Some recent moves in the mountain bike market got me thinking about the role athletes play in product development, how some bike companies get this right and others miss the mark and waste their valuable investment in athlete sponsorship. It’s not just about getting the right athlete deal in place as any athlete relationship needs to be activated through advertising and other promotional methods.
Moving back to what got this started, and the recent move of MTB hall of famer Brian Lopes to Intense. Not necessarily big news in itself until you consider his history with IBIS where he was synonymous with helping them develop some truly amazing product in recent years. Evaluating this in the cold light of day though, IBIS I think only really nailed half of the equation.. they had the right athlete, built a great relationship that translated his input into product development but who really knew about this? Therein lies the challenge for a small brand like IBIS, having done the great deal did they have the budget left to really shout about it? Sure industry insiders knew about it but what about the wider bike buying public? With Lopes now moving to Intense they have a chance to really capitalise with not just great product development but more importantly in using it as a vehicle to really activate the deal and amplify the story through their marketing programs.
Closer to home Canyon went through a similar exercise about this time last year in bringing Fabien Barel on board in both an athlete / product development role. The fruits of this relationship are now starting to bear fruit with the new Spectral AL but on the activation side I see similar challenges to IBIS. OK budgets are bigger, and with a higher profile Factory Enduro Team competing in the inaugural Enduro World Series, Canyon do have a larger platform to shout louder. This is also backed up through clever partner marketing with Mavic, Ergon and Michelin who also use Barel in ads.. and every time you see Barel you see a Canyon bike.
Picking out one star performer on the MTB side you don’t have to look as far afield. The Athertons have nailed it on all fronts; granted it helps to have a family unit of 3 such talented, world class siblings. But they have also worked hard on the product development side through solid deals with GT and Pro which also include signature product lines. Activation is taken care of thanks to a compelling mix of ad’s, films and most importantly a Red Bull partnership which covers documentaries, race coverage and live events. All this and we haven’t even talked about their race results which garner further column inches and press coverage.
On the road side it’s a similar scenario all be it with a bit more smoke and mirrors which I will explain later. Growing up as a cycling obsessed kid in the 80’s I was captured by Greg LeMond. Not just the way he raced his bike, but also the way he looked. LeMond was a pioneer of many modern developments in bike technology including clipless pedals, carbon frames, hard shell helmets, tri bars and sunglasses. Sponsor activation was not quite as sophisticated back then, and in a way LeMonds sponsors did not need to worry too much about it as every time he turned up for a race he generated media coverage with his new gear and gadgets. But let’s be clear on one difference with LeMonds relationship with these brands, he was the one in the driving seat seeking out new product to give him a competitive advantage, not the brands themselves seeking out an athlete to endorse their new product.
Fast forward a few years and Bjarne Riis was building a pro team at CSC with some radically different methods (some more questionable than others!) and one of these included a bike deal with a relatively unknown Canadian brand called Cervelo. Much like LeMond sought out the best product, so did Riis and in doing so Cervelo developed the Soloist, creating a brand new category in “Aero” road bikes. Again as with LeMond the product and the race results did the talking, and online coverage provided a new means of amplification.
By the time Cervelo had grown big enough to have their own Test Team devoted to working with a small group of industry sponsors including Castelli, ROTOR and 3T they had also spent some time thinking about how to activate. The Beyond the Peloton series of films provided a ground-breaking look behind the scenes of a pro team, and it was used to great effect to tell the story of genuine innovations the team helped to develop including the Castelli Gabba and ROTOR Q-Rings.
When the Test Team was absorbed into Slipsteam Sports at the end of 2010 it seemed on the outside like business as usual but by now I think Cervelo were not the force they once were with product innovation and their credibility in using pro athletes to develop product started to suffer. When famously asked by a certain tall, skinny pro team rider who couldn’t get his position low enough on the then new Cervelo S5, Cervelos response was that his position (after over 10 years as a pro) was wrong…. shame that bit didn’t make it into an episode of BTP. What was once a true partnership with CSC and the Soloist had morphed into Cervelo developing new product in a vacuum and then presenting it to the pro team to ride once it was fully baked. To the outside world though, the buying public were still sold the story of “we sponsor a pro team to help us develop great product”.
I think it’s fair to say that Cervelo are not alone in this respect in playing up the role of athlete involvement and feedback in the development of their products. Yes Pinarello have benefitted enormously from Team SKYs last two Tour de France wins but I very much doubt the riders concerned had any meaningful input into the development of the latest Dogma, and whenever they had the chance they were back to riding UK Sports Institutes unbranded bikes at the Olympics and World Champs. Which begs the question who then is really getting it right on the road side? Trek did a fantastic job in launching both the Domane and Boone road and CX bikes, which do on the surface appear to contain real product innovation. Cancellara and Nys have provided race winning credibility and if the ad’s are to believed some meaningful input into the product development.
Clearly though the road side has some catching up to do in this area, noted there are some substantial challenges to working with a team of up to 30 riders with a packed schedule rather than a handful on a factory MTB team. The other important factor to consider is the role of the UCI who police product innovation far more rigorously on the road than dirt where pretty much anything goes. There’s hope for the future then with the recent trend towards factory road teams including Trek, BMC and Giant, combined with a loosening of the UCI’s rulebook that we should start to see some exciting, athlete led product development. All that then remains is for the road brands to finally nail the activation part of the equation to prove to the buying public it’s not really all smoke and mirrors in the Pro Tour.