Jul 28, 2009 at 02:08 PM
written by Joe Waters

Cause Marketing Lessons from the Tour de France

The Tour de France, the world’s most famous bike race wrapped up last weekend–sadly, without our hero Lance in yellow. It’s been a tough struggle for the Tour the past couple of years. First, it didn’t have a big name rider like Lance involved anymore. But an even bigger problem has been the drug scandals that have knocked out some of cycling’s best riders and left a blemish on the sport.

And sponsors don’t like controversy. T-Mobile and Adidas are just two of the premium brands to exit the event. Not that the Tour ever attracted a lot of well known brands to begin with, at least ones we’re familiar with here in the states.

Faced with a tarnished image, the Tour regrouped for 2009. Lance was back, which helped I’m sure, but it wasn’t enough to bring back the big sponsors.

Reading all about this in a Business Week article got me thinking about the connections between the Tour’s challenges and those we face as cause marketers, and what can be learned. Like the Tour, let’s do this in stages.

Stage 1: Reputation is everything. Professional cycling’s refusal to clean up its act has nearly killed the sport as sponsor money has bled out. No margin, no mission. Of course, in anything we do we have to mind our reputation (or character, as Scotty Henderson better describes it). But as cause marketers we need to leverage our strongest selling point: our hard fought reputations are springboards to enhance the reputations of others (aka “halo effect”). Said or unsaid, that’s why corporate sponsors align themselves with us. A marketing director once asked me if her company was spending tens of thousands of dollars on radio, TV and print ads, why would she invest in cause marketing? “Those other media give you visibility,” I replied. “I give you favorability.”

Stage 2: Target smaller companies. With the absence of large sponsors at this year’s Tour, organizers targeted smaller companies who were only too happy to pay a modest investment to reach an international audience.

Many teams operate on budgets of less than $10 million, and some of the cost is shared by secondary sponsors. So for a few million, companies such as Taiwanese mobile-phone maker HTC or the Netherlands’ Rabobank gain a global TV audience.

Fortunately, large companies aren’t fleeing cause marketing partnerships because of impropriety as they are with the Tour. But you’ve probably witnessed what I’ve seen: these big companies have found other things to do with their time and money than spend it on you. Learn from the Tour and target smaller companies that are better candidates and eager participants in your cause marketing programs. Most of the money raised in cause marketing now happens at the grass-tops–with the biggest companies in America–and not enough below. There lies the opportunity.

Some of the sponsors for the Tour de France include national lotteries, flooring-product makers and petro-dictatorships. As cause marketers we clearly have a long way to go (especially with the petro-dictatorships).

Stage 3: Even if you can’t win, go for the breakaway. Something you see all the time during the Tour are these yahoos who sprint off the front of the main pack of riders (called the peloton in cycling lingo) only to be reeled back into the pack a short time later. Why do that? Sponsors love it. When you’re the only one riding out front you (and your sponsor) get lots of TV time. The sponsor is happy because it gets some “alone time” in a sea of Tour sponsorships. The Tour organizers are happy because they can show next year’s sponsors just how much an individual sponsor can standout during the big race.

What about your cause marketing program? Do you give your partners a chance to breakaway from the pack for their moment of glory? Regardless of which program they choose, I give all my partners a chance to stand out from the crowd. All the pinup partners for Halloween Town, for instance, get a free sponsorship that includes a brandland experience at the event. A super-market chain sponsored the Pumpkin Patch where kids decorated their own pumpkins and had their pictures taken. The sponsor stood out from the other sponsors, who had their own unique event experience, and gave me a great sales tool to use with potential sponsors the following year.

The Tour de France isn’t three stages long, nor are the lessons we can learn from it limited to three. I know there are more. And I know there are a few cycling enthusiasts among the readers here! Think of it as the team time trial, and it’s your turn to take the lead. Let’s shift this conversation into high gear.

Joe Waters is currently the Director of Cause Marketing for Boston Medical Center, an avid blogger and a rabid Boston Red Sox fan. Joe can be reached at Joe.Waters@bmc.org and followed on twitter at @joewaters and at selfishgiving.com. If you are interested in contributing your own sponsorship insights, send us an email at info@sponsorpitch.com