The Tour de France: a game changing marketing idea

In 1897, Le Vélo was the dominant sports paper in France and achieved circulation of 80,000 per day. In the same year, a new rival paper, L’Auto entered the market. For 6 years it struggled to compete with Le Vélo’s dominance, but this all changed when editor Henri Desgrange had the idea to launch the biggest bike race France had ever seen. The idea of creating content and a captive audience through sporting events was something that Le Vélo had employed itself in the creation of the famous one-day Paris-Roubaix race. However, Desgrange wanted to outdo Le Vélo and create a race of epic proportions. For years he argued there should be no:

-          Mechanics (riders had to fix everything themselves)

-          Bike changes

-          Metal wheels (only wood)

-          Gears

His aim was that the race was so tough, only one rider would make it to Paris.

The first Tour de France in 1903 consisted of 6 stages over 19 days and attracted 80 entrants, all keen to win the then enormous 12,000-franc prize.

It was a massive success for the paper: during the first race, circulation of the paper doubled to 50,000. This growth continued and during the 1923 Tour its sales topped 500,000 copies a day. Such was the success of the marketing strategy that rival paper Le Vélo ceased publication in 1904.

As a nod to its marketing origins, the famous Yellow Jersey worn by the rider leading the Tour is reflective of the fact that L’Auto was printed on yellow paper.

The legacy of this campaign has been profound. Nowadays we are accustomed to brands wanting to associate themselves with the stories of major sporting events. Just look at the brands who sponsored the 2018 Football Champions League: Mastercard, Heineken, Pepsi, etc.  It’s therefore easy to forget just how game-changing this marketing idea was.   

Incidentally, the UEFA Champions League (and its forerunner the European Cup) was the brainchild of Gabriel Hanot, editor of L’Auto’s successor, L’Équipe.

The story of Le Tour and L’Auto / L’Équipe shows that then, as now, a compelling story goes a long way to creating a captive audience and getting people to engage with your brand. And what is more compelling than an epic sporting contest where there are heroes and villains every year?

Matt Cade - Senior Research Executive 

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Annabel Gerrard