Sunday, November 8, 2009

Shout To The Top

The room is stark… not Phillipe Starck but just downright plain; unadorned ordinary with cold (not chilled) white-washed walls unencumbered by pictures or, indeed, imagery of any kind.

There are two windows but only one will open to little more than a crack; the air inside smells suspiciously of cleaning fluids.

There are two beds, neither double nor single but somewhere in-between; both are topped by sterile –probably disinfected – lightweight duvets, encouragingly turned back. No chocolate on the pillow though – this is low grade but high rent.

The television – seriously hi-definition and gadget friendly – is positioned high on the wall facing the beds – presumably such that one can lay back and enjoy all on offer.

The remote control is, helpfully, hidden in a jar on a tray next to the orange-brown coffee cups and miniscule plastic milk containers. Hunting high and low, it takes me fifteen minutes before I’m able to locate said gadget. Attempting to operate it, I wish that I’d listened more carefully instead of dreaming about bike races and music while studying O-level physics at school.

Access to all of the premium channels (with premium meaning low-grade pornography) is set at a premium price – I know this because, flicking through the channels with only the remote to guide me, I click on a button I don’t mean to and am but a hair’s breadth from adding a premium charge to a room already costed-out at pure rip-off. Only nimble dexterity of thumb and forefinger leads me back to the remake of a remake of a film I saw when I last wore short trousers.

The bathroom is next door and looks (and feels) like its been used by a generation of corpulent business men who, presumably, have lain back on one of the two medium sized beds having chalked up a further premium charge to their expense accounts that, ultimately, will be filed by Miss Jones at the outer limits of her desk under… miscellaneous. Oh, how they must miss their wives and loved ones.

This noble emporium has, however, announced itself as being wi-fi friendly; ahhh… splendid – that means I can connect to the world wide west and, at the very least, keep in touch with loved ones as well as stay on top of inbound work-related ‘stuff’.

Well travelled machine is plugged in; it sparks into life in an entirely satisfying manner yet… falls at the first hurdle.

Oh yes, it can see the connection but until I enter a password it’ll accept, I won’t be able to travel behind this particular iron curtain.

Fabulous, its late night, my stomach is reacting volubly and not particularly noiselessly from a rather splendid meal from the Indian sub-continent partaken with my lawyer and all I really want to do is log on, collect, respond and log-out.

But in order to do that, I’ve got to jump this unforeseen, technical, Beechers Brook.

Trudge downstairs and request the access key from the disinterested bloke behind the desk.

You want how much… for how long…?

An old fashioned audible gasp escapes while displaying my best quizzical expression – which, in turn, renders both eyebrows shooting north beyond the hairline.

This ‘charge’ of theirs is about as absurd as those rumoured to be put into place by Ryan Air who, pundits claim, will shortly (if they’re not already) be requesting their customers to pay to use a lavatory whilst mid-air. Heaven help any passenger who is low on change after eating a dodgy prawn sandwich.

Disinterested bloke displays no customer-care attributes whatsoever as – reluctantly – a note is fluttered across the desk toward him. Very little coinage comes back by way of change.

A middle-aged, slightly paunchy, German is standing beside me; he too requires www access… not only is he deeply shocked at the price quoted but actually kicks the counter in frustration whilst loudly airing his Teutonic views at the hotel’s swindling attitude – clearly this doesn’t happen in Hamburg… or Bonn… or even Munchengladbach – curiously enough twinned with the Franco / Belgian city of Roubaix; whose own stadium is home, of course, to the final pedal-strokes of the Queen of Single Day Classic cycle races.

So here’s the thing…

This place I’m staying in is a known brand the world over; their logo instantly recognised by millions. I’d not intended Room 203 as an overnight stop – indeed, I’m only here ‘cos the lady of the house in which I was to stay has unexpectedly succumbed to a bizarre form of skin-eating disease…

Be that as it may, I’m in a needs-must situation but, even so… is it really necessary for corporate brand X to dupe its customers?

It’s a brand that, at one time, was synonymous with a certain level of quality; now it (to this Volatire’s thinking) just equates to… how much can we milk our customers for.

See… I would argue that a brand has a certain responsibility and, when brand X or Y gets complacent then their brand-loyal customers don’t just get lost and confused… they ultimately move on… to a brand that, essentially, does what it says on the tin.

The old adage rings true: it takes a long old time to cement a reputation and, it takes but moments to smash it to smithereens.

Alison Bain, (one of) if not the head honcho of American Express puts it like this: "Providing superior customer service that goes above and beyond the norm is something we place considerable emphasis on within our organization."

And… given how fickle customers are nowadays allied o how fed up most of the world’s populace have become with traditional forms of advertsing, this seeking out of new ways to acquire ‘brand awareness’ is central to most companies thinking nowadays; not just the cementing of brand X but taking it to new levels – as emphasised by BP’s top-chap, David Bickerton who states, “The importance of brand coherence across geographic boundaries and across internal and external audiences contributes to building a successful brand."

Using a different form of corporate gobbledygook-speak, Erich Stamminger, top terrier within the Adidas Group says: "We have a clearly defined brand mission, vision, and values. Authenticity plays a vital role here... It builds trust and credibility with the consumer and provides the basis for identification with your brand, and it must never be jeopardized."

Which, in a slightly circuitous manner, brings us to sport on two wheels, peopled by blokes with heavily muscled, shaven legs who whizz up hill and down dale and over unforgiving terrain at impossible speeds while, at the same time, being emblazoned by tight-fitting outfits proclaiming the names of sponsoring companies. Yep… cycle-sport is one of those rarities within sports sponsorships whereby the team is known by the name of the sponsoring company.

Now, just have a wee think here… that doesn’t occur in Soccer… nor in Baseball… not in Hockey (ice or otherwise)… neither does it in Show-Jumping, Athletics, Rugby, Fencing, Volleyball, Squash, Badminton, Curling, Ten-Pin Bowling, Tennis (table or lawn), Synchronised Swimming or even Welly-Throwing… does it?

Nope… Formula One is… to a degree… the only exception…

Which, essentially means cycle-team-sponsorship is a pretty beezer form of marketing device. Added to which, its been well proven over the years that a company which puts in amount Z more often than not, sees return Z+++ multiplied as a return on their investment.

Equals… come 2010, two of the latest companies to throw their sponsoring hats into the collecting ring are… RadioShack and… Sky.

Now, lately, all of the debate – most especially with the formation of the latter team – has centered around the inclusion or otherwise of Britain's cycling’s mod-meister, Bradley Wiggins.

So… while having a bit of a squint at this… lets also consider that within the context of the whole.

Wiggins is currently under contract to the US based squad, sponsored by the multi-media Sat-Nav developer, Garmin. He, through barely-veiled comments, has made it plain - using Soccer parlance - that to achieve his aspirations (bettering his 2009 4th place finish in the Tour de France) means he’d need to move to what he’s termed the Manchester United of cycling, stating he’s currently riding for the equivalent of Wigan Athletic.

To a UK registered team, Wiggins has clear value – via his multiple Olympic Gold Medal’s and, now, with his just-off-the-podium Tour finish, he’s one of only three (British) household names associated with cycling.

Cycling aficionados would argue strenuously that other names are well-known but, pose the question to the man or woman in the high-street and the facts emerge: the only recognisable names would be the lad Cavendish, the recently knighted (Sir) Chris Hoy and… Wiggo.

Cav-lar is (for a wide variety of reasons) unattainable for Sky until at least 2011; Hoy only competes on the track and is, already, a de-facto team-member since British track-cycling is sponsored by Sky-HD… which leaves the team in an almost must-have position in their quest for Wiggo.

Garmin (headed by the savvy Jonathan Vaughters) obviously knows all of this – equals, the lawyers on both sides are now involved and sums approaching the million pound mark as a contractual buy-out are being freely bandied about via Twitter and any other rumour-mill one feels like consulting.

But… what is the true significance and why, for a start, are Sky involved in the first place?,

The real benefit of a Wiggo buy-out to Sky is (to this Voltaire on its grassy-knoll) obvious but… its not the equally obvious comments that have, thus far, been proffered.

The value is the increased media exposure in Sky’s key markets (the UK being just one) and taking their five-year plan forward… It is, put simply, all about global brand awareness.

Because, lest we forget, modern-day cycle-sort is all about the furthering of that.

The Murdochs (via News Limited in Australia which owns over 170 Newspapers alone ‘down under’ / News Corp globally as well as Fox TV etc) aren't in this for self-agrandisement; they've recognised that cycling (and branding thereof) is a key, cost-effective, manner in which to promote their 'products'. Its also hits the ecological / green sweet-spot that translates into a corporate feel-good factor; plus, they’re targeting the youth-market and so, in a sense, Sky’s sponsorship of cycling is sound business strategy, psychology and brand awareness all rolled into one.

Therefore, while sporting considerations are, obviously, of paramount importance in (the make-up) of the fledgling Sky team, it is (has to be) also about their own markets and penetration thereof. Further to which, while Sky may purport to be a ‘British’ team, the reality is entirely different… it is (and has to be) international - witness the inclusion of Australians, Norwegians and Germans among others into the line-up for 2010.

Italy – as just one example, is a key Murdoch-territory… not so long ago, Italian premiere Berlusconi and Murdoch were buddying up (cf a fairly recent Time Magazine cover story)… of late, matters have soured – and the Italian stallion has decreed a twenty percent tax on Sky-Italia tv subscriptions since he’s woken up to the fact that Rai tv are swiftly becoming eclipsed. And, given that we’re in the realms of billions of Euros here, the sums aren’t insignificant.

Thus, is the most recent team news much of a surprise for the (perceived) British squad in that its has just been revealed that Sky have signed two mid-field Italians (fuelled initially by the signature chasing rumours valued at over a million for TdeF top ten finisher, Nibali). Why..? Its again obvious, they’ll be the spearhead for further incursions into that territory. Further to which, the Murdochs have recognised the Italians as sportive-passionata… and they recognise, perhaps more than many, the power of the people’s vote. Consider… the combination of The Sun newspaper and Thatcher and the war (for want of a better term) with Argentina… Oh, and who owns The Sun...?

As such, and given that both India and China are more on the Murdoch radar than is perhaps suspected… should we be surprised – in time – by..? This Voltaire wouldn't be in the least surprised...

Further to which… consider Garmin principal Jonathan Vaughter’s own comments made in the last couple of days concerning the recent date change for America’s (now) primary cycling event… "In my opinion I see the Tour of California as a Grand Tour. It’s the eighth largest economy, directly behind France. The race will be televised in over 100 countries and it has a broad following in Europe already. The concentration of these fantastic races in a 90 day period is pretty fantastic for the sport. You’re going to see the world’s eyes on cycling."

The world’s eyes… televised in 100 countries… Ahh yes, absolutely… The mondialisation… globalisation as another word to describe the same.

To quote Paul McGuinness, U2’s manager – ‘be the best band on your street, the best in your town, then be the best in your country… only after that, can you become the best on the world stage.’

And therefore Wiggo… and, in time, Cavendish… as sensational athletes that they undoubtedly are, still simply multi-million dollar / euro / pound early-move pedalling-pawns in the global game of brand-awareness chess.

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