USPS to break with U.S. cycling team

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He delivered for them on the world stage.

Nonetheless, the U.S. Postal Service announced last month that it would end its sponsorship of Lance Armstrong and the USPS Pro-Cycling Team at the close of the calendar year. Despite Armstrong’s five consecutive Tour de France victories—and his attempt at a sixth this year—the Postal Service’s largely
b-to-b-oriented sponsorship of the cycling team generated mixed reviews, from both internal and external sources, throughout its existence.

"There are always critics out there nitpicking everything we do," acknowledged Joyce Carrier, the Postal Service’s director of public affairs.

Among b-to-b marketers, maybe only Microsoft Corp. inspires more carping than the Postal Service, and, at times, the agency’s sponsorship of Armstrong has generated plenty of criticism. Some have argued that it is folly for a monopoly—and a taxpayer-supported one at that—to engage in marketing at all, let alone pay a reported $25 million over a four-year period to sponsor a cycling team that races overseas.

Businesses are buyers

That criticism, however, seems to ignore the realities of the Postal Service’s business model. Key postal revenues come from businesses engaging in direct mail or product shipments. "It is the consumer who is the recipient of our services," Carrier said. "It is the businesses that are out there who are the purchasers of our services. … We are very much a b-to-b marketer."

The Postal Service’s marketing spending is not designed to entice consumers to buy an extra stamp. Its advertising is intended to increase its visibility with businesses.

And as b-to-b marketing, the sponsorship of Armstrong’s team had its fans. "I don’t think you get any more efficient," marveled Jim Gregory, CEO of branding consultancy CoreBrand. "Lance Armstrong is an extraordinary brand. They got in on the cheap. They were able to use it very well because he’s been so consistently good."

When the Postal Service began sponsoring the cycling team in 1996, Armstrong was on another team. The Postal Service’s original goal was to promote a new global express service. An internal audit in 2003 by the Postal Service’s inspector general, which was critical of the sponsorship, said international mail handled by the agency had not grown since 1996, according to a report in The New York Times.

When Armstrong returned to cycling after quitting to battle cancer, he joined the USPS team. The Postal Service tried to make the most of this serendipitous marketing opportunity by using Armstrong and the team in advertisements as well as in conference and hospitality appearances.

While not questioning whether the Postal Service needs to market itself, Laura Ries, president of branding consultancy Ries & Ries, said she doubted that Armstrong was a good fit with the agency. "Maybe if he delivered letters on his bicycle," she said, "but there is just no connection I can see between Lance Armstrong and the Postal Service. None."

Jim Andrews, editorial director of the IEB Sponsorship Report, said, "There was no question it worked. The question was whether something that was less expensive might have worked as well." He speculated that the combination of Armstrong’s likely decline from his peak and the inspector general’s criticism of the sponsorship ultimately led to its demise.

The inspector general’s audit found that over a four-year period, $698,000 of revenue could be attributed solely to the sponsorship.

Carrier pointed to a study conducted by the Postal Service’s ad agency, Campbell-Ewald, a member of the Interpublic Group of Cos. Last July and August, the agency tabulated mentions on television, in print and online of the Postal Service’s team as Armstrong rode to a fifth Tour de France title. The coverage amounted to about $33 million in media exposure, Carrier said.

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