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Viewpoint: Issue 604 31 Aug 2012

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Attitude/behaviour, Cycling, All of UK

Marketing cycling: Are we trying to reach the people who might actually listen to our message?

Recent campaigns to encourage people to cycle more have generally focussed on everyday cycling: pictures of people like you and me riding bikes in normal, everyday clothes. The thinking behind these sorts of campaigns is to be as inclusive as possible, not putting people off the idea of cycling because they don’t fit in with the image portrayed but, while this may seem like a good idea, is it possible that we are jumping ahead of ourselves?

Why might this be wrong?

In his 1962 book, Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers proposed a theory about how new ideas spread over time, reaching different stages of the population at different times. The idea of cycling as an everyday mode of transport is not a new idea but it is an idea that hasn’t yet spread very far throughout our population. Despite increases in the number of cyclists in London following initiatives to get more people cycling, mode share in the capital is only 2%.

Rogers’ theory is that new ideas or innovations spread through parts of the population in sequence and that, in order to reach the mass market, we first need to get our idea adopted by the small proportion of the population who try things before everyone else.

The way that ideas spread can be plotted on a chart that takes the shape of a bell curve, with the people who try things first on the left, representing a small proportion of the population; the mass market in the centre; and the laggards, or people who it will always be a struggle to convert, on the right of the curve. What is important to note here is that the spread of a new idea is sequential: the mass market won’t adopt a new idea until someone else has tried it first. We’re all at different stages of this curve at different times and for different things. Just because someone you know was the first to adopt one new idea, doesn’t necessarily mean they will do this for all new ideas.

The first group that adopts any new idea is the 2.5% of the population that Rogers calls the innovators. These are the people that just ‘get it’. They just have that gut feeling that this is a great idea and it fits in with their values and their lives. But more than that, these are the people that want to be first. It would be a mistake, though, to think that the innovators are all one type of cyclist, because they’re not. The innovators cycle because they ‘get it’ but ‘getting it’ can be very different for different people. The innovators might be the people that spend thousands on a road bike and buy all the top-of-the-range accessories to go with it. They cycle to work through wind and rain and arrive in the office wearing lycra. They do this because it fits with a value that they hold, such as competitiveness. The innovators also might be the people who ride recycled bikes adorned with flowers: the ‘hippies’, the vegans, the greens. These people cycle because they believe in looking after the environment. Or the innovators might ride a BMX; maybe they’re the land-locked surfers who wear baggy trousers and baseball caps and use street furniture as props. Maybe these people cycle because it is an act of rebellion.

These innovators may all be different but the one thing they have in common is that they cycle because it fits with their values and how they see themselves. Cycling says something about who they are as a person and they cycle because they want the world to know that about them.

The next 13.5% of the population are the early adopters. These people are a little more discerning in their choices but are still ahead of the rest and any new idea cannot jump straight from the innovators to the mass market without passing through the early adopters. The early adopters are taking a risk by buying into an idea before the mass market; they’re open to some of the problems and issues that others later on won’t experience, and so the early adopters are sometimes critical, and offer honest feedback. This group, though, and the innovators before them, will start to spread the idea to the wider population.

The mass market, which is comprised of the early majority and the late majority, need to be told how great something is by someone else; they need to see some of their friends and family adopting the idea, cycling to work and enjoying it; and they need to feel that they’re missing out if they don’t do it. The good news is that, once enough early adopters have signed up to the idea, a critical mass, or tipping point, is reached and the mass market easily follow suit. Getting to the critical mass is the tricky bit to do, and this should be the focus of campaigns to increase the spread of an idea.

The laggards, the group to the furthest right, are the last group to adopt new ideas. These are people who feel a real resistance to change. They are our hard to reach audience. No matter how good an idea is, for some people it will never quite feel right.

So what should we be doing?

What Rogers’ theory shows us is that campaigns that try to appeal immediately to the mass market simply won’t work. Cycling levels in the UK show us that we’ve barely moved into the early adopters. Until cycling has been taken up by more of the innovators and the early adopters, we will never get mass-market appeal.

And when we’re designing campaigns we need to remember that the innovators and early adopters won’t be seduced by pictures of people like you and me on bikes, they’ll be seduced by pictures of people like them on their bikes. If we want our marketing campaigns to appeal to the innovators and early adopters we should start designing campaigns that appeal to them, not to the mass market.

Maybe our cycling marketing campaigns shouldn’t have pictures of people like you and me on them after all.

Discuss this at LTT's Re-booting Smarter Travel conference


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31 Aug 2012

Or perhaps cycling is an outdated, unappealing mode of transport for the majority of people and majority of journeys. We've had a couple of hundred years to assess the capabilities of the bicycle. It isn't the solution and it was never the future

Transport Planning Service
31 Aug 2012

To some extent I see what Charlotte's getting at, but I don't agree. She seems to be saying that you should promote cycling as something you only do if you're a bit weird. That may be how cyclists are seen by others, but that's no reason to go along with it.

The real problem preventing mass uptake of cycling is not failure to promote it the right way, but all the ways in which it is actively discouraged - primarily by portraying it as unsafe, but also by encouraging drivers to treat cyclists as obstacles rather than fellow road users, insulting penalties for drivers who injure cyclists (and none at all for endangering them), and unacceptable levels of cycle theft.

Compare and contrast the publicity received by cycle fatalities compared to motorcycle or pedestrian fatalities. Yet cycling is far safer than motorcycling, and arguably safer than walking.

Stop scaring people off cycling, and you won't need to do any promotion.

4 Sep 2012

Having observed recent campaigns and talks at seminars along the lines of cycle in your best clothes and with hair blowing in the breeze i knew this was unrealistic as both a cyclist and a transport planner . the road is a dangerous environment and sensible clothes ,high viz jackets and helmets should be the order of the day and can look stylish too. When i am mixing it with the juggernoughts and boy racers i want to feel safe and confident some recent campaigns have not been credible or even believable in these terms. the ctc sadly has also fallen in with this noodle headed thinking.Ads showing people what a plastic overshoe are and where to get some good waterproof leggings might also be more realistic.

4 Sep 2012

The author makes a crucial and regrettable mistake in her Wikipedia conclusions.

Many of the people riding bicycles, in Emerging Bicycle Cultures, are "avid cyclists" with a focus on sport/recreation. They do not represent the public at large any more than race walkers represent pedestrians.

It's apples and oranges. Marketing sport/recreation is vastly different that marketing the bicycle to the public at large.

The Innovators in the urban cycling boom are those regular citizens who have returned to the bicycle and they are now being followed by the Early Adopters. In certain cities that are lightyears ahead in the quest for bicycle friendly cities - like Barcelona, Dublin, Seville, Budapest - there is also an Early Majority present.

The marketing of urban cycling in the above mentioned cities is inspired by the Danish and Dutch marketing approach that has been tried and tested for 40 years. Focus on regular citizens on bicycles, Cycle Chic-styled campaigns and intelligent transport choices. No lycra or overcomplicated gear.

There are numerous historical precedences for marketing to the mainstream, as opposed to sub-cultures. The bicycle itself in the early 1900s is a fine example. Brilliant mainstream marketing. The sewing machine in the early 1900s, the vacuum cleaner in the post-war years.

Imagine if the car industry had grossly misinterpreted Rogers' ideas like the author has. They would have spent decades focusing their marketing at race car drivers. With little luck in mainstreaming their produccts.

They chose basic marketing principles, however, and it's clear they have been successful. We need to borrow from their techniques - and we are doing so - if we are to reestablish the bicycle on the urban landscape as a normal, acceptable and feasible transport form.

Perhaps a transport planner should be busy building and advocating safe bicycle infrastructure instead of tackling marketing concepts.

4 Sep 2012

The application of standard 'new product' marketing analysis to bicycles which have been around for 130 years is anachronistic. In some areas of London cycling is rapidly growing as a major transport choice. The typical early adopters are there but so are a prosaic majority, returning to cycling as they rediscover its convenience and reliability compared to any other mode.

For a full marketing analysis cycling needs to be seen in conjunction with other transport choices. A product life cycle study would show that cycling peaked decades ago (at different times in different countries). The new products of reliable mass transport and private motor cars squeezed out cycling.

Now motor car use seems to have peaked and in London it is obviously declining. Levels of congestion delay and competition for parking spaces has seen the usefulness of cars decrease. People are re-discovering the utility value of going by bike. As Mikael points out: providing a sympathetic infrastructure is key to accelerating this return to sensible transport.