you can be the first to introduce Italian Ketchup to the US.

Q: A lot of companies sponsor pro athletes but frequently don’t do anything more creative than use their likeness for advertising. What have you seen done well to create better brand engagement?

A: Cycling is a fascinating sport because of the uniquely close proximity the athletes have with the sport’s audience. We’re out there racing and training on public roads so fans are able to literally get right up in our faces day in and day out. As a result, the brand engagement is straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth. Say I’m out there training and Joe Bike saddles up along side me and asks how I like product XYZ. I’m immediately able to explain it in a fashion that Joe is precisely going to understand. Comparatively, when Pete Pro Football Player says he’s fueled by Gatorade, I don’t think it means nearly as much to the fan sitting in section 43, aisle 3, seat 12.

Lyman PR: This is the difference between an evangelist and paid gun, which is pretty evident to consumers. Your interactions on Strava are a great example.

Q: Cycling is chock full of jargon – and in a variety of languages. How do you relate to a broad audience combining the intricacies of racing and everyday life?

A: I write for a handful of different outlets with cycling as the common denominator for all. Before tackling any piece, I certainly know my particular audience and therefore their level of cycling knowledge – or lack thereof. On my personal site, iamtedking.com for example, I have the most broad audience and therefore the largest spectrum of knowledge for the sport, ranging from nil to exponentially more than even me. I really try to have fun with it by using a hybrid of deep cycling jargon combined with everyday slang. By comparison, I can go deep into the cycling nerd-speak when I’m writing for cycling specific blogs and magazines. I think the best lesson is to have some fun with it. Unless you’re writing for a critical, analytical audience, I think maintaining a level of entertainment is what will keep readers coming back.

Lyman PR: The ability to understand an audience and speak to their interests and degree of understanding are qualities shared by all good communicators.

Q: What’s your #1 tip for someone wanting to blog?

A: For one, just do it. Start writing! The learning curve is steep so you’ll learn a lot right off the bat. In general, the biggest fear I hear from folks considering starting a blog is their worry about not engaging their audience. They’re concerned they don’t have anything interesting to say. Perfect, that’s step number two: be sure to have an authentic voice. Don’t fall pray to passe topics. Authenticity and being your self, with a flair for saying something slightly off the beaten path, is the name of the game. Same goes with Twitter; people are typically worried no one will care. I say Twitter is the best place to practice – it’s sub-141 character micro blogging at its finest.

Lyman PR: An authentic voice is key to audience engagement, and something savvy marketers are always seeking. Laughs are always fun too.

Q: For a taste of Italian cycling culture, can you explain the “Nutella Rule?”

A: Well, I can comment on it, but I can’t necessarily explain it. Apparently there’s something about Nutella being the proper “benzina” (fuel) for cyclists, but only when the temperature is sufficiently cool. When the weather is above that threshold, Nutella is apparently avoided like the plague. Can I explain it? Nope. Is Nutella delicious? Yup.

Lyman PR: The glass jar variety, of course. Hmm, we’re seeing the ingredients for a Nutella sponsorship…

Follow Ted’s race through the Tour of California and ongoing adventures at Twitter.com/iamtedking and iamtedking.com. All photos courtesy of Ted King.