On April 10, Rick Vosper blogged about 'Why Bike Ads Work.' My initial reaction to this title was appreciation that someone else had realized that our industry does not advertise enough. However, the post ended up just being another disappointing argument for the status quo and expecting better results.
Now as a defense of top-of-market advertising to the elitist and the bike geek, it was adequate. Certainly a part of the overall marketing efforts of shop quality brands should be toward these influencers.
But in treating the topic, the article failed to listen to the customers' felt need as we who actually operate shops must do every day, and recognize that we as an industry continue to make the mistake of advertising only or primarily to these influencers to the exclusion of all others.
Vosper writes "Because it works, that's why." Yet the quality-equipment industry via locally owned and operated IBDs continues to contract. It has been on this trajectory for a long time. Analyzing those statistics is another whole topic. Suffice it to say that what chain stores and the internet are today picking up in bicycling sales volume will itself be lost when the expertise of local bike shops is no longer available in another generation.
Advertising Media Aren't Mutually Exclusive
In marketing to key influencers, what about this rules out marketing to the masses?
A couple of years ago in an ESPN sports magazine I remember seeing a full-page, full-color ad taken out by Huffy with a simple message: "It's still fun." Pictured was a streetscape with young adult on a bicycle.
It was an audacious ad. Why? The pictured bicycle was large enough to see quite clearly that it was what one would expect to buy in a Huffy — a mass- and cheaply produced toy — far from a bicycle that any of us would consider even remotely fun to ride. Why else? The ad made no attempt to compare itself to what we offer. With seven out of eight bicycles being sold by anyone other than us in the quality industry, we aren't on their map anymore. The mass market no longer knows we even exist, for all practical purposes?
And why is this? Because it has been years since we have marketed a message to anyone outside of the fold.
You Get What You Ask For
Mr. Vosper defends brand marketing decision-makers because, of course, he used to be one and made those same decisions. A man must live with and thus is motivated to defend his choices.
But bicycle shops and brand managers together have erred in this industry by ignoring the majority of its market potential. If we only ask for elite customers, then that is all we will attract. That's fine if all we wish to accomplish is living for another decade, maybe two, on generations of riders who grew up before major entrenchment of the chain stores and online sellers.
That generation is dying away and, as it does, new youngsters are not entering into our fold at the rates that they once did when the only exposure to bicycles they had was in local bicycle shops. That is how one loses (and we have lost) the marketplace -- let someone else take it away from you and keep it long enough that the memory of you fades.
What Should Our Advertising Message Be?
If we want to be here in fifty or one hundred years let alone another generation, what does our message need to be? Well, what do we who operate bike shops encounter most often?
How often do we meet customers who are dissatisfied that the cost of repairs is more than the value of the bicycle they are riding? How often are customers replacing cheap, disposable equipment that costs them more over time than just buying quality the first time? How well are novices fitting themselves to bikes purchase online or on Ebay? Heck, how many bicycles are still making their way under a tree at Christmas?
If we want to build a pervasive culture of quality cycling again, we need to interface with the larger culture too. Truly, these folks don't and never will read the cycling magazines and most won't ever know or be comfortable riding with one of the key influencers we are so gaga over.
And the message needs to be taken back from Huffy. It is still fun and it's a lot more fun and cost-effective when it starts in a locally owned bike shop and ends with a ride that feels far and away better and lasts long enough to pass it on to your kids if you want it to.
Status Quo = Unimaginative and Tired
Let me leave us with this one thought: What would be easier and far more profitable if we treat advertising as we should — an investment with a return? Scrapping over the same annually shrinking pie to take a few units away from your elite competition, or outflanking the market by taking many, many units away from the Marts and online junk pushers?
Editor's note: Jeff Koenig has for over 25 years been an entrepreneurial consultant and personally built, bought, and sold over a dozen small businesses. He is passionate about preserving the economic and social community benefits of main street, locally owned small businesses in an increasingly isolated online and big-box shopping world. His current project is helping to build an uncommonly successful IBD startup (Big Poppi Bicycle Co. in Manhattan, Kansas). He also currently serves on the board of the National Bicycle Dealers Association.
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