The Commercial Logic of Cycling Tribes-Roadies v MTBiker v BMXers and so on

by Sabinna on April 13, 2010

The Fat Cyclist recently posted a call for us to go beyond what could be labeled ‘tribalism‘ in the world of cycling. He writes

There’s no reason in the world why cyclists should choose to be either strictly mountain bikers or road cyclists (or track cyclists, or cyclocrossers, or downhillers, or BMX-ers). Don’t be one or the other. Be both. Or all twelve. Or — to be more realistic — as many as you have money, time and inclination for. As near as I can tell, there are no bad forms of cycling.

We humans have a tendency to associate in groups. And I’m not talking about herds, coz animals don’t have much choice in the matter. Groupiness is what we bipeds are about. You come across it all the time in sports, across categories: recreational sailors will swear there is no finer way to pass the time; golfers would probably disagree. You come across it within categories: synchronized swimming has a long way to go to be on the same level as the epic event that is the 15oom.

And we see it in the attitudes many non-cyclists, as well, of course, amongst crank turning bipeds–leave your lycra at home (as one of Fatty’s commentators wrote ‘its a damn fashion show out there’) vs the rest, to shine the light on just one (admittedly fundamental) subgroup, or tribe (Long Tail).

What I want to do here is bring into focus the commercial dimension lurking within this. Paul Andrews puts the question in the wake of Fabian Cancellara’s Paris-Robaix win: was it him or his (Specialized) bike? Richard Masoner replies that whatever way you look at it, Specialized gets great exposure. They sure do, just like all the other brands that have a presence in some form at one of these big events. Specialized’s angle is they have created a bike for the cobblestones. But as one commentator put it ‘Specialized has yet to make an attractive bike’. He probably won’t be buying one soon. Which brings me to the point.

What interests me in all this is the contradictory energies that are at work. If you accept that the modern economy is one of virtually unlimited abundance, the question is how to create value in a situation where everyone is producing the same things.  The bike industry, as is probably true of all industries, creates value by promoting radical differentiation in products, let’s call it the hair-splitting factor. Differentiation = innovation: the job for the industry is to get consumers to appreciate an innovation as a differentiation (or vice versa?). You do this by encouraging and by building on consumer tribalism, and going deeply in one direction. Your brand is a neat representation of this.

However, splitting-hairs means you suffer the opportunity cost of taking the road less cycled. The thing is, these days you have to be at the top of your game and pretty gutsy to go wide as well as deep, not to mention having access to a substantial line of credit. In that case it may not be a cost at all. Tribalism is minimally survival for a business or at the other end, a ticket to big profits. I guess you can say the bike industry, as a whole, exists by going both ways, hence this feeling of contradictory forces at work.

Generally speaking, though, unless you are one of the players who can go wide–eg. Merida has a minority stake in Specialized –as well as deep, your best option is to just go deep. In other words, you will need the eternal battle between the die-hard MTBers and the Roadies since the inclination of the cycling consumer is to tend towards one over the other. Encouraging and working with consumer tribes just makes commercial sense the ways things are at the moment and look like remaining.

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ttrbikes April 14, 2010 at 6:56 AM

I appreciate that insight—interesting and somewhat counterintuitive. Thanks!

Michael Turton April 19, 2010 at 9:56 AM

Nicely put. What you’re really talking about is getting people to incorporate brands into their social identities. The downside of that is that social identities are class identities — so people will respond to products in class-driven ways. For example, I don’t read biking magazines because there isn’t much aimed at consumers like me — chubby forty year olds who really love biking. But also part of the reason is that I reject their social class-driven ads, which picture wealthy white people using expensive accessories to ride uphill on lovely carbon bikes with a slab of brie in one hand, a glass of Riesling in the other, while talking to their stock brokers on the phone. I have a rather strong class response to the status-basis of bike company ads…

For me the real marketing trick would be to use tribalistic identities as a springboard to more inclusive rather than exclusive product use.

Michael

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