xJune 2006 x

By Graham Jones
CyclingRevealed Historian















Marketing Assassins

In our high tech, interconnected world marketing hype' long ago reached the point of total saturation. Legions of sophisticated marketers employ research techniques to analyze sales performance, consumer preferences and attempt to predict forward looking trends. Words, music, graphics and other elements are combined to penetrate our senses with the ultimate goal of developing ‘mind share' and ‘brand loyalty' which in turn translate into economic success.

Whoever came up with the idea for the yellow armband concept for Lance Armstrong's “Livestrong” cancer foundation unwittingly created one of the greatest marketing programs of all time. A simple idea, low cost and most importantly a concept that captured popular appeal world wide at all levels of society. This program has become a ‘case history' now analyzed by sales and marketing specialists everywhere.

We all know the story of the origins of the Tour de France. Simply stated it was a marketing campaign designed to sell newspapers. However marketing campaigns have a notoriously short shelf life. Consumers are a fickle lot and to maintain their attention nimble marketers quickly move forward with new ideas.

Henri Desgrange was a master innovator and marketer extraordinaire. In 1910 he introduced the Pyrenees and Alps to the Tour. In those days mountain roads were not much more than rough tracks. Everyone, especially those pioneering riders, thought that this was sheer madness. Desgrange built up the anticipation for months in his newspaper and the general public eagerly awaited the reports of the race. Francois Faber held the race lead for the first eleven stages but a tremendous duel was evolving with his own teammate Octave Lapize. Daily, Desgrange whipped up excitement with the French public through articles in his L'Auto newspaper. Nobody knew what to expect as the race headed into the unknown territory of the Pyrenees . Stage 10 was an epic which took in four classic cols; Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque.

Tour leader Octave Lapize climbing up the Aubisque, spit out bitter words to race officials: “Vous etes des assassins” (you are assassins / murderers ). Desgrange immediately captured this and through his newspaper articles of the day gave birth to one of the great legends of cycling. The maestro had produced another marketing coup and for almost 100 years now the Alps and Pyrenees have been focal points of the Tour. Today these fabled climbs bring out roadside spectators in their millions. For sponsoring companies this scenario is a marketing dream world.

1948 TdF. Bobet leads Bartali near Aix-les-Bains. Such conditions were not
unusual in the mountains during the first half of the 20th Century

When the Giro d'Italia marketing geniuses came up with the idea to include the unmade climb of the Colle dello Finestre in their 2005 race the announcement was greeted with incredulity. Replicating the dire pre-race dialogue that Desgrange created almost a 100 years before them, the Giro organizers basked for months in excited attention. Journalists, riders, team management and members of the general public visited the Finestre and sent back photos and reports predicting that it would be impossible for a modern peloton to ascend the steep muddy quagmire. Like moths to a flame race fans all over the world were riveted to the race on the big day. Not only did the race get over the climb but the race itself was one of the most exciting in years. For the Giro organizers the Finestre day was an unqualified marketing success.

Obviously a touch of retro racing creates huge spectator appeal and for Giro 2006 the unmade road of the Plan de Corones was the big talking point. The Giro marketers were on a roll! Again reports and photographs populated the media for months. A sure fire catastrophe awaited the race while race fans waited with unbridled anticipation. Once more the Giro marketing formula is delivering much to the delight of the organizers and sponsors. However for 2006 the Giro upped the challenge by creating one of the toughest weeks of climbing racing anywhere for many years. The Plan de Corones was just one of the tasty morsels! It was unfortunate that on race day extremely inclement weather forced the race organization to move the stage about 5kms down the Plan de Corones finish climb and thus eliminate the ‘retro portion' of unmade road.

Naturally many of the riders complain and would much prefer to earn their money over more forgiving territory. However unlike their pioneering predecessors of a century ago, the modern peloton is superbly conditioned with training techniques and a support structure capable of handling such racing. With the stage set, all that is left is for the best riders to launch heroic exploits. If they succeed then not only does the Giro benefit but the sponsors of the riders reap huge marketing exposure that could last for years as the story is told and retold.

In the eyes of Octave Lapize, Henri Desgrange and his race organizers were assassins. Almost 100 years later the Giro organizers are using marketing lessons handed out by Desgrange. As a result these modern ‘marketing assassins' are building the most innovative race on the calendar.

While the Tour moves forward mainly under its own legendary impetus it could do well to take note of the initiatives being implemented at the Giro. Maybe during a future Grand Tour we will see the return of other retro concepts like tandem paced or derny paced racing. That would truly capture the imagination of the great sporting public. Marketing assassins – get to work!



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