Astana team hires PR agency

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Astana fans

Kazakh team Astana has hired a British public relations agency called Weber Shandwick to help manage the team’s image. In the agency’s own words “to use the riders and the team to get media to re-evaluate perceptions of Kazakhstan” which is a nice way of saying trying to get people to forget Borat.

Nevermind that the film was a comedy, nevermind that the “Kazakh” scenes were actually shot in Romania, for many the Borat comedy films are indelibly associated with the country. Worse, if the films aren’t for you and you’re into more serious things then a mention of the country might make you think of an oil rich state gripped by personality-cult for its President. Cycling fans though think of Vinokourov and his sky-blue squad.

I say might because it’s not always so obvious. Did you know Astana is the capital city of Kazakhstan? Did you know Kazakhstan is the world’s ninth largest country, that it is the size of Western Europe? You do know.

So far team sponsorship does not really seem too focussed on the home country. At first it looked like a means for incumbent President Nazabayev to cover himself in stardust whilst Alexander Vinokourov was at the height of his performance-enhanced powers, a team designed almost for national consumption rather than something to promote the country.

Weber Shandwick will now handle all the team’s communications. It’s interesting because teams usually employ staff to manage this aspect but Astana is going for a full service by an outside agency. Pro cycling has long worked in a bubble and bringing in non-cyclists and third party companies is a change. But it’s happening elsewhere, for example the social-media of the Giro d’Italia is under the umbrella of advertising agency McCann Erickson and their Milan office.

Isn’t the whole sport about image?
Sponsors queue up to associate with victory, or if not, the pursuit of success. But can a pro team turn around the image of the world’s ninth largest country? That’s a hard task. You can sell BMC bikes and maybe Belisol’s steel shutters… but an entire nation? The proposition is more possible when the star rider on the team is from the country but even then it’s a hard ask because if the rider slips up – for example being ejected from the Tour de France – then the country’s image can go down the pan too. Especially when the sponsorship is trying to promote business in the country, to polish the image of its oil and mining companies.

The winning Formula?

Clearly the cycling team alone can’t carry the burden of rebranding a nation. Indeed note the cycling team is not the only promotion of the country. There are race cars and even race trucks. The country hosts several sports events too and so there’s potential to link this all together.

Astana aren’t the first team representing their nation. Katusha is the “Russian global cycling project” but for all the Russian branding nobody has worked out what the squad is doing in the sport. Is it trying to promote the sponsors? Bring on Russian talent? Showcase the country?

Astana Fans
One thing worth noting is the Astanafans.com website. As the URL suggests, this is a fan site and it is excellent although the best parts are in Russian. The hard-working fans manage to find every bit of news out there, usually well before anyone else. For example yesterday there was news that Vinokourov won’t ride the Ardennes classics and this was first brought to my attention by the site, hours before cycling media in the West picked up on it.

Conclusion
If the agency are on board it must be good for the team’s future as it shows a commitment for the future. It’ll be interesting to see how far the branding goes, whether it just means updating the team’s website and opening twitter accounts for the riders, or if we see new things. I’m interested to see how a cycling team can represent an entire nation.

But the team’s greatest need is not a re-branding exercise, it needs results and ranking points. Star rider Vinokourov was thinking about retirement but his points haul was needed to keep the team’s licence. An outside agency can help polish the image but success on the road is needed otherwise they’ll be relegated and no agency can make that look good.

Chuffy February 29, 2012 at 1:04 pm

“Astana Fans
One thing worth nothing is the Astanafans.com website”

Sorry to nit-pick but I assume you meant it was worth noting, not nothing.

Back to the story – isn’t the hiring of big gun agencies a sign that they’re in trouble? As you say, if they lose Vino (and good riddance) then what do they have?

Dave February 29, 2012 at 1:05 pm

I always thought Borat and Bruno where parodies of American prejudices

Duncan February 29, 2012 at 1:43 pm

Astana has gone through many changes, the tune keeps changing. Maybe Saxo need the PR help so they can keep the UCI world tour status?

The Inner Ring February 29, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Chuffy: thanks. I like the Astanafans site, it is certainly worth noting.

Dave: true, the film’s real humour is to use an idiotic character to expose the foolishness of reality

Duncan: interesting idea but it’s too late for Saxo, the UCI has held the meetings already.

Zinoviev Letter February 29, 2012 at 2:40 pm

Kazakhstan is a brutal dictatorship and the regime massacred protesting oil workers within the last few weeks. Astana, like all big professional cycling teams, is a marketing tool, but they aren’t selling gadgets or financial advice, they are in the business of selling a country controlled by a kleptocratic dictatorship as a place to do business.

They are an embarrassment to a sport already rich in embarrassment.

The Inner Ring February 29, 2012 at 2:47 pm

Zinoviev Letter: see the relevant section here: http://inrng.com/2011/12/tuesday-shorts/ and note the reference to Nazarbayev hiring PR agencies to help.

Larry T. February 29, 2012 at 2:53 pm

The stuff Zinoviev posted makes one wonder what the UCI actually considers in the “sporting criteria” category when approving teams for the top tier. But UCI cozying up to kleptocrats shouldn’t be much of a surprise.

David B February 29, 2012 at 2:57 pm

The real test will be if this agency manages to stop the Man-kini Boys on the TdF mountains.

Pave February 29, 2012 at 6:01 pm

With teams like Katusha where we can’t seem to figure out what the goal is exactly, I wonder if we’re missing a cultural piece. The “Project” can be dressed up by saying it’s about showcasing a country or developing national riders, but it might just be a display of power (or something else). Much like the oligarchs that buy incredibly expensive cars to drive on crumbling roads, it’s possibly an attempt to show the world “look what we can do,” and that is the goal in itself.

I have no Russian ancestry, and have little insight into current/historical Russian cultural values, but I wonder if that’s the piece that makes the Global Cycling Project “make sense.” I could certainly see that given your write about the big players involved. Others please feel free to correct my wonderings.

Ken February 29, 2012 at 10:15 pm

If the U.S. Postal Service could have a team, what’s wrong with Kazakhstan having one?

Steve March 1, 2012 at 2:16 am

Oh my, Were to begin…
I understand despot dictators of oil rich nations, I mean Astana and Katusha for leveraging $ to hire a cycling team to gain a bit of national pride and world recognition that is fine. We all know the facts behind the sponsorship.

Perhaps Team Sky, can enquire of the same agency? Although I would imagine they already have one of the best in the UK since they have a sponsor ( James Murdock) who is very interested in PR about know. Inner Ring: You may know who Sky Cycling uses for PR?

Bartek March 2, 2012 at 2:01 am

This is such a waste of money. All of a sudden two office girls and one senior consultant with 10+ years City experience will start tweeting news and releasing sweet little secrets of Astana riders.

jackseph March 2, 2012 at 8:38 am

How anyone, rider, trainer, PR agency can look themselves in the mirror if they work for or are associated with Astana is beyond me. Evil dictatorship. Oppression of the population. Blood money.

Azeke April 11, 2012 at 1:33 pm

Oh , wow.

You people act like you’re above the protrayals in that Borat movie.

Yet you’re acting exactly like that condemning entire countries you never knew it existed two minutes ago, all based on accounts of internet troll who also knows nothing about the matter.

jackseph April 11, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Who’s the troll?

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