How culture, AR, AI and innovative thinking are helping NTT ride the 2020 Tour de France

NTT global chief marketing officer details the technology and fan engagement innovations as well as the COVID-19 pivots for this year's iconic cycling event

This year's new AR Tour de France app
This year's new AR Tour de France app

Having a lean-in culture and attitude for finding solutions to a challenge is just as important as having the technical or operational capability to achieve it, NTT’s global CMO says.

The IT service giant’s marketing chief caught up with CMO to talk about technology, marketing and fan engagement innovations introduced as part of this year’s Tour de France, and just how disruptive the COVID-19 pandemic has been to efforts in 2020.

NTT has worked with the iconic cycling race event for the last six years as technology partner and sponsor, initially under its Dimension Data branding. This is second year it’s appearing as NTT, following a global rebranding and transformation program of work. The Tour de France runs 29 August to 20 September.

NTT CMO, Ruth Rowan, said every year, the business works with race organiser, ASO, on requirements, emerging technologies that could be harnessed either to run or drive engagement around the Tour de France globally, and consumer trends influencing interaction with and support of the event.

“A lot of the historic race coverage prior to us working with ASO to digitise has been TV-based. Yet increasingly, particularly younger generations consume content on phones, iPad and through data platforms,” Rowan pointed out. “In a normal year, we’d look to new innovations, or how to use data differently. And it’s great for marketing because it means we have new stories to tell every year, giving us the basis on which to build our marketing strategy.”

COVID-19 impact

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the sporting and physical event world was turned upside down globally as lockdowns and the crisis took centre stage. As a result, the best laid plans have had to change and adapt, Rowan said.  

The first step was confirming if the Tour de France race could actually go ahead. Originally slated from June, the race was postponed to 29 August to give teams, riders, race organisers, French officials, security management and more the opportunity to allow COVID to move out of France as much as possible.

Faced with this uncertainty as well as a gap in the June-July calendar, ASO opted to run two races this year: On virtual, and one physical.

“There has been a dearth of sport in the world for last six months, and many fans were missing the idea of cycling race in July. So it was a good opportunity to venture into esports and host the first Virtual Tour De France in July,” Rowan explained.

Operated via the Zwift ebike platform, the virtual event featured riders from each of the teams that would have been riding in the main event competing over the three weekends the tour was originally scheduled for.

“We were bringing in the same data analytics and publishing into the virtual environment,” Rowan said. “Most TV channels were covering it live, so it’s probably one of the first esports tournaments to be covered on mainstream TV. We brought it to life in the same way we’d do the live event, which was exciting for us.

“There was also a ladies race as well as male race, and it was great to be able to bring that inclusivity to the virtual race. We were meeting demands of traditional audiences wanting something to watch in July, but also opening up to the younger audience leaning more heavily into esports.”

Remote access

The next step was supporting the physical race slated for the end of August. On the ground, Rowan noted a raft of considerations this year around safety, security track and trace, and needing to amend start and end villages to comply with social distancing requirements.

Then there was the ability for NTT to manage all of this remotely. A decision made early on this year was that NTT would not take anyone to France, Rowan said.

“Normally, we would be running two programs on the ground – we’d had a client marketing program, hosting people to come and see the race, and a big activation from our events team with guests from media to analysts, clients and employees. Then we have the technical team on the ground operating there, connecting into broadcast channel, they’re producing, receiving and publishing the data working alongside race officials inside the ‘technique’, or technical zone,” she explained.  

With no onsite staff, NTT needed to deliver everything from a technical and marketing perspective fully remotely, Rowan said. This where culture came into play.

“Our big learning this year– and this project has brought it to life – is it’s not just about if you can physically or technically do something, it’s also the attitude and culture of the people who lean in,” she said. “Generally, you can solve these problems, but you have to want to solve the problem.

“Every time you’re throwing a challenge people have no idea how to do it, but know you’ll find a way to do it. And that is exactly what has happened.”

NTT is now providing a completely remote ‘Virtual Zone technique’, where it’s virtually connected into everything needed to capture all Tour de France data in real-time in the same way. This will allow it to provide the same data analytics, publishing and race insights, with new innovations

To do this, NTT’s lead technical advisor, Peter Gray, has set up remotely from his garage in Melbourne, monitoring TV channels, broadcast coverage, applications and infrastructure in real time. He’s supported by infrastructure lead, Tim Wade, who’s operating out of a ‘man cave’ in the north of England. In all, more than 70 employees will operate from five continents to deliver this solution virtually for the race.

NTT is also running a new platform aimed at enhancing the user experience through deeper data expertise. The replatformed Race Center allows fans to see at any point in time what’s happening with any rider, how fast they’re going, and how far in front or behind they are other riders.

The replatform is the result of fan feedback about what is important to them, Rowan said. “Increasingly we get that feedback – consumers want the moving image on the TV, but they also want personalised data feeds of riders they’re following, which might not be shown on the TV coverage,” she said.  

“There is a lot of personalisation… That’s where we see a lot of interesting data from cycling fans going.”  

Another innovation sees augmented reality (AR), 3D mapping data and live tracking data come together to bring to life what it’s like to cycle the Tour de France. This app provides 1000 selected users with a unique way of viewing and interacting with live race data and landscapes.

“We’re giving more data to TV broadcasters, because we’re expecting many fans who’d normally be at the race not to be there, we’re enhancing a lot of content going across social media feeds,” Rowan continued. For example, data shared across the @letourdata channel will allow fans to keep up to date with what is going on with the race, and provide deeper insight into how the cyclists are performing, team strategies, and predictions from the #NTTPredictor. 

And there’s also the official ‘Tour de France Fantasy’ game, which uses gamification and #NTTPredictor at every stage to engage fans while giving them an ability to race each other.

Marketing relationships

From a B2B perspective, the big change has again been relying more heavily on digital channels to replace physical activations.

“That physical engagement has served marketing community so well for so long, and it’s how we’ve built relationships, trust and engagement,” Rowan said. “We have had to put everything into the digital space and think about how we achieve those same marketing objectives, that same audience outreach, connectivity and sense of excitement based on one to many, and one-to-one, but fully digitally.

“It’s something we’ve all been learning – which channels work best with which type of engagement and how do you keep people excited. We know, for instance, content that might have worked in a 20-minute presentation in a room in France where you’re eating a baguette and drinking a glass of Chablis, frankly isn’t going to work in their home environments, where people don’t listen as long.”  

What has been resonating is content and the work NTT is doing to deliver a fully virtual solution, Rown said.

“Normally we’d give people an opportunity to go behind the scenes and see how things run technically onsite. We’re now giving them the opportunity of going behind the scenes on how the technical zone delivered virtually in Pete’s garage and Tim’s remote location,” she said. “Peter has done a virtual walkaround of his environment and the new command centre to see what it looks like. People are really interested in that, which is great.

“I don’t know whether it’s a symptom of the fact it’s our sixth year being involved, and it takes time to build momentum, or because this year is so disrupted, but we’ve had real interest from our 50,000-strong employee base, as well as from our clients, around what we are doing this year because it’s so different.”

Through all of this, Rowan and her team are careful not to assume everyone knows the breadth of NTT’s involvement in the Tour de France for the last five years. Instead, the emphasis is on telling the whole story, then what the business had to do because of the disruption caused by COVID-19, she said.

Permission to disrupt

Six months into the COVID-19 disruption, Rowan said the crisis has challenged everything that was “previously scared”. She agreed she feels more permission to disrupt as a result.  

“Whether it’s who does what, the way you’d do certain things, or events on the calendar, it’s been a great opportunity as marketers to embrace the momentum of change and to ride that wave to get us more quickly into a better future that’s more relevant for right now,” she said. “At the beginning, I think that was quite scary.  We’re used to having these core foundations and objectives that define our year, and our plans.

“The foundations and objectives are still there, but how we do it has changed. It’s been liberating and quite exciting. We have to think differently about how we activate and what we do.

“We’re all on our learning right now.”

 Read more: The emotional edge: NTT’s global CMO rates global rebrand efforts 6 months on

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