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Julien Absalon's brand value as an Olympic champion


Orbea produce Julien Absalon's Olympic-winning mountain bike

Paul Harris
BBC World Olympic Dreams

Athletes are not the only ones who win big at the Olympics - the reputation and fortune of a business providing sporting equipment can be made off the back of a gold medal. In turn, consumers benefit as companies release products that eventually turn up on the high street.

Nestled in a valley of the Pyrenees in Spain's Basque country there is one such company banking on Olympic success.

Orbea started producing guns in 1840 and has manufactured bicycles since the 1930s but it is only since 2005 that the company has competed globally in professional mountain biking events.

In 2008, the mountain bike Orbea produced for Julien Absalon won gold at the Beijing Olympics and he has become the company's totem.

Orbea started life as a weapons factory
The factory near Bilbao employs 200 workers and produces 600 bicycles a day
Julien Absalon has won four World Championships, 17 World Cups and two Olympic gold medals

Absalon has been dubbed the Michael Schumacher of mountain biking - he dominates the sport, having won four World Championships, 17 World Cups and two Olympic gold medals. He is also at his best in the rain.

It is therefore appropriate that his bike is designed and manufactured in the rain-drenched village of Mallabia in northern Sapin. The factory houses some 200 employees who churn out around 600 bicycles each day.

It is also here that work is going on to research, design and construct a bike that Julien Absalon hopes will help him retain his Olympic title in 2012.

Man or machine

One frequently discussed issue in sports such as mountain biking is the role that technology plays.

Ixio Barandiaran, Julien's team manager, believes that although the bike is important, Absalon is a unique athlete.

"Both things are important - man and machine but Julien is a machine," he says.

Joseba Arizaga, Orbea's marketing manager is, perhaps unsurprisingly, more willing to stress that Julien's bike gives him an edge over his rivals.

"It could be a minimum advantage but at the end of the day the differences between these top level riders is so small that whatever improvement you could provide to the rider… is very important," he says.

The value of an Olympic champion

It is clear that Absalon needs a top company to produce a bike with which he can win races but why does Orbea need him?

"Eight years ago we decided to expand the brand, to start being an international brand, so in this strategy the sponsorships play a good role", says Joseba Arizaga.

To put it bluntly, Julien is a marketing tool. Orbea are relatively new to commercial markets outside of Spain and part of their expansionist strategy is to appeal to top end users.

Where casual mountain bikers are unlikely to recognise Julien, Orbea realise that the face of an Olympic champion will appeal to a demographic that they want to sell to.


Jon Coloma of Orbea gives a tour of the factory near Bilbao where they are busy preparing Julien Absalon's next bike

How valuable therefore is Julien Absalon? Can one quantify the monetary worth of a sportsperson to the brand they represent?

Andy Milligan, from branding consultancy The Caffeine Partnership, says: "Putting an exact monetary value on the worth of sports stars to brands is an inexact science.

"Armani spent a rumoured $20m on a three-year contract for David Beckham but sales of their Y-front range increased 270% following the campaign.

"But was it just Beckham or was it the way in which Beckham was used, in his tighty-whities, that was driving the uplift? Frankly, Armani don't care; the combination worked and that's all that matters."

Since Absalon's involvement with Orbea, turnover has increased from 48.5 million euros in 2005 to 60 million euros in 2009. However, it would be foolhardy to suggest that Julien's involvement is solely responsible for these new sales.

Celebrity endorsements are now a strategic brand building tool rather than a tactical sales promotion
Brand consultant Andy Milligan

It is virtually impossible to identify whether increased sales are the result of a general expansionist drive or the result of people buying their bike because it is one that an Olympic champion rides.

Nevertheless, as Andy Milligan continues: "Direct monetary return is rarely what such endorsements are for.

"Companies use such endorsements to confer credibility, relevance and appeal on their brand as well as to raise awareness. Celebrity endorsements are now a strategic brand building tool rather than a tactical sales promotion."

Julien not only offers branding opportunities, he is also intrinsically linked to the development of a bike that Orbea can then market and sell to the general public. From design to delivery, Julien has a say in the development of his bikes and this gives Orbea's marketing authenticity.

"People want to know that a sports star has genuinely contributed his talent or expertise to a product and/or that he is lending his endorsement because it genuinely 'fits' with who he or she is and stands for.

"Slapping someone's name on a product because they are famous is not going to guarantee any sales, there has to be a perceived credible and relevant fit. Julien designing his own bike is the perfect fit," says Milligan.

From elite competition to the high street

The bike that Julien rode to Olympic glory, the Orbea Alma, costs £5,645, as much as a small car.

That amount is probably too much for the casual rider but it won't take long for the cutting edge technology present on the bike to filter down to more affordable bikes available on the high street.

Julien Absalon
Follow Julien Absalon as he competes in a World Cup event.

Anti-locking brakes were originally designed by Formula 1 teams but they have since become the norm on cars that anyone can buy. In a similar way, the Alma's Gore-Tex cable protection, built-in mud guard and bent frame may become standard features on high street mountain bikes.

"Julien's Alma is made of carbon fibre but we also make it in aluminium for everyone else. All the technology we research and develop for the Alma we take to the rest of our bikes," says Ixio Barandiaran.

Julien Absalon's association with Orbea is therefore a winner for all concerned. Julien himself gets a race-winning bike, Orbea reach new customers through their association with competitive success and consumers benefit from technology designed for an elite sportsman.

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see also
Mountain bike course put to test
15 Aug 11 |  Cycling
In pictures: Orbea bike factory
11 Jan 11 |  World Olympic Dreams
Making an Olympic mountain bike
04 Jan 11 |  World Olympic Dreams
Top mountain bikers brave volcano
29 Nov 10 |  World Olympic Dreams
2012 mountain to climb for Julien Absalon
18 Aug 10 |  World Olympic Dreams

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