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The Community Podcast #20

Yousef Hammoudah: How we Built Adidas Runners

Yousef is the Global Director of Culture & Community for adidas Running. What he started as a Berlin runners club 6 years ago is now a global community known as adidas Runners, spanning 65 cities and 5 continents.

We wanted to learn about Yousef’s journey with adidas Runners, and to understand how we can build authentic brand communities in times when people don’t trust brands anymore. We talked about how a brand regains trust by building lasting relationships, how a local community scales globally, and how it measures its success.

Here is episode #20 of the Community Podcast with Yousef Hammoudah.

Listen to The Community Podcast on your mobile device by subscribing on iTunes, Spotify, Soundcloud, Stitcher or your favorite podcasting app (search for "co-matter"). 

Follow Yousef at @yousefhammoudah or adidas Runners at @adidasrunners. Even better, check if there's an adidas Runners club in your city and join it. Who knows, maybe your first marathon is just around the corner.

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Interview excerpts

We selected and transcripted a few key parts of our conversation with Yousef, so you can read and share them. 


The adidas Runners community

adidas Runners is a global community of runners in 65 cities at the moment, with around 350,000 registered participants. We are organized in city groups where, in each of the cities, we have captains and coaches to organize, manage, and operate the community.

The idea is that, starting from our brand DNA, our belief that, through sport, we have the power to change lives, with adidas Runners we try to understand and translate that into something that is meaningful and can really help people thrive in their personal athlete career. If we want to be the best sports brand in the world, it’s not going to be enough to just deliver the best product in the world. Building up a network of community members that would not only find coaches and captains in their respective cities to help them understand their potential and help them unfold it, but also build connections across cities, across continents, all over the world – that is something that we feel is unique to the program we're running. It has delivered great results both on the–let's say–business side, and the emotional side, with very interesting personal stories behind these people who are doing this everyday.


Measuring the success of a community

When you are in charge of a significant budget and you need to have your shareholders trust in you making the right decisions with such a project, you'll want to know exactly how to ensure the brand stays in control. Communities and relationships, they’re not the easiest to control or measure. Like, try to measure love. What is the KPI of your mother’s love, right? I was lucky enough to work with leaders within the company and within my specific organization who would trust this approach, would understand the mechanics behind it, and see this as a unique and genuine opportunity for us to stand out. Because there's no other brand that has a global brand community that is actually authentic, that's living, where people use our platform not only to have a relationship with the brand, but to build new relationships with each other. You have no idea how many couples have actually come together because of adidas Runners and how many babies are on the way. That's something that shows me we're doing something right. But yes, there was always the challenge of the measurability of success.

In the beginning, the key question was: what do we actually want to achieve with adidas Runners, with this community approach? Do we want to sell more shoes? Is it simply commercial success we want to measure, or is it brand love, brand heat, net promoter score, things like that? What we wanted was to change the way people see the brand. If a brand tells you: hey, if you use this shoe, you will be the fastest runner – that’s less credible than if a friend tells you: man, I’ve just finished my first marathon and I did this together with these adidas Runners guys, and it was amazing. So that's why, um, it was a lot of trust involved and it forced us to create a set of Kpis, key performance indicators that would help us to prove our approach is right.

It took us a couple of years, I must say, until we were able to deliver results and develop a set of KPIs that would help us prove our approach is right.  Because community, relationships, any of that – I always like to compare it with a tree, with something that grows organically: you cannot just put a seed into the soil and pull out a whole tree tomorrow. You'll have to nurture it, water it, you have to make sure it is getting everything it needs, and you have to wait and be patient. And then ideally the outcome is everyone has fruit and shadow. I'm really, really happy that we had the chance to grow this over quite a few years and now deliver on KPIs that everyone is very happy about.


Community KPIs for adidas Runners

In order to give people a proper idea of what we're doing, we decided to create a very indepth, holistic set of KPIs. It starts with the memberships: we have a whole funnel from when someone is interested in being part of one of our Facebook groups, to when they register, to when they come in for our runs five times – the adidas Runner shirt that you see, you would never be able to buy it, you have to earn it by running with us at least five times. And then the next level in the funnel is when someone participates in runs on a monthly basis. We believe that’s the right way to measure relationships, because a relationship is defined by the time you continue to exist together with the community, and not just get your free shirt and then walk away. That's the membership part. Then we measure the share of voice. We count how many brands people wear when they come run with us, and then see how it evolves over time. Then we have the brand heat measurement, the net promoter score (NPS). We measure that not only in within the community, but also in retail, in our ecommerce, we measure it anonymously in cities. We do it to understand how different peer groups react differently when it comes to deciding if they want to recommend a brand or not and how the level of identification actually changes.

The dynamics between all these different KPIs give us a great idea of how it works. You know, one of the things we would always hear was: guys, we're investing a lot of budget in this, how many active members do we actually have? And they were expecting us to say millions, when we maybe have a couple of 10,000 across 66 cities. And that's quite a good number I think, but in global corporation people are used to many more zeroes. So they would be like: why are we investing so much money for so few people? And we would answer: because those people are the ones that are going to recommend the brand for real, they're really going to do that, not just say they would, not just choose 9 or 10 on a scale when they’re asked, they would actually actively recommend the brand.

We did a so-called earned social media analysis using a service called Picodash, that would help us track our hashtag uses on public Instagram posts. And the result was that between July ´18 and March ´19, we had probably 18,500 people using #adidasrunners on Instagram posts, cca. 150,000 posts creating a reach of 143 million people, an engagement of 30 million likes and comments, and an organic earned social audience of nearly 1 billion. We've benchmarked that against the competition and against our other projects and realized that it’s a huge success. This was surely one of the arguments that helped us a lot to prove we’re doing things right, enabled us to get to the next level and really keep pushing the envelope.


From 1 city to 65 in 6 years

In September 2014 we launched what we call today adidas Runners, but back then was a project called Boost Berlin. Initially we just tried to create a good group of people and a three-month pilot where we would just meet, run together and understand what we actually want to achieve. We invited 5 people from the Berlin ecosystem and had them invite 10 people, and we just organized a little party here, a little a speaker session there, and lots of runs and workouts in between, including yoga and whatnot. That created such a great vibe, not necessarily because we were the best runners or we had the most scientific approach to getting people running faster, but just because we really managed to create an authentic community. And I always said that it is impossible for brand to create a community. What the brand can do is create a great framework, pull in the right people and hope for the best. The better the quality of your framework, the better the qualities of the people coming in, and the better the fit to your brand’s DNA – the more likely that it works out in the end.

In those three months we realized that people just loved hanging out with each other, they had shared ideas, shared values, shared beliefs. And that's what a community is, compared to a network – it’s people believing in each other. Since that was a closed group, everyone around the group wanted to be part of it, because they could see it's fun from what members were sharing. So we were able to create desirability around this even early on and scale quite fast. Meanwhile, we were also learning a lot about what these people actually needed – what a beginner needs compared to what a pro needs. We understood that, among all the communities out there for fast runners, for cool runners, for female only runners, we had our window of opportunity, our niche in being the community of runners that makes every runner better. That required competence, a holistic approach to meet the needs of the runners, it required the right locations, the right partnerships. We created research projects with all these individual runners and captains and coaches, which turned into the Berlin brand experience ecosystem. [...] People got to know each other, and they liked what we were offering. To a certain extent, we increased the life quality of the people who were part of this ecosystem. After three years, our market share had doubled in the running segment, and our NPS value had increased massively. That led to the competition starting to focus funds on taking back Berlin, but also to adidas understanding that using this model and rolling it out in other cities might be a good idea. So they started a little internal pitch where different product categories proposed concepts of community. We pitched our adidas Runners concept, and we convinced the senior management, got the funds and resources we needed and have been growing the global communities since November ´17.

To replicate this framework in other cities was probably the hardest challenge, because while we were doing our thing in Berlin initially and then a couple more cities, there were a lot of similar projects being launched in other cities, but with different concepts. There was no alignment, no clear central idea or unique message that we wanted to get out. So when I took over together with my partner in crime Eduardo Rodriguez, we had to find a way to use what we already had and rework it in a way that it would be applicable in every city in the world. What we did was really break it down to the key aspects of our philosophy. We did a lot of education in the beginning about relationship building, about the difference between fireworks–marketing initiatives where it’s all fun but the next day you don't know who paid the drinks–and fire–investing the money over 365 days, 24/7. Then we did a thorough assessment of what profiles we needed for captains and coaches, and started to brief all the city teams in finding the right people. We ended up creating a 500-slide framework, which we call The Bible, and people hate us for it, along with a recruitment brief and a set of global activation elements. [...] 70% of my work is made up of update calls with markets, to answer their questions, to get interesting feedback, to understand their situations and improve on our toolkits, activation concepts and new initiatives for the next season.


How community building can change consumer marketing

I'm a strong believer that, 9 decades after Edward Bernays started this whole thing with his book Propaganda, we can finally change what has been understood as manipulation into inspiration. To change what was very commercial and driven by the interest of a few, to a concept of brands as properties that belong to all of us, where agencies, shareholders, employees and customers work together to create something that is helping everyone and not only a few. That’s what drives me.