* Disappointingly, no one actually says Zut Alors! in France. So much for that school text book!
There are 22 teams in the Tour de France, a subset of eligible pro cycling teams overall. The top 18 teams of the World Tour have an automatic seat at the table, followed by four wild card entries. Each team has a sponsor or co-sponsors with jersey naming rights. There are sponsors for everything: cycling gear, individual cyclists, Le Tour itself, Official Broadcast Partners, and so on.
There is also the publicity caravan preceding the race. In true carnivale style, participants tries to do outdo each other with their floats, thumping music and free product for thrilled onlookers. [Editors note: It is perfectly fine to elbow small children to one side in pursuit of free madeleines.]
The chance to follow this year’s race in Normandy for a couple of days led to an irresistible opportunity to identify:
- the sponsors deserving a podium finish for their apparent branding success; and
- the ‘lanterne rouge’ sponsor for its more hidden treasures (the opposite of what a sponsor is likely to want to achieve).
The lanterne rouge is the competitor in last place in the Tour de France. The term is apparently derived from the red lantern hung on the rear vehicle of a passenger railway train. In a race as grueling as Le Tour, the winner of the lanterne rouge deserves respect, because this is often a domestique who has put in thankless hours helping a team leader, stayed within touch of the cut-off clock over the mountains, and still made it to the finish line.
The highly subjective formula used to arrive at these results involved synthesizing:
- strength of team name and collateral;
- the extent to which a jersey screams ‘look at me’ in the Peloton;
- the ‘scoreboard’ test (namely, how the team is going in individual and team standings after Week 1); and
- other indicia that I think relevant, but you may not.
Why do sponsors jump on board the Tour de France?
The Tour de France has a global audience of a gazillion people. Princes and peasants rub shoulders together in true democratic style. If you are looking for a more considered analysis as to why sponsors and Le Tour go together like bees and honey, look no further than my 2014 post on this topic, which also examined the sponsors of that year.
In that context, I pause in homage to 2014 sponsor, Bretagne-Seche, now replaced by another. Proving that the French can make anything sound good, Bretagne-Seche is a French waste treatment company that decided to do its bit for professional cycling.
Why might a French waste treatment company have sponsored a professional cycling team? Well, I have no idea. However, as one of my clients taught me, sponsorship sometimes goes beyond the obvious. Seeking to boost brand profile in the public domain might form only part of the rationale.
The client story goes like this. An Australian company in a growth phase decided to sponsor Cadel Evans before he won the Tour de France in 2011. Cadel was brought on-board, so I was told by an insider, because the business particularly wanted to showcase to staff that Cadel’s values aligned with where this company wanted to be. Cadel had a strong philanthropic slant, a low key style, and prodigious talent combined with a grinding work ethic. What a tremendous message to send to staff about the attributes valued by this business. Some great experiences with Cadel brought the message home. Cadel later added another attribute to this list. Loyalty. After he had found the ultimate cycling success, he did not dump this sponsor for greener pastures, but showed that he is loyal to those who are loyal to him.
The story about this client’s decision to become a sponsor concerned ‘positioning’ rather than ‘profile’, and ‘culture’ rather than the ‘bottom line’. Of course, making money was the ultimate aim, but there are different ways to get there.
In fact, scratch the surface of many cycling teams, and emotion rather than business drives any number of sponsorship decisions.
Take Australian based cycling team, Orica-Greenedge, that has recently added naming rights sponsor, BikeExchange, to its ranks. The new Orica-BikeExchange kit was revealed shortly before the Tour de France. BikeExchange is an online marketplace for ‘everything bike’ where consumers and retailer members trade their products and services locally.
Media reports suggest a conventional explanation for BikeExchange coming on board. Such a high profile sponsorship can bring awareness to the global expansion of BikeExchange, which has experienced rapid growth in the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and is soon to be launching in the UK and Ireland. All good so far.
However, keen observers will be aware that Orica’s sponsorship deal is coming to an end. Team owner Gerry Ryan has been looking around for a sponsor to take its place. He is an investor in the BikeExchange business. In other words, this has an interim feel about it, unless and until another key sponsor can be found. The underlying message here is that Gerry Ryan (a tremendous supporter of Australian sports across the board) will not let the team down.
Week 1: THE SPONSORS PODIUM
There are still a couple of weeks to go, so positions might change. Here we go with the interim results.
Maillot Jaune – Dimension Data
In 2015, this African team, then called MTN-Qhubeka, was considered something of a novelty act. Steve Cummings had a stage win after a brutally steep climb, and another rider wore the spotted (climbers) jersey for a short while. This put them on the map.
How things change. A new sponsor is on board, which basically does what it says in the name. Dimension Data is a global information technology services company, headquartered in South Africa. Deloitte is another sponsor. As the @TeamDiData Twitter handle says: “Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka, Africa’s first UCI World Tour Team racing to mobilise change in Africa, one bicycle at a time”.
I’m not sure whether in its wildest dreams Team ‘DD’ could have expected the success it achieved in Week 1: three stage wins by Mark Cavendish (who was supposed to be slowing down), not to mention Steve Cummings repeating his 2015 effort with a stage win after a solo attack on the Col D’Aspin.
Winners are grinners, and this underdog is all over your television screen, when it counts.
The Green Jersey – Cannondale
American based bike company Cannondale gets the award for this Italian team because its gear is, in fact, bright green, and it stands out. Some of its helmets are also embarrassingly awful.
That is why Cannonade has essentially been given a bravery award for its riders wearing the offending POC helmets. “Is it a bonnet?”, said a curious observer standing next to me. You decide, but note the expression on the rider’s face.
The Polka Dot Jersey (King of the Mountains) – Team Sky
I couldn’t let Team Sky win overall because it wins everything. The race favourite, Chris Froome, has been biding his time but is already wearing the yellow jersey. But this team knows all about brand, which is why it must be on the sponsors podium. And it can afford to look the best thanks to the Murdoch influence. Who else would have a muscle car like a Mustang as its team car? Even its bus is classy. Team Sky knows all the rules about the strength of basic black.
For Team Sky, it’s all about the look, and the results. I’ve also awarded bonus points for Luke Rowe’s spontaneous smile at the Saint-Lo starting line.
You don’t have to be sexy to be a sponsor: Bora-Argon 18
Bora manufactures cooking systems. We don’t care so much about Argon 18 because it’s soon to be replaced. Hansgrohe, the new sponsor, is a bathroom products manufacturer.
True it is, the look is a little bit copycat Team Sky. There is a lot of black. But it looks good, and in its third year of wildcard participation, Bora has certainly caught the eye.
The all-rounder: Team BMC
BMC Racing is a US team, but BMC makes Swiss cycling technology for racing and mountain biking. This is the team that benefited from Cadel Evans’ recruitment in 2010. The following year he won Le Tour overall. In 2016, Richie Porte is carrying the Australian flag, long rumoured to be a general classification contendor, but never quite overcoming ‘the one bad day’ syndrome. Onlookers of Richie groaned in Week 1 at what appeared to be innumerable flat tyres.
Still, Team BMC promises big, and at the end of Week 1, it leads the team’s classification. Its riders are often seen driving forward on the front of the peloton. In eye-catching red, viewers cannot miss Team BMC.
Not Movie Stars, but Movistar
You have to give points to a team that has apparently gone with a green handlebar mustache on the front of a navy jersey. Some of you might say, “It’s not a mustache, it’s the ‘M’ for ‘Movistar’, a Spanish telecommunications company”. I don’t believe you.
With GC contender Nairo Quintana and team members leading the way, often chatting to members of Team BMC at the front of the peloton, Movistar is a genuine podium threat. However, there is too much navy this year. More on that shortly.
Wearing gambling on its sleeve: Lotto NL Jumbo
This Dutch team must be getting dizzy from all its name changes. Belkin? Gone. Rabobank? Gone. Blanco? Gone. But who cares? Just have a look at the bus.
The best chant: AG2R La Mondiale
The phonetic prize. Imagine you are standing by the side of the road hearing French supporters cheering for one of their oldest teams. In English, AG2R sounds quite harsh. And kind of boring. After all, the initials do represent a French based professional insurance and superannuation fund group. But in French… Ooh la la! The initials sound like this: Ah-Jay-Deux- Air! It sounds really good. Especially repeated. So we’ll overlook the brown jerseys, which are not so good for people (like me) who are reminded of their old school uniform.
Splashing the cash: Direct Energie
It’s been impossible to avoid Direct Energie in the 2016 Tour de France, even if you want to. This sponsor is all about the public profile, presumably wanting to sign up every French household to its electricity packages. Team jerseys? Check. Publicity Caravan? Definitely. TV ads during ‘breaks’ from Le Tour coverage? Definitely. There’s been so much Direct Energie advertising, one almost became nostalgic for a ŠKODA ad. Almost.
The lanterne rouge – Orica-Bike Exchange
Sorry guys. I have to call it like I see it. And your jerseys have disappeared into the peloton this year. This is the number one reason why you get the Lanterne Rouge prize. At the moment anyway. The navy and green is hopeless for the viewer, glued to the screen trying to pick out a rider during a bunch sprint.
In a sea of blue, can you spot the Orica-BikeExchange riders?
Adam Yates is leading the white jersey competition, and is becoming strong as the race hits the mountains. However, some of its sprinters have perhaps not lived up to the expectations they have set for themselves.
And finally, it is not Adam Yates’ fault that he was belted by the flamme rouge (think jumping castle inflatable at 1 km mark) when it came crashing down on top of him at the conclusion of Stage 7. However, after the team bus became stuck on the finishing line in a previous year, perhaps the sponsors are ready for a different kind of publicity.
Final observation – WHO CONTROLS BRAND?
ŠKODA’s television advertising in recent years has been so successful, most of us are unable even to say the brand name without using a Czech accent.
The photograph below has left an enduring impression on me. It is a good reminder that no matter how much a brand seeks to control its position and profile, ultimately, everything remains in the hands of the consumer.