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How to harness the power of a start-up mentality in a large organisation

In the fifth episode of PHD and eatbigfish’s podcast series, Overthrow II: Challenger strategies for a new era (a spin-off of their 2019 publication, Overthrow II), host and founder of eatbigfish Adam Morgan talks to Lisa Kirkbright, communications manager of Skoda UK, and David White, strategy director at PHD UK, about challenging gender inequality in the world of cycling and what we can learn about being a challenger in a large organisation.

Big brand, challenger behaviour

Lisa Kirkbright explains that Skoda has challenger in its DNA. Back in 1895 when the company was founded, it was essentially a bicycle company referred to as “born on two wheels”. From two male entrepreneurs building the bikes they wanted to ride, the company evolved into developing the most luxurious of cars; they were really ahead of the game.

Skoda's recent move back into cycling exemplifies the beating heart of a challenger within. While Skoda is involved in world cycling through sponsorship of the Tour de France, the UK market was looking for something to ignite some energy and enthusiasm.

Anna Berrero, a Spanish Cyclist, came to the brand’s attention when riding the Tour de France a day ahead of the men. In a passive protest, she wanted to highlight that there was no female Tour while demonstrating strength that women were perfectly capable of completing the punishing course. Anna and a team of other women were riding 3,500km a week in training while being teachers, parents and workers; so passionate in the belief that everybody should have the same opportunity.

Strong and positive messaging

Any campaign to support these women needed to be strong, engaging and positive in its messaging; all while supporting what Skoda is trying to achieve. The fact is Skoda is a car manufacturer in the business of selling cars. Kirkbright elucidates, “If the brand can emotionally engage people, they’re much more likely to come on the journey and appreciate the brand for what it’s trying to achieve.”

Skoda quickly discovered a lack of media coverage of female sport, particularly cycling; and saw difficulties in the pathway to elite cycling. Yet, female cycling is exciting – they’re out there to win – whereas men tend to pace for much of a race before it gets exciting. Skoda sent cars to support the women’s Tour de France, along with a crew to shoot three short films to tell the world what was going on. By the end of the campaign, 4.2 million had watched the videos.

Global response

The women’s story went global. Skoda was approached by the government to build a case study to show how gender equality can work to shape business. The UN came out in support of the positivity of the gender equality message. #ThisIsOurTime resonated everywhere.

The impact for Skoda was massive; with an audience of 10 million people from those who ride bikes for fun at the weekend to enthusiasts, from commuters to competitors - it gave Skoda a whole new market to play in. This campaign brought change and energy and all for one of the smallest budgets Skoda UK has ever invested.

Advice for would-be challengers

Morgan and Kirkbright conclude three key points for being a successful challenger:

1. Find a subject you 100% believe in. Bring it to life in a way that will reflect and resonate well for your audience and your brand.

2. What’s in it for the company, the brand? Any new venture must have accountability.

3. You need real depth; it can’t just be about one thing. Kirkbright clarifies, “For us, it couldn’t just be about the women riding the Tour de France, it had to be around equality, their back story; it had to be fitting with our partnerships. Find an opportunity that fulfils and pulls together a whole campaign.”

Distinctive activation in a homogenous category

Morgan asks David White, strategy director of PHD UK, what strikes him most about the story of a challenger brand within a large company? White highlights the very distinctive sponsorship activation in a category which is arguably one of the most homogenous.

Skoda Cycling started with an exploration of gender inequality in cycling, and each year strives to keep evolving. The best challenger brands don’t immediately challenge everything; they challenge something.

Skoda is a fantastic example of the People’s Champion narrative: identifying a group who are underserved and figuring out a way to level the playing field.

White concludes it is the power of getting the right ingredients all in one place. Not every sports sponsorship campaign ends with an invitation to Downing Street and singled out by the UN for its work to promote gender equality. It is the result of getting the right brand with the right activation and the right point of view all led by the right kind of people.

To hear the full story of Skoda Cycling and its success from both a brand and purpose perspective, listen to the fifth episode of ‘Overthrow II: Challenger Strategies for a New Era, which is available on Spotify, Google, Apple Podcasts and Audioboom. To purchase a copy of Overthrow II or to find out your challenger type, click here.

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