A good sponsorship creates value for both parties. In the case of Dimension Data and the Tour de France – winners of the Event or Competition Sponsorship of the Year at the 2018 Sports Industry Awards – cycling’s most famous grand tour got comprehensive performance data for media and fan consumption for the first time. And a fairly unknown IT company was given a global profile.
SportBusiness spoke to Dimension Data chief marketing officer Ruth Rowan about the genesis and evolution of the partnership, which started in 2015 and will run to cover the 2019 Tour.
Dimension Data is a systems integrator and managed services provider that brings together hardware and software from other providers to help organisations build the IT systems they need.
Founded in South Africa in 1983, it is owned by Japanese telco NTT Group, which acquired it for $3.2bn in 2010. It employs over 28,000 people in 47 countries and turns over about $8bn per year.
In 2015, Dimension Data management decided the firm needed to invest in brand marketing. Over three decades, the company had grown into a large multinational, but its brand was still relatively unknown.
“We’re a very successful company, a very big company, an $8bn company, but most people haven’t heard of us,” says Rowan. “Even among our clients, who are some of the world’s largest organisations, we just didn’t have a very big, strong brand.
“The technology industry, and certainly the systems integration consulting business, was getting very crowded. Whereas before we had quite a nice niche that we were very successful in, there were big brands coming in and competing as the technology industry started to converge.”
But the firm couldn’t compete with their bigger competitors on the more traditional marketing routes for IT brands. “We were looking at areas like…digital advertising, SEO – the more traditional ways of building brand,” Rowan says. “But we were never going to be able to outspend the giants in our industry like Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, to get that same share of voice.”
Sports sponsorship came under consideration.
At the same time as Dimension Data was considering its options for brand marketing, Amaury Sport Organisation – the operator and commercial rights-holder of the Tour de France – was seeking a technology partner. The Tour de France, and cycling in general, was lagging behind other major sports and properties in terms of incorporating data into media coverage.
An ASO executive, researching global IT brands, spotted a French name among Dimension Data’s executive team. Figuring the common language could help start the conversation, he sent an email and the ball started rolling on what would eventually become the Official Technology Partnership.
Personal interests in sport and cycling within the Dimension Data executive team helped to propel the discussion forward.
“It’s incredibly helpful that our chairman, chief executive and several members of our executive team are cycling enthusiasts,” Rowan says. “I think that’s important, because if you don’t have that personal interest and passion, it’s actually very difficult to get leadership from the top when you are pushing these major sponsorships…That wasn’t the main decision-making criteria, but it made things a lot easier for us.”
The Tour ticked several boxes:
Target demographic. “Cycling is a very fast-growing sport in middle- to high-earning professionals, 35 to 55 [years old]. There’s quite a lot of research in the market about that. You know, we’re not talking about surfing… that’s not really the target demographic. But cycling was very much in that sweet spot.”
Global reach. “Cycling, and particularly the Tour de France, just had the reach,” Rowan says. “It’s got an audience in 190 countries. Even non-cycling enthusiasts watch the Tour de France.”
Cost. “Cycling was also relatively inexpensive to enter. If we compare it to Premier League soccer, American sport, the Olympics, you’re adding another digit onto the impact.”
Opportunity. “Cycling at that time, back in 2015, really hadn’t digitised. There was no way of actually seeing or understanding what was going on at the race apart from seeing the TV coverage or listening on the radio…We could also see there was an opportunity for us to revolutionise how the race was viewed, through the use of technology. Not only could we build our brand from an awareness perspective, but we could also show how technology could change a sport. So that was critical for us.”
Creating the technical solution
In the first year of the partnership, Dimension Data focused on a technical solution to delivering Tour cyclists’ performance data.
First, there were extensive negotiations between Dimension Data, ASO, teams, riders, and unions around issues including permission to put a tracker on the bicycles, agreeing what data would be gathered, and deciding who owned the data. Then, Dimension Data had to create a tracker that fitted unobtrusively on the bicycles.
The biggest technical challenge was ensuring a reliable live stream of data from the bicycle-mounted trackers, which must transmit data via a reliable network back to the Big Data Truck parked at each stage. Because the bicycles move quickly over long distances – with some stages over 200km long – and through remote areas of countryside, using mobile phone networks was out of the question.
Dimension Data’s solution was to piggyback on the network, used by television broadcasters, of transmitters and receivers in cars, motorcycles, helicopters and aeroplanes following the race.
Data on speed, location, separation, gradient and more flows via these vehicles to the Big Data Truck. The truck team is then able to deliver the data securely to TV broadcasters and other media, and via the official Tour app and website. Dimension Data teams working at a ‘Data House’ in London, and other locations around the world, analyse the data and produce infographics and other content for media and social media feeds.
Dimension Data has a visual presence – usually the company logo – wherever its data appears on official media coverage, including television, the official app, and official social media feeds. The company also manages official Tour de France social media accounts with the handle @LeTourData on ASO’s behalf.
In 2016, the company ramped up content production around the data. “The first year really was about ‘Can we put a tracker on the bike?’, ‘Can we capture that data?’, and ‘Can we report on it real time?’” Rowan says. “The second year we were able to start putting some stories around the data, to actually enhance that for the journalists and the commentators.”
There have been some breakthrough pieces of social media content, including a heat map that showed rider Mark Cavendish waiting until the very last second before committing to a winning sprint finish, and a speed chart during a major crash that showed bicycles either coming to an abrupt halt or accelerating rapidly as they catapulted through the air.
Bringing clients to the Tour is a major plank of the deal. Rowan says: “It’s one of the core pillars for us: the opportunity to take clients into France… for them to be able to see behind the scenes, to see how technology is transforming the Tour.”
Engaging current – and future – employees is another. In the first year of the deal, employees were enthused to see their brand, which was previously very low-profile, suddenly on television and media around the world. “I saw all these DD people taking selfies in front of their TVs, saying ‘Oh my god, we’re on the TV!’,” Rowan says. “It was extraordinary.”
— letourdata (@letourdata) July 8, 2016
According to SportBusiness Sponsorship, Dimension Data pays about €2m per year for its sponsorship rights and invests more again in activation. What return has it seen?
The firm assesses the value of earned media – advertising that hasn’t been directly paid for, including the total value of all brand exposure on television and other media, press mentions and the impact on their brand and brand perception – around the deal at about $70m per year.
To judge brand impact, Dimension Data surveys about 500 individuals from potential and existing clients, in 15 countries from North and South America, Asia and Europe. Survey data showed that between 2015 and 2017, prompted awareness of the brand increased from 27 per cent to 40 per cent of respondents, and consideration – a measure of how many are considering purchasing from Dimension Data – rose from 54 per cent to 73 per cent.
The sponsorship has also helped the company shape perceptions of what they do. Rowan says: “Do people think that we’re a distribution company of other people’s technology, or do they actually see that we do digital transformation, cloud integration – all the things that we want to be known for? We’ve seen a massive shift in that, that we can account back to this sponsorship.”
For every dollar spent on the deal, Dimension Data calculates that it earns about $20 of net new revenue. This includes business generated at client visits to the Tour de France and other Tour de France-related client engagement programmes. The sales team uses the Salesforce CRM system to record when the sponsorship was the source of business.
“There’s a great example from one of our airline clients,” Rowan says. During a visit to the Tour de France, the client realised for the first time that Dimension Data could help it revamp its digital applications and capabilities. “And as a result of that we were able to open up a whole new project that we were able to bid for, and we won.”
The company is now also beginning to track how the sponsorship is driving business via their website, which sees a 3,000-per-cent increase in traffic during the Tour in July. That spike delivered an important lesson in the first year of the deal – prepare for unintended consequences.
“That first year, our website just fell over,” Rowan says. “We just didn’t anticipate the traffic! So one of the unintended consequences was that over the following year we had to totally rebuild our website.”
The tech industry is ever-changing, and the brand sees the sponsorship as a flexible and productive way to continue showcasing its capabilities. The fact that Dimension Data and the Tour are currently in talks over a renewal, however, bears testimony to the success of the earliest phase of the partnership.