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The untapped marketing potential of the Tour de France

The untapped marketing potential of the Tour de France Mark Pinsent
The fact that the 2014 Tour de France started July 5 in England might have caused confusion for many casual observers of the annual global event, but leaving French shores for Le Grand Depart (as the start of the Tour is know) has become commonplace in recent decades. It’s an attempt to bring the Tour de France brand to an ever-increasing number of cycling fans, and certainly the burgeoning popularity of pedal-power in the UK was reflected in the huge numbers that lined the nation’s roads over the first three stages of the 2014 edition.

The Tour de France is often cited as the most-watched live sporting event on the planet, which sounds astonishing when compared to the Olympics or World Cup. To clarify, the Tour de France is the biggest global sporting event watched live, in person. The Tour lasts three weeks and its ‘stadia’ are 3,000 kilometres of open roads, where spectating costs nothing and might only mean a short stroll to the end of your front garden…

Perhaps it is for this reason that the world’s biggest brands – those that have spent hundreds of millions associating themselves with the World Cup in Brazil – have yet to flock to the Tour de France and professional cycling in general? Perhaps it’s due to professional cycling’s history of performance-enhancing drug taking which gives those concerned about brand reputation cause to hold back? Perhaps it is the fact that global interest in professional cycling is still extremely low when compared to other professional sports?

Ironically, it may actually be the Frenchness of the Tour de France, which restricts its attractiveness to global brands. The Tour is, effectively, one big marketing activity for the French tourism industry. TV coverage spends as much time focused on sweeping mountain vistas, beautiful coastlines, stunning châteaux and quaint villages as it does on the race itself. Most of the brands that associate themselves with the Tour are French, from Vittel water to Le Coq Sportif sportswear (producer of the leader’s famous yellow jersey since Nike gave up the role a couple of years back).

The Tour de France still represents a fantastic opportunity for brands to engage cycling fans in person and through media. They just need to do so in the right way. Here are four top tips to leverage the untapped marketing potential of the Tour de France.

Get experiential

Since the Tour de France is watched, in person by more people than any other global sporting event, it’s all about the live experience. Brands need to get face-to-face with fans. Whether it’s at the start line in the ville départ, the finish line in the ville d’arrivé, or somewhere along the stage route, there are plenty of opportunities for brands to bring their products directly to fans. Wattbike, producer of the advanced static training bike used by British Cycling (which has produced the last two winners of the Tour de France) has been allowing fans to test themselves in carefully designed programs designed to mimic Tour stages. Previously, cycle clothing brand Rapha has taken its mobile café to iconic points on Tour stage routes as a focal point for fans. Experience is everything.

Take the experience online

While millions of fans watch the Tour de France live at the side of the road, many millions more follow the race on TV and, increasingly, online. When a brand engages fans directly through experiential activity, it’s essential to capture that and replay through well-produced content in online and social channels. Britain’s Team Sky does an excellent job of keeping fans informed and entertained through post-stage rider reaction, photos galleries and video. Skoda cars, provider of vehicles to many professional teams, could be in the perfect position to capture and relay content from inside the peloton to fans online.

Go deeper than the Tour

Professional cycling fans are passionate about not only the sport, but simply about cycling itself. Whether that’s for commuting, for pleasure, or for health; they’re all keen to promote cycling to a broader audience and encourage participation. Brands must go beyond the superficial logo sticker level of sponsorship and must get involved in the grassroots of cycling, and show long-term commitment. Cycling enthusiasts will love you for it.

Surface the data

To date, cycling has done a poor job in using technology to improve the experience for television viewers, thus increase the audience size and attractiveness for brand sponsors. Contrast this with another global sporting show, Formula One motor-racing. For years, Formula One has provided live in car footage from which we’ve been able to listen into conversations between a driver and his team and see real-time data on the car’s performance; all of which add to the show’s TV viewer ‘stickiness’.

Cycling, on the other hand, has none of this but it absolutely could. Every pedal stroke a professional cyclist makes could be measured, riders could be connected by radio to their team bosses, and cameras are so small and light these days that they could be embedded in a bike’s handlebars without any problem at all. To be fair, we have seen team’s selectively release rider data and on-bike footage, but only post-event. We seem to be a long way from live coverage. This represents a huge opportunity for one of the world’s top technology brands.

Ultimately, as with any sports sponsorship, if a brand believes that its work has been done the moment it hands over the check, it is merely scratching the surface of the potential benefits. Become truly embedded, commit to the sport and engage the fans directly and you’ll be top of the podium. Allez!

Mark has more than 20 years’ experience in creating and delivering marketing communications programmes for B2B and B2C brands in the UK and internationally. For the past six years, Mark has been focused on using digital and social technologies...

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