Forget about billboards or splashy, four-color direct mail.
Tom Irvine is promoting his resin distribution business - and the plastics industry as a whole - on the backs of up-and-coming athletes and former Olympians as part of the traveling road show that is professional bicycling in the United States.
Prime Alliance Inc. is the main sponsor behind a new cycling team that will spend nine months touring the country at races, clad in jerseys with the company's logo and filled with professional athletes ready to step in and help promote the distributor at various events.
The idea behind the sponsorship, said Irvine, president and chief executive officer for Des Moines, Iowa-based Prime Alliance, is to use cycling to help spread the company's name not only to potential customers but also to fire up employees through its nontraditional advertising venue.
``I've never felt real comfortable within the boundaries of how we're defined,'' Irvine said. ``This may be one more thing that sets us apart.
``From a business perspective, it hopefully allows us to create a new audience, with a different level of people within this industry - the designers, the engineers, the younger up-and-coming thinkers within this business who are more interested in active participation in sports vs. going to the country club and playing golf.''
Irvine is not a racer, but he has been exposed to bicycling for many years. His brother owns a bike shop in Iowa. He also spends the bulk of his time at Prime Alliance's office in Boulder, Colo., where he is surrounded by outdoor enthusiasts.
``Out here, it's pretty routine to be involved in something physical,'' he said. ``You come out here and people ask, `What do you do?' If you tell them what you do for a living, they'll say, `No - do you rock climb? Do you ski?' They want to know what you do that's interesting.''
The team launches at the same time cycling is gaining interest in the United States, thanks to the two consecutive victories at the Tour de France by Texan Lance Armstrong.
``Part of my impetus in moving forward with this whole thing is that during the last couple of years I've just been seeing vast amounts of e-mails and overhearing conversations from people who never paid attention to cycling before,'' Irvine said. ``People are talking about it.''
Last year he approached a Colorado cycling business to look into the potential to sponsor a local amateur team.
He happened in just as a slew of strong competitors became available for the coming season, including brothers Jonas and Jame Carney - both members of the 2000 U.S. Olympic team.
Soon, he had expanded his plan and went on the search for sponsor partners to help create a strong, traveling professional team, one that could represent the plastics industry as a whole.
``When I went on a telephone and e-mail campaign to involve some of our supplier companies in this, some of them just jumped right on it,'' he said. ``The companies that want to walk the talk of thinking outside the box will do it.''
The Prime Alliance team has additional support from a variety of plastics leaders, among them Solutia Inc., Dow Chemical Co., Cyro Industries, LNP Engineering Plastics Inc. and RheTech Inc., as well as a host of cycling-oriented companies.
It also has continued to draw top cyclists, including mountain bike national champion Steve Larsen, who will ride for Prime Alliance during road-race events.
But the team does more than back professional athletes. It also exposes cycling enthusiasts to the plastics industry, noted team general manager Roy Knickman.
``There's a concept with the team that we want it to be a plastics industry team,'' Knickman said. ``This is a good tool.''
Knickman has 20 years of experience as a cyclist and coach - and a bronze medal from the 100-kilometer team time trial at the 1984 Olympics. He agreed to run Prime Alliance's team once he met Irvine and was convinced that the businessman had a solid outlook for bringing cycling and plastics together.
``When I looked at plastics two years ago or even one year ago, when I didn't know Tom, I didn't know anything about it.
``With cycling, you've got these healthy, environmentally oriented people who normally wouldn't consider anything that wasn't `organic,' but they were out every day with their carbon-fiber frames and carbon-fiber forks and foam helmets with plastic shells, and they loved them because they were light and the latest technology.''
The team can drive home those links between consumers and suppliers, he said.
Now Irvine is building the company's promotion plans around the 40 cycling events taking place around the country this year. His customers and business contacts will have a chance to hang out with the athletes, talk about sports or even lend a hand at food stops.
As the team jells, Knickman said, the racers will receive more information about their sponsors and the industry as a whole to serve as solid representatives. Team members also may serve as motivational speakers for the industry.
``It's releasing endorphins through the whole company,'' Irvine said. ``The purity of the athletes, how hard they train, their outlook - some of those traits can rub off on our employees, too.''
He also is setting up a buddy system between the company and the riders so each cyclist has a personal contact inside the business and can learn more about everything from resins to recycling.
``Besides just the pure images that are out there for their company, there are messages and an excitement that bicycling generates,'' Knickman said. ``We can make this a very viable tool for [Prime Alliance] and other plastics-oriented companies in terms of getting a very positive return from the public.''