Today I read this great article over at Cycling Tips. It’s a quick take on a larger picture issue, and in the spirit of continuing constructive dialogue, I have a few thoughts of my own to add.
First and foremost, let us state the obvious: men and women are different. This is both a fact and a good thing. Our sexes have evolved differently in many aspects: physiologically, culturally, socially. While I believe in and hope for and work toward equal opportunity for men and women, I recognize that due to our inherent differences, when it comes to gender, equal does not mean “same.” Personally, I think it would be a shame for women to lose sight of the value of femininity in the quest for equality, and it is important to make the distinction between equality and sameness. As such, I am personally in favor of developing women’s cycling in its own right, rather than as a lesser version of the “real thing.”
When it comes to sport and questions of parity, many are quick to point out that women simply are not as strong and fast as men and that this justifies unequal treatment/salary/media/opportunity/what-have-you. Women are physiologically different from men, but I adamantly disagree that this physical disparity is grounds for treating women’s sport as something less. Especially in the case of cycling, speed and strength are only part of what makes an exciting race; more salient to a spectator is the strategy which unfolds unique and anew each race, as well as the skill of moving within an enormous, tightly-packed group of aggressive cyclists while navigating tiny roads, enormous cobblestones, tight corners, hair-raising descents and flat-out sprint finishes. Fans don’t simply watch a radar reading of speed to determine whether it is a good race. While strength and speed form an essential foundation for a good bike race, the appeal of bike racing correlates more strongly to strategy and skill, which abound as much in women’s races as in men’s.
In this regard, comparing women’s racing on the whole to men’s racing on the whole becomes the proverbial comparison of apples and oranges. They are different. Women’s races are shorter. While our longest races can get up to 160km, the longest men’s races get up to 300km. Our teams are also smaller. A men’s team might have ten or twelve riders in a race, while most women’s teams field 6-8 riders per race. These differences in parameters make for huge differences in race tactics. On one hand, the shorter distances mean that women tend to race aggressively from the gun: we want to make the most of the kilometers we’ve got! On the other hand, the smaller team sizes mean that we must be very crafty in how we use each rider in the larger strategic scheme; we don’t have as many matches to burn, so to speak. What results is exceptionally dynamic and unpredictable racing from start to finish. Women’s races are different from men’s, but different in this case does not mean less exciting or strategic or appealing. It’s different excitement, different strategy, different appeal. And I wholeheartedly agree that this difference, this particular brand of excitement, strategy and appeal, has yet to be optimally (or for that matter, even appropriately or effectively) leveraged.
This brings us to the question of marketing. To me, there are two big questions when it comes to marketing on the women’s side of the sport: how to market women’s cycling, and how to market cycling to women. In my opinion, these two questions are very, very different and require very different approaches.
How to Market Women’s Cycling
The first step is to accept, acknowledge and emphasize that women’s cycling is a very different beast from men’s cycling, and as such, should not be marketed in the same way. Men’s cycling has been around for centuries, so the model for marketing cycling has evolved and been refined in terms of what works for men and is by and large what has been applied to women’s cycling. Centuries of history compared with decades of history – that’s a lot of inertia in what may prove to be the wrong direction for the women’s side of the sport. First and foremost: market women’s cycling for what it is – distinct from anything else.
Then promote what it is about women’s cycling that appeals and fascinates. What draws the athletes to the sport? (I’ll give you a hint: it is not the money!) What is so damn irresistible about bike racing that these athletes leave such successful, respected and lucrative professions as medicine, law, research, investment banking, academia? If someone were to ever calculate the total opportunity cost represented by the professional women’s peloton, it would be a shocking illustration of the intangible value of pursuing a dream, rather than a paycheck. If that isn’t an intriguing and inspiring window into the human spirit, I don’t know what is.
Moreover, these women are fierce competitors and show it in their racing style. Last year, when The Sufferfest announced they were editing footage for the first-ever Sufferfest workout featuring women’s racing (Hell Hath No Fury), the difficulty became editing out attacks, as there were too many! The Olympic Road Race this year provided another great example. This aggressive nature of women’s cycling actually appeals just as much to men as it does to women, if not more so. Sponsors I have worked with have repeatedly remarked that the most traffic they get for our team is from men. Sure, one can argue this is simply sex appeal, but in the cases to which I am referring, the marketing was based purely on athletics; no bikini calendars necessary.
In my experience, cycling fans who initially get into the sport because of men’s cycling and later become fans of the women, tend to be almost fanatical in their zeal for women’s racing and take up remarkably active roles in promoting women racers. There is no such thing as a ‘fair-weather women’s cycling fan,’ and there is a reason for that. Men and women value what we are doing and quickly become loyal fans, if only they ever get the opportunity to see a race, interact with an athlete, or hear our stories. Potential sponsors take note: there is something very powerful going on here.
(I could go on at length on this topic, but want to address a few more points before this post becomes prohibitively long!)
Marketing Cycling To Women
This is very very different from marketing women’s cycling. In the last several years, the bike industry has perked up its ears at research that shows women as being the fastest growing target demographic in cycling. Accordingly, every major brand has rolled out a “women’s specific” line of product. Yet again, these efforts largely miss their mark, because again, they apply the same old marketing model and think that by adding a pink or floral logo to their product, women previously disinterested in cycling will suddenly be inspired to ride bikes and buy all the latest pink, flowery
product. I don’t know where they get their research, but simply slapping stereotyped packaging onto product isn’t the golden ticket to cornering the women’s market.
The name of the game is to create a) motivation to get into cycling, and b) a barrier-free pathway to becoming involved in the sport, at any level. The motivation part is easy. Everyone remembers that thrill of getting on a bike as a kid, and that thrill doesn’t go away, regardless of age! The second part requires proactively removing barriers – both real and perceived – that stand in the way of a woman picking up cycling. How? Promote the heck out of positive, approachable role models who went from non-cyclists to happy, fulfilled cyclists, and tap into the vast wealth of experience of women cyclists who know what works.
And here is where a fleet of professional women cyclists becomes your secret weapon: all of these women vividly remember the psychological, social and practical hurdles they faced as they got started in the sport. They offer a template for how a woman non-cyclist becomes an avid cyclist. What would benefit the bike/outdoor sport industry (and hence our sport as a whole) would be to recognize that women want what works… for them. Pink or floral or not. They want product and equipment and services and events that provide a quality experience… for them. Guess who has all those answers, and can clearly and honestly communicate them to your target market in a very natural and approachable manner? It’s not rocket science.
When it comes to the current model, I see two glaring deficiencies in leveraging women’s cycling for that holy grail of marketing, ROI:
1. a lack of presenting/promoting women’s racing in its own right, rather than the female version of the “real” thing, and
2. a neglect on the part of major brands to work with women cyclists to create friendlier pathways to cycling for non-cyclist women (and girls).
I agree that the current application of a historical business model for women’s cycling is ineffective and should be
adapted re-created to address the specific appeal of, and value offered by, women cyclists. Women’s teams appeal to both men and women, and can provide additional value as a springboard for R&D of products and services aimed at the fast-growing and lucrative niche of women consumers. Marketing women’s cycling and marketing cycling to women are two very different sides to the same coin: namely the vastly underestimated and untapped marketing power of the women’s peloton.
Again, I have many more thoughts on this and would happily discuss further. Please leave your comments below, or tune in for my next Q&A Session – TBA via Twitter @ambermalika.
Thanks for reading,
Amber Pierce – An American expat living in Austria, Amber has made the leap across the Atlantic in pursuit of her dreams on the road. After making a name for herself as one of the top road cyclists in the US, she now faces new challenges in her life on the road in Europe.
Amber’s path to full-time racing in Europe has been anything but linear. From high school valedictorian holding national swimming records, to scholarship athlete at Stanford University and researcher on the open ocean, she has found herself in countless adventures all over the globe. With 53 career victories under her belt, however, Amber appears to have found her calling on the bicycle.