There was a fair bit of discussion last week about the value – or lack of value – of promotional marketing campaigns related to cycling. On the one hand, we had the view that any kind of policy, promotional or otherwise, that purports to increase cycling levels is a good thing. On the other, we had the view that these policies are largely pointless without the kinds of conditions on the ground to enable cycling; safe, convenient, attractive and direct routes.
Those who take the former view argue that every little thing helps. Therefore every little thing is good. The phrase ‘marginal gains’ is even employed, echoing Team Sky’s strategy of improving in all areas of performance, to extract maximum benefit. By this logic, glossy promotion is a ‘marginal gain’, a boost to cycling, alongside cycleways. This view, I think, is summarised below, in the words of Carlton Reid –
Sir Dave Brailsford’s system of aggregating marginal gain is an example from cycle sport that demonstrates that great things can come from lots of little tweaks. I want brilliant, Dutch-style cycle infrastructure in the UK. I don’t want yet more ‘crap cycle lanes’. I’m not holding my breath. Nevertheless I will campaign long and hard for such infrastructure, as I have been doing for the best part of 30 years.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nor was Amsterdam’s cycle infrastructure. Before we get a UK version of the wonderful Dutch National Cycling Plan there are many smaller fixes that the UK Government and local authorities could do tomorrow.
By all means aim for the big stuff, but let’s not ignore lots and lots of the little stuff. That’s why I’ve started the Twitter hashtag #nudges4cycling Some great, simple fixes have already started arriving and I’ll compile a list of these to give to the Department for Transport and other relevant Departments.
Marketing presumably being one of these ‘nudges’.
However this ‘marginal gains’ analogy is deeply flawed. Team Sky are applying the aggregation of ‘marginal gains’ while their riders are using extremely expensive Pinarello bikes, honed in wind tunnel testing, and fitted with top-of-the-range components. It makes sense to apply ‘marginal gains’ when you already have fantastic equipment.
However, it would make very little sense for Team Sky to do so if they were equipped with secondhand 1990s Halfords Apollo ‘full suspension’ mountain bikes, with flat tyres and rusty chains.
You can hire the best sports psychologists and nutritionists; you can ferry your team about in the fanciest tour buses; put them up in the most expensive hotels; manage their sleep patterns; religiously organise their training programmes; clothe them in the lightest, most aerodynamic skinsuits.
But really, if your riders are bouncing around on creaky £90 specials while the rest of the peloton vanishes over the horizon, is there any point? Indeed, it could justifiably be argued that – while the equipment your riders are forced to use is so deeply sub-optimal – employing Steve Peters to help your riders find their ‘inner chimp’ is a total waste of money.
This is, unfortunately, analogous to the role of promotion with current conditions for cycling in Britain. The equivalent of the rusty mountain bikes is the conditions we expect people to ride in; and the equivalent of Steve Peters is the promotional activity that attempts to persuade people to ride in those conditions.
The very reason cycling has such a poor image in Britain is due to these hostile conditions. It is a marginal, fringe activity precisely because so few people are willing to cycle on our roads and streets, and those that are prepared to do so choose to wear equipment that they feel – rightly or wrongly – will mitigate that danger and hostility. The image problem flows from the physical environment.
This is why marketing has failed – and will continue to fail – as a strategy to enable cycling in Britain. The conditions need to come first, then promotion needs to follow, just as you need to go out and buy the Pinarellos, before employing Steve Peters. Don’t waste your money employing sports psychologists, when your equipment is so desperately below par.
Meanwhile, marketing remains a very convenient outlet for cycle spending for those authorities who don’t wish to address the unattractive conditions for cycling on their roads. I’m thinking here particularly of Kensington and Chelsea’s Bikeminded, a glossy EU-funded promotional scheme from a borough that continues to block cycleways on its main roads.
Spending cycling money on marketing is uncontroversial, and allows many councils to pretend they’re actually doing something while failing to address the largest and most significant barrier to cycling; the unwillingness of the general public to share roadspace with motor traffic. Marketing needs to be employed when you have a product that’s actually worth selling; otherwise it amounts to polishing a turd.
Indeed, this essential point appears to have got lost in all the back-and-forth last week. Nobody is knocking the principle of marketing, any more than critics are knocking the principle of employing sports psychologists. There’s nothing wrong with either. The issue many campaigners have is one of ordering.
Just as you wouldn’t waste money on sports psychologists when your team is equipped with embarrassingly crap bikes, don’t waste money attempting to market a product you already know the public doesn’t want to buy. Develop a good one, then market that.
See also Joe Dunckley on the logic – or otherwise – of campaigning for marginal gains