Le Maillot Jaune
The UK's two week annual love affair with Wimbledon has started but each year I turn my attention to the Le Tour de France.
Since a young boy, I’ve always been in awe of the extraordinary achievements and determination of those crazy enough to take part – and having ridden L’Etape du Tour a couple of times I find it even more remarkable.
Le Tour has never been far from controversy, right from its very origins in 1904, when defending inaugural champion, Maurice Garin, was disqualified when it emerged that he had employed the unimaginative, but devastatingly effective measure of forgoing his bicycle in favour of a railway carriage during some of the longer stages. Mechanical doping for the 1900s.
It appears we’re in one of the ‘cleanest’ eras, and this year promises to be a humdinger. But how is it that Le Tour, unlike many other brands in the sport of business world can bounce back so strongly from each controversy?
A compelling brand story
Created in 1903 by French newspaper, L’Auto, Le Tour de France is a great example of successful brand partnership. Coverage of the race gave L’Auto a competitive advantage and helped them increase their flagging paper sales. At the same time, the staggering tales of human endeavour that unfolded helped to make Le Tour a brand in its own right. With roots in commercialism and storytelling, Le Tour has a rich history, and a well-defined brand story. It contains stories of success and failure, good vs. bad, and invites fans to celebrate their cultural passions. It has it all.
Distinctive brand assets
Le maillot jaune – the yellow jersey – is worn by the race leader, and was incorporated into the race to reflect the yellow paper L’Auto was printed on. It has since become one of the most iconic brand assets in the world of sport. This coveted jersey is well complimented by the polka-dot (King of the Mountains), green (points) and white (young rider) jerseys, all tokens of the heraldic and collectable prestige of the race.
Unique brand experience
The rituals and brand experience of Le Tour are totally unique, and although it now embraces many other countries en route, it is still spectacular, eccentric and unmistakably French. As it sweeps through the towns and villages of France and beyond, it brings with it the commercial tawdriness of la caravane publicitaire – a convoy of vehicles throwing tat to the fans before the riders pass. Nevertheless, it creates feelings of excitement, along with incredible exposure people pay good money for. In a way, it does French tourism's job for it. But the effect of Le Tour doesn’t stop there.
Le Tour is a global brand that’s helped spread a love for cycling around the world, and given rise to a number of other events. You can participate in L’Etape Australia or even Brazil. As its influence spreads, it brings with it new supporters and cycling enthusiasts, cementing the brand’s future.
Fans play a central role
Le Tour would not be Le Tour without its fans. An estimated 12 million spectators gather on the roadsides, providing a colourful and passionate backdrop for competitors throughout the race. There’s something incredibly overwhelming about the rainbow of nations, who have painted the names of their heroes on the narrow mountain passes. And having watched the riders summit the Galibier, the atmosphere is electric. There is no sport where you can get so close (sometimes dangerously so) to the action.
Le Tour is the perfect combination of riders, corporate partners and most importantly, the fans. But above all, it is the gallic emotion that makes it truly special. Sports brands could learn a lot following in its tracks: its strength comes from its authenticity. Le Tour invites its fans to form and become part of its brand story and shape their own experiences. That’s why, despite the scandals that will undoubtedly crop up over the years, Le Tour will always ride on to the next town. It’s relentless. And that's why we love it.