How cycling became a mainstream lifestyle brand

Sir Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky coach Sir David Brailsford talk exclusively to MW about how cycling became a £1.4bn brand.




Although Sir Bradley Wiggins and Sir David Brailsford were knighted for their services to cycling rather than marketing, they have probably contributed more than anyone else towards turning the sport into a brand – one that has become a way of life for many in the UK and which is worth over £1bn.

As star rider and coach of both the Great Britain Cycling Team and Team Sky in recent years, with numerous Olympic golds and the first ever British victory in the Tour de France to their names, they have helped turn Britain into a nation obsessed with cycling. Ahead of his appearance at the Festival of Marketing next week (12-13 November) Wiggins tells Marketing Week the country’s current interest in the sport would have been unimaginable less than a decade ago.

“The transformation is quite phenomenal,” says Wiggins, who in addition to winning the Tour de France in 2012 also won the time trial at the London Olympics in the same year. It was his fourth gold and seventh medal overall across four Games, which means he is now Britain’s most prolific Olympian.

“The growth of cycling was already huge but [these events] helped bring a whole new audience to the sport and it really captured people’s imagination,” he says.

Surging interest

Membership of British Cycling, the sport’s national governing body, has more than doubled in two years, passing the 100,000 milestone for the first time last month. Considering membership stood consistently at around 15,000 for 50 years until 2005, that is quite a shift in gear.

Interest in cycling as a sport reached 29% in the UK this year, up by more than a fifth from 2009 when Team Sky was formed, according to market research firm Repucom, which puts it on a par with boxing and cricket. In terms of participation, cycling is the UK’s second fastest growing sport after athletics and third most popular overall, says Sport England, with 2.1 million people aged 16 or over doing it at least once a week.


Brailsford is the man credited with transforming Britain’s competitive cycling strategy (see The Brailsford Strategy, bottom of page) and leading Wiggins and teammate Chris Froome to successive Team Sky victories in the Tour de France. He tells Marketing Week that broadcaster Sky’s sponsorship of the sport has also been fundamental: “Linking inspiration to participation in sport is the holy grail. I think that has been genuinely achieved for the first time by Sky’s involvement in cycling.”

Cycling is one of the few sports that has succeeded in marketing itself as a lifestyle in a consistent and sustained way, partly thanks to Sky’s investment both at a professional level with Team Sky and at a grass roots level with Sky Ride, coupled with lottery funding and a number of government-led initiatives.

“Cycling is not a minority sport any more, it has come a long way to be accepted… and be deemed cool”

Sir Bradley Wiggins

“You only have to look at the crowd by the side of the road on the Tour de France this year to see just how popular cycling has become in Britain,” says Team Sky chairman Robert Tansey. “The last time it came to the UK in 2007 there was reasonable support, but nothing like this year in Yorkshire where estimates for the two days are 3 to 5 million people.”

It helps too that three cyclists have won BBC Sports Personality of the Year in the past six years – Wiggins in 2012, Mark Cavendish in 2011 and Sir Chris Hoy in 2008. “It just goes to show that cycling is not a minority sport any more,” says Wiggins. “It has come a long way to be accepted in those circles and be deemed cool.”

So cool, in fact, that Wiggins was asked to present The Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr, one of his musical icons, with the Gibson Les Paul Award at the Xperia Access Q Awards last month, which he believes is another illustration of how the sport has moved into popular culture.

Sky’s sponsorship of Team Sky and Sky Ride has inspired 1.3 million people to take up cycling

Penetrating public awareness

Wiggins, who capped off 12 years on the road by winning the men’s time trial in the Road World Championship in September, is now turning his attention back to track racing, working with Brailsford in the run up to the Rio 2016 Olympics.

“I started on the track in 1993 and won my first [Olympic] medal in Sydney in 2000. I developed into riding the road but I always wanted to go back and end on the track as it was my first love,” says Wiggins. He won three Olympic gold medals and seven World Championship titles in his first stint on the track, and is aiming to secure his fifth gold overall at what will be his fifth Olympic Games.

“It’s a nice story for people to get behind,” he says. “It will be my last race so to finish on a high [is critical] and we want to get some really big British backers behind us.”

He already has one such backer, in the shape of Simon Fuller, the publicist and producer whose credits include managing the Spice Girls, representing David and Victoria Beckham and devising the format of TV shows Pop Idol and American Idol. Fuller’s company, XIX Entertainment, is charged with seeking new commercial partners for Wiggins. The fact that Fuller sees cycling as a compelling proposition says a great deal in itself.

He tells Marketing Week: “Cycling is growing in popularity rapidly in Britain. It has been a huge sport and recreation on mainland Europe for decades but now thanks to Bradley, Mark Cavendish, Laura Trott and others it is enjoying equal recognition and success here in the UK. Whenever I can identify a trend of significance I always look to elevate the opportunity to another level. With Sir Bradley we have a genuine British hero who is loved and respected, everyone can identify with him.”

Wiggins is a well-liked character and one of the reasons cycling has weaved into popular culture so smoothly. Indeed, 81% of people in the UK are aware of who he is and 88% like him, according to Repucom, while 82% believe he is an effective endorser of brands and products. He is also ranked in the top 5% of the UK’s most liked personalities.

“With this in mind, the future of cycling in the UK is bright,” suggests Repucom global head of research Mike Wragg. “As long as public interest holds strong and continues to rise, so too will investment from sponsors, which in turn will fuel the development of the sport.”

Sir Bradley Wiggins is credited for bringing cycling to the masses

A billion-pound industry

But cycling is no longer just a spectator sport. Since 2009, a quarter of a million people have taken part in one of 17,000 Sky Ride community events and 1.34 million people have taken up cycling, according to Sky. These figures do not take 2014 into account, and will be even higher once they are updated later this month.

“Everyone has a bike, has access to a bike or knows someone with a bike, so I think it is just one of those things that has been lying dormant for many people, but as it has caught on people have given it another go,” says Wiggins.

“It helps too that the infrastructure is there to accelerate growth. When I was growing up, the nearest bike shop was 3 miles away but people don’t have to search very far to get into the sport now.”

That has obviously had the additional effect of hugely expanding the market for cycling-related products. Retailer Evans Cycles has benefited greatly from the upsurge in interest since London 2012, according to marketing director James Backhouse. The high street specialist, which has developed a range of bikes in partnership with six-time gold medal winner Sir Chris Hoy, is opening five new stores this year and 10 in 2015.

As Team Sky’s innovation partner, Jaguar will use its design and tech resources to boost team performance

“The business was doing well before but we have certainly noticed a spike since 2012 as people wake up to the benefits of cycling,” he says. “We thought it might be a blip as there is always the ‘Wimbledon effect’ on tennis sales, but it has been persistent, with growth in women’s sales particularly strong.”

It is a trend that premium cycling clothing brand Rapha is also witnessing. “Even though the women’s market is still a minority, our evidence shows it is growing significantly faster than the men’s market,” says Simon Mottram, founder and chief executive of Rapha.

“Over the past five to 10 years there has been an explosion of things that talk to men as riders but women have been very badly served. We’re addressing that by over-indexing our new products around women.”

Rapha became the official clothing partner of Team Sky two years ago and 10% of its overall sales come from professional kits, replicas and supporters’ gear, which rises to around 15-20% in the UK. Of that, replica kits account for 50% of sales, while pro kits and supporter wear jointly make up the other half.

“The UK is the centre of the cycling world. There is more popular take-up, interesting innovation and buoyancy here compared to anywhere else in the world”

Simon Mottram, Rapha

“Other [cycling] teams don’t do supporter products but Team Sky is keen to engage the British public and get people behind it, so wanted to have something accessible for fans,” says Mottram.

Rapha’s revenue has grown at an average of 40% every year for the past three years, he says, hitting the £40m mark in 2014. While 70% of business comes from overseas, the UK is the single biggest market in terms of sales, which considering the size of its population compared to somewhere like the US is “phenomenal” says Mottram.

“The UK is the centre of the cycling world. There is more popular take-up, interesting innovation and buoyancy here compared to anywhere else in the world,” he claims.

“If you go back 15 years, the US had a similar boom on the back of Lance Armstrong and a few other things but it plateaued after he retired as it wasn’t ingrained as deeply into popular culture. I don’t think cycling can keep growing at quite the same rate in the UK but I don’t see any reason why it will drop back,” he adds.

The US market undoubtedly also suffered when Armstrong admitted to doping, resulting in his seven Tour de France wins being expunged. UK cycling has so far mostly avoided such scandals.

Sales of sports apparel used for cycling have grown by 20% for each of the past two years in the UK and are now worth £63m, while the overall market including bicycles and equipment is now worth £1.39bn, according to data from the NPD Group.

Sponsors such as Jaguar have gained cut-through by their involvement in cycling

It is not just brands directly linked to the sport that are benefiting though. Car marque Jaguar has been involved with Team Sky since its inception and took on the additional role of innovation partner earlier this year. “The philosophy around performance, engineering excellence and attention to detail fit seamlessly with Jaguar in terms of what we stand for and how we want to be perceived,” says Mark Cameron, global brand experience director at Jaguar Land Rover.

The move to become innovation partner will see Jaguar integrate its design and technology resources to enhance the team’s performance, providing the car marque with an additional platform for storytelling and creating content, he says.

“Jaguar is a reasonably small and emerging brand,” admits Cameron. “We have big growth year-on-year but we’re tiny in comparison to some of our competitors, so we have to find things that give us cut-through.”

Staying ahead of the competition is, of course, critical in cycling too, particularly when people start to copy what you’re doing, which Brailsford says is inevitable. “To continually look for innovations and improvements is a necessity,” he says. “When you get a period of great success people are more reluctant to make the same sacrifices they’ve made in the past to get to where they need to be. So you have to be brave enough to rip everything up, get a clean sheet of paper and start again.”



The Brailsford strategy


Sir David Brailsford, team principal at Team Sky and the man credited with transforming British cycling, has developed a rigorous method for winning that rivals many top business plans. The results have included back-to-back wins for Team Sky in the Tour de France in 2012 and 2013, in addition to eight gold medals for the Great Britain Cycling Team, which Brailsford also headed until this year, at the London 2012 Olympics.

“We spent an enormous amount of time understanding what it takes to win and what winning looks like,” he says. “We analysed absolutely everything we could to understand what it would take, we then took an audit of where we were and figured out how to fill the gap.”

But setting ‘winning’ as a goal is a very dangerous thing to do, he explains. “We differentiate between dreams, which are what we all want to achieve, and actual targets, which are the real physical outcomes we can control ourselves.”

In order to build the team’s confidence, Brailsford employed sports psychiatrist Steve Peters, who he says “approaches the mind like a machine” and teaches people to separate the emotional and functional sides of the brain to increase focus.

The next aspect of the strategy is ownership. “In sport there is a lot of ‘dictate and control’ [required]. It’s very prescriptive,” he says. “Our approach is to give people greater ownership and responsibility of what they are doing. It means they are more motivated and committed so the results tend to be better.”

Lastly, Brailsford is a believer in the marginal gains philosophy. “It’s possible to walk a thousand miles but only if you do it one step at a time,” he says. “So we looked at every single component that could influence performance on a bike and how we could improve it even by the smallest margin. When you put all those little gains together, you actually get quite a significant increase in overall performance,” he says.