Why do we woefully neglect the volunteer army who work to expand our customer base?

Funding advocacy is an investment in the bicycle industry’s future

In last month’s column in BikeBiz magazine I wrote about Wiggle’s acquisition of Chain Reaction, and highlighted that mergers, while fascinating for navel-gazing industry-watchers, don’t create new customers. We need to grow the pie, I suggested, recognising that this is easier said than done. But I could have added there is a way for the industry to expand the market, and it doesn’t necessarily need new money but would involve diverting some of the cash that’s currently spent on market-share grabs.

The usual way the bike industry benefits from market expansion is by accident – in the 1970s the burgeoning environmental movement helped kick-start a bike boom that took the industry by surprise (in the US, Schwinn sold out of its annual production run of 1,225,000 bikes before the end of May 1971) and in the 1980s the industry was again surprised when the that’ll-never-sell MTB got millions of new people on bikes.

London’s recent and still ongoing bike boom has many causes (congestion charging, the 7/7 bombings, tube strikes and more) but little of it can be ascribed to anything the bicycle industry did to stimulate demand.

It doesn’t need to be like this. Spending on advocacy is an investment, not an expense. And advocacy can build up a market sustainably over the long-term. Cycle advocates tend to be highly-intelligent, energetic and laser-focussed individuals. It’s madness not to partner with them, to harness their energy, their drive and benefit from their gimlet-eyed obsession with detail.

Many of the current crop of unpaid promoters of our products are burning the candle at both ends, working tirelessly in their free time to get more people on bicycles. With substantial financial and moral support these advocates could truly work wonders. It’s shocking, really, that the industry stays largely aloof from such a passionate and committed volunteer army. (Bikes Belong in the US, and the Cycling Industry Club initiative from the European Cyclists’ Federation are stand-out examples of how the worlds of advocacy and the industry <it>can</it> meet in the middle.)

It’s not as though we haven’t been warned. Trek’s CEO has been banging the let’s-support-advocacy drum for many years. John Burke has been urging the global bicycle industry to do more for advocates since 2007 when he gave a famous talk at the Taipei International Cycle Show.

And, again in Taipei, he continued the theme at this year’s Velo-city conference, asking how many of his fellow industry leaders were "actively involved in creating a more bicycle-friendly world."

Burke claimed there are “very few bicycle companies that really support the bicycle movement.”

Bike companies would sell more bicycles if there were more places for folks to ride ‘em, said Burke.

"The number one way to grow the business – and to have an impact on society, health, environment and congestion – is to create a bicycle-friendly world," said Burke in 2007.

He revealed that for every £100 of sales, bike companies typically spend £3.90 on marketing, £1.60 on R&D but just 10 pence on advocacy. (It’s likely higher now, but not much.)

Most of the bike industry’s marketing is aimed at existing cyclists, persuading them to switch brands, or buy yet another “quiver” bicycle from the latest product niche. And while it’s fun for category managers to niche-spec – an electric folding fat groad-trike with plus-size wheels any one? – it adds unnecessary complexity at the retail coal-face, and does next to nothing to entice newcomers.

If the industry really is spending just a few tenths of a percent of its turnover on bicycle advocacy it should come as no surprise when we keep tumbling down the troughs that follow every peak. Instead, we should do what Burke has been urging us to do and that’s fully fund the advocates.

And I don’t just mean advocates for protected cycleways, cycling is a broad church and MTB trail-building advocacy, and similar, is also very much deserving of our support. Naturally, with so many good causes to support, so many advocates to keep in clover, we could spread ourselves too thinly but right now we’re hardly spreading ourselves at all. This needs to change.



The graphic at the top of the page is a poster produced for Bikes Belong of the US in 2013.

In other news...

Construction work to begin soon on new cycle route between Finsbury Park and Holloway Road

Transport for London (TfL) has confirmed that construction work will begin on a new cycle route between …