Tommy Caldwell's and Kevin Jorgeson's historic free climb up El Capitan's Dawn Wall appears to have raised the bar not just for climbers but for brand managers and the athletes they sponsor.
By the time the duo reached the top of the 3,000-foot cliff on the 19th day of the climb, they had engaged thousands of followers with their daily progress reports on social media and worldwide headlines. That's when Jess Clayton, a public relations manager with Patagonia, and Chris Goddard, who manages public relations for Adidas Outdoor, really got slammed.
“This story exploded beyond anything we could have imagined,” Goddard wrote in a blog post she shared with The B.O.S.S. Report Saturday. “From The Times of London, to Brazil TV, to Australian morning shows, to the barrage of morning show and broadcast appearances, this journey struck a chord with everyday people looking to achieve a dream.”
When contacted Friday, Clayton could not offer any metrics on media impressions or social media hits, but speculated that news of the climb had reached the “millions and millions and millions.”
The women had been working at the base of El Capitan all week coordinating a growing crowd of media, including NBC News, which displayed a live feed of the climb that drove crowds to the site every morning. Any doubts Clayton had about the magnitude of interest diminished when President Obama personally congratulated the climbers on The White House Facebook page on Wednesday. The post shows Obama pointing to Thomas Hill's iconic 1895 landscape portrait “Yosemite, Bridal Veil Falls,” which hangs in The White House.
“That's as big as it gets in my book,” said Clayton. “It's probably the biggest media event in years. This is massive.”
Although Caldwell and Jorgeson are both sponsored by outdoor brands, none of their sponsors officially sponsored the climb. While both are sponsored by Black Diamond, Caldwell is an athlete with Patagonia, while Jorgeson is sponsored by Adidas Outdoor. All three of the brands have authentic roots in mountaineering and compete head to head in the technical apparel market for the allegiance of serious rock climbers.
In fact, when asked during an investor conference Wednesday how Black Diamond would differentiate itself in an increasingly crowded market for technical outdoor apparel, CEO Peter Metcalf cited the media coverage of the event.
“You're now seeing the media glom on to current free ascent of El Capitan,” Metcalf told investor at the Needham & Co. Annual Growth Conference in New York City about an hour before the due reached the summit. “You see BD logos all over those guys and that helps people understand what this brand is about, that commitment that comes with the sport.”
Black Diamond provided extensive coverage of the climbers exploits on its web site, but its greatest exposure may have come from images of Caldwell's and Jorgeson's Black Diamond tent – with its nice big logos – that were beamed all over the world by fascinated media.
The event presented an unusual marketing opportunity, because unlike Mt. Everest or polar ice caps, Yosemite offers excellent mobile phone reception. That enabled Caldwell and Jorgeson and several film crews documenting their climb to crank out a steady stream of tweets and images that engaged their followers on social media.
When Jorgeson announced on Facebook that he had finally completed Pitch 15 after 11 attempts over 7 days, 434 people shared his joy by commenting on his Facebook page.
But only when the two embraced at the top of the wall did the scope of global interest dawn on Goddard.
“When Jess and I saw that they had achieved their dream – our phones blew up with texts and calls from media all over the world wanting to speak to Kevin and Tommy,” said Goddard. “The calls did not stop, even through the night (and I do mean through the entire night) from media that wanted to connect with the climbers first – they all had to be first.”
Goddard and the climbers woke at 3:30AM Thursday for a string of back to back interviews with every single morning show and The Weather Channel. A packed press conference with over 20 cameras and 20 one-on-one interviews followed.
Ironically, Jorgeson – donned in Adidas cap – ended up doing most the talking in the television interviews that following because Caldwell had grown so hoarse.
Caldwell will get plenty of chances to tell his story in coming days and months. Goddard said the two are scheduled to appear on the Ellen DeGeneres Show Tuesday and will be featured in an upcoming article of Vanity Fair.
Perhaps by then, Caldwell will get his voice back.
In the meantime, they have left an indelible mark on climbing history and the collective imagination of the world while further burnishing the brands of their sponsors.
“We’re proud to count Tommy as part of the Patagonia family. This is a riveting story that has captured the world’s attention, due to both the sheer challenge of the climb and Tommy's and Kevin’s persistence,” notes Jimmy Hopper, Patagonia’s global alpine marketing manager. “Tommy is ambitious but modest and he approaches climbing in the cleanest style without shortcuts.”