Cycling may be my passion. But Advertising has been my profession for over two decades. And I’m still pretty passionate about that too. Given this, and the fact I can’t post about Lance Armstrong and Mario Cipollini all the time, I thought it was high time I cast a critical eye over the advertising offerings from within the cycling industry.
My first observation is a rather obvious one. Given the high expense, and still relative niche status of our sport, it isn’t that surprising there isn’t a lot of TV advertising to comment on, except perhaps when le Tour is on. No, when it comes to road cycling, Print and Digital media is very much where the battle for supremacy is being waged, with pretty much everything built heavily on a platform of strategic alliances and sponsorships.
Just as is the case in pretty much every other industry on the planet, some players are doing things considerably better than others. So here’s what I think…
Off the front
Rapha. Newly-signed sponsor for the all-conqueing Team Sky, Rapha is in a class of its own. And not just when it comes to their outrageously high pricetags. Quality and passion oozes out of pretty much everything they do. Clothes. Films. Strava challenges. Sponsorships. They’ve managed to build a distinctive brand and tone of voice, and stay true to both as they’ve grown over the last few years – something far more difficult than it sounds. As a rider I particularly love their ever-growing library of online films. They always make we want to ride. Of course, if you were to ask me if I own any of their gear I’d have to say…no.
Specialized. Whilst not quite in Rapha’s league for marketing innovation, Specialized isn’t too far behind. Their strategy, similar to Shimano, focuses a lot more around the hero worship of top riders, Tom Boonen and Mark Cavendish (except in 2012) to name just two. This is classic Sports Marketing 101 – because it works. What I do like about Specialized is that in the last year or two they’ve embraced a far more consistent approach to everything they do, from their ads and collateral, to their website and social media. They’ve introduced a strong and distinctive look with red colour blocking for their type. Yes, a simple touch. But it works like visual glue, bonding everything they do together. They’ve also started implementing touring roadshows, where you can ‘ride the range’. Smart.
Safely in the bunch
Wiggle. Clearly these guys are making loads of money. But from what I’ve seen in the last 2 years they’ve been doing it more on the back of a slick eBusiness model and a customer relationship program that (very cleverly) squeezes every last dollar out of their customers than through top-shelf advertising and branding. I guess when your prices are so much cheaper, you’re going to sell a lot stuff whatever you do. Money talks. But as I’ve mentioned previously, the really interesting thing is it seems Wigle has finally realised they can’t survive forever on price alone. Sooner or later someone else will find a way to be cheaper, and then you’ll have no brand equity to fall back on. Wiggle is beginning to spread its wings and enter into the world of local events and team sponsorships among other things. Their ads, for now at least, are still pretty shit.
Shimano. When you produce quality components used by nearly half the WorldTour peloton, it’s a no brainer to hero those teams in your advertising. Shimano have done this ever since I can remember, and throw what must be a fair wad of Yen at industry magazines every year to snap up the best advertising real estate, like inside front covers and back covers. In the last year they’ve also started to curate their social media far more actively too. But if I had to sum them up in one word right now, that word would be…boring.
Chain Reaction. Again, like Wiggle these guys have made a killing through the sheer scale of their eBusiness operations. Their economies of scale must be incredible. But again, if you live by cheap prices, sooner or later you’ll die by them too. Change may well be afoot at Chain Reaction HQ judging from their recent sponsorship of the Sean Kelly pro team, but for now they seem to be run very much by bean counters and salespeople, not brand marketers. While Wiggle at least seems to be a contemporary business, Chain Reaction has always seemed more than a little naff and naïve to me. And their ads are just awful. It looks like the boss’s kids have bashed them out in PowerPoint after school. Brand equity? Nil.
Your local bike shop. It pains me to say this. But a lot of great bike shops are really struggling to cope in the 21st century. Whilst new players are entering the market utlising the potent power of digital commerce and social media to drive their business, many (but thankfully not all) older operators seem to be clinging desperately to the past. I’m not for a second suggesting they have the budgets to compete head-on with the major online stores and manufacturers, but at the very least why don’t they all have customer relationship programs? The best way to keep us coming back is to keep talking to us and giving us reasons to come back. Go silent and we’ll start listening to someone else pretty quickly. Regular email bursts. Facebook communities. Special in-store events and ‘how to’ workshops. Sponsoring a local club and/or ride. They all help. And none are especially expensive. Yet suprisingly few LBS’s seem to do these things.
Stars. As I’ve mentioned, a lot of brands tend to just show pros winning with their stuff, be it bikes, shoes, sunglasses, helmets, chamois cream etc. That’s worked just fine for decades now. But it’s pretty one dimensional, especially in 2013. It’s also rather generic. Take Mr Cavendish. A few years back he was a star for Specialized at HTC. Then he was a star for Pinarello at Sky. Now in 2013 he’s a star for Specialized once again at Omega-Pharma-Quickstep-Thingamabobby. Is it his choice of bike that makes him awesome? Hardly. There’s still a place for endorsements, and always will be. But the way cycling brands leverage these endorsements needs to get a lot smarter, richer and more creative than just a sexy photo with a snappy headline.
Two way dialogue. Social media is no longer an option in modern business. It’s a necessity – the perfect way to create an ongoing conversation with your customers and, perhaps more importantly, prospective ones. I look at the power of social applications like Strava (which I love) and see a carbon-laden goldmine for those brands who are able to harness it over the next few years. The surface has barely been scratched.
Footnote: Yes, I’ve left Red Bull and Nike out of this post until now. Only because I don’t consider them cycling brands as such. However as a sporting mega brands that do it all, they have few peers – even if several of their chosen stars have fallen from grace over the years, including one Nike guy you may have heard of from Austin, Texas. Backed by the awesome creative firepower of some of the world’s greatest ad agencies, the ‘swooshed’ one has been behind so many outstanding campaigns I can’t possibly list them all. But just for fun, you may like to check out this one from the 2009 Tour de France…I’d be very happy to have my name on the credits.