Picture courtesy of Ruth Newton and Oli Townsend (@intandemstories)

How can small businesses stand out from the crowd?

By Jake Voelcker, owner, Bicycleworks

This piece first appeared in the February edition of BikeBiz magazine – get your free subscription here

We all know one of the most powerful forms of advertising is word-of-mouth and it’s great when it happens organically – but can you give it a nudge to get it started?

Nowadays, conventional advertising isn’t enough to excite people. The world is awash with adverts and people ignore a lot of them. To boost word-of-mouth referrals, we need to go the extra mile. But what can a small independent shop or company do to stand out from the crowd?

One of the best ways is to leverage exactly that smallness, that localness, that independence. Here are some practical ways you could get this going in your business:

We have had a couple of really worthwhile partnerships with local councils and universities. Not only does this have the immediate benefit of selling bikes to these organisations, but also there is an indirect benefit: their staff and students hear about us and become customers, and sometimes this continues for months or years afterwards. 

For example, Bristol City Council has a fleet of e-bikes, including some of our models, which they lend to businesses and individuals to encourage sustainable travel. Naturally, some of these users love the bikes and subsequently purchase one of their own from us. More than that, it’s also free advertising: everywhere those bikes go, and everywhere that the council promotes them, is a great promotion for our brand as well.

Does your local council have a green travel team or a sustainability department? Does a college or university near you encourage students to avoid car use? Their staff are probably crying out for a friendly local bike shop to help them promote the cause.

As well as partnerships with organisations, could you collaborate with local artists or musicians to broaden your appeal and reach a wider range of potential customers?

We were recently asked by a local band if they could use our shop as a space to record their latest music video. Why not? They get a new, interesting backdrop for their video, while we get access to their followers and fans as well as a cool video to share.

Could you collaborate with an artist to create a uniquely painted bike, which could then be auctioned or raffled to raise money for a local charity? In one campaign, you have access to two new audiences, and a newsworthy story for which you can easily get media coverage.

Approach local high street businesses to find one who will display your bike in their window. Cafes, health centres, estate agents, solicitors… all these may like to have something tangible to fill their window space, and could even be willing to do so at no cost, because being associated with cycling gives their green and health-related image a boost.

We have worked with many employers over the years, and all sorts of different options exist. Here are some of the things which have worked well:

• Sustainability events and green travel days: offer to take bikes and e-bikes for their staff to ride, get a pop-up banner stand printed, and take plenty of promotional literature and flyers. It’s amazing how many customers will continue to tell you over the coming months that this is where they first heard about your brand.

• Big employers have Bicycle User Groups: can you get involved by offering a free advice session, or a small discount for their members, or a one-off deal?

• Dr Bike sessions: we have attended many workplaces as mobile mechanics, offering tune-ups and basic servicing for staff. The employer pays the bill and it’s a great way of introducing your brand to the perfect audience: existing regular cyclists.

• In-house cycle schemes: at the very least, ensure you are listed on the workplace’s scheme as one of the shops available for their staff to use. But some employers aren’t set up yet, and will be happy to use your preferred cycle scheme provider. Better still, The Bicycle Association now has guidance on how to run your own shop cycle scheme in-house. If you can offer this to local employers, you will automatically become the first choice for most of their staff.

• Some employers subsidise the servicing of their employees’ bikes, particularly those who cycle for work, such as cycle couriers. We have deals with several employers whereby they send their staff to us for bike maintenance, and we invoice the employer every month.

Brand ambassadors
This is the big one. The right brand ambassadors can make a big difference to your image. Identify your core customer base, and keep a lookout for someone in this group who would make a great brand ambassador for your shop or company. Then simply have a chat and ask if they’d like to get involved, in return for a generous deal or discount.

In our Bristol store, cycle tourists are one of our main customer groups. So we offered several such customers deals in exchange for becoming brand ambassadors. We gave @intandemstories two touring bikes for the price of one, in return for being allowed to use photos from their round-the-world trip in 2019. And they are truly fantastic photographers! Thanks to them, we now have an archive of really eye-catching pictures of our bikes in wonderful locations, and some great stories to accompany them.

The following year we did the same with video pro @kavetrip, and got some pretty awesome drone footage of our bikes in the Scottish Highlands.

Depending on your audience, you may prefer to choose roadies or mountain bikers, but the aim is the same: choose someone who does interesting or eye-catching things on the bike, and who is good at photography, or video work, or blogging, or social media.

Are commuters your bread-and-butter customer base? Then maybe choose someone influential from the local cycling campaign as your ambassador. Do you sell cargo bikes? Your ideal brand ambassador could be someone who uses their bike in an interesting or unusual way for work.

In all of these examples, the crucial thing is to create genuine, authentic, heart-warming stories and images from someone real, in a way that the big brands just can’t compete with. This is the sort of content people share on social media. These are the sorts of ideas that get people talking. This is so much more memorable than just another advert.

Bicycleworks provides everything you need to launch your own bike brand, including bike designs, components at lower than trade prices, website and systems, marketing and advertising. www.bicycleworks.co.uk

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