Joe Kukura

At this time last year, San Francisco's legendary Bay to Breakers footrace faced a sponsorship crisis. Deep-pocketed sponsor ING had yanked their sponsorship deal citing concerns over Bay to Breakers' notoriously boozy and rowdy reputation. The historic 100th running of the race was just race just two months away -- but the race had no sponsor, a radioactive reputation and a deeply uncertain future.

The 2011 Bay to Breakers was a corporate sponsorship hornets nest that no self-respecting brand would touch. But then along came Zazzle, a Redwood City startup allowing buyers to personalize their own t-shirts, coffee mugs, hoodies and other accessories. Zazzle gave the stumbling event a second wind with a unique model of synergy that provided a boon for both the race and Zazzle's brand.

The Bay to Breakers 12k race has long been an iconoclastic event, to put it mildly. Runners dress in Elvis jumpsuits, "I Dream of Jeannie" costumes and thousands of them wear just their birthday suits. The bacchanal nature of the clothing-optional event made it an increasingly poor fit for a button-down corporate sponsor.

Zazzle had the insight to see an opportunity. When they announced their two-year sponsorship in March 2011, Zazzle co-founder Jeff Beaver told the San Francisco Chronicle, "As an event, it's kind of the epitome of self expression, and that's what our website is all about empowering."

Normally, a corporate sponsorship is just an attempt to get a company's name in front of consumers' eyeballs. But Zazzle's business model dovetails exceptionally well into the Bay to Breakers ethos. Zazzle didn't just design a vast array of Bay to Breakers merchandise. Their "design-it-yourself" platform appeals directly to the Bay to Breakers demographic -- many of whom take it as an article of faith that they will spend several weeks and hundreds of dollars on their Bay to Breakers costumes.

Zazzle's feature allowing consumers to design their own gear provides the perfect fit for the bon vivant costume crowd. But through Zazzle's affiliate programs, other Bay to Breakers fans can run up big sales too. Amateur graphic artists and designers have the opportunity to design and sell more gear on Zazzle's platform for creating custom products. Webmasters have the opportunity for sizable referral bonuses through Zazzle's affiliate program.

Zazzle will be represented at ad:tech San Francisco, in a Tuesday, April 3 presentation entitled "Affiliate Marketing: Best Practices for the Advanced Marketer".

At this Zazzle event, though, clothing is not optional.

This article is part of Allvoices’ series on ad:tech, the largest digital marketing and technology conferences and expositions. Check out for more of Allvoices’ ad:tech San Francisco event coverage. This series is supported by ad:tech.