Gather a group of women mountain bikers from all ages and abilities, sit them down, and ask them how they’d like to be marketed and sold to, and...look out. You’re in for an ear-ful. That’s not surprising, given that most of them would never have been asked those questions before. This is just what the marketers at Rocky Mountain Bicycles did last month, and the resultant dialogue was like taking the cap off a coke and mentos experiment—explosive, messy and sweet.
Like so many in the mountain bike business, Rocky is setting out to determine an approach for marketing to the admittedly small women’s market. Perhaps it was the influence of the strong contingent of females in their marketing department, but they chose the novel approach of listening before acting. I facilitated a session that gathered a dozen or so women from Rocky’s hometown on Vancouver’s north shore—a place that most certainly has more than its fair share of women who shred—to ask important questions and listen to what they have to say. The group was a cross-section of ages (from early twenties to late forties) and abilities (from novice to pro).
What was unearthed during our discussion might surprise you (if you’re not a women rider). Their opinions and attitudes, despite their age and ability differences, were surprisingly unified. They agreed on a multitude of topics related to what resonated with them in mountain bike advertising, grassroots promotions, sales events and retail experiences.
Our session mapped the consumer decision journey from them dreaming about mountain biking, through researching a potential mountain bike purchase, to validating that potential purchase, through the actual sales process and into the loyalty loop of a consumer. We shared the print and online advertising, social media posts, websites and grassroots initiatives targeting women by all of the major bike brands currently engaged in marketing to women. I put our group through a series of exercises that had them evaluating those marketing materials and the feedback was blunt.
After reviewing the marketing materials we presented to them, the vast majority of the group members agreed:
- “Don’t market differently to me than you would to a guy.” Our women did not want to be marketed to differently than men. We heard, “We dream about getting out on our bikes and having adventures the same way men do and brands need to understand that. We want to see both men and women in ads, but in ways that focus more on the adventure or the lifestyle and less on the gender of the riders.” Clearly, this advice hinges on the assumption that men are also drawn to more adventure or lifestyle-related advertising (which we can’t validate...we’re assuming the rider/bike focus of much of the mountain bike industry’s marketing is a result of understanding that that is what men want). For our focus group, this meant that the marketing that was focused on experiences fared much better than the material that was focused on the rider or the bike. Interestingly, this held true whether the marketing material was targeting women or not. Unfortunately for those brands doing women’s-specific marketing, almost all of the material focused on the female-ness of the rider.
Details matter. A single pink hair tie in drew ire from the group—as did anything that played up the softer side of female stereotypes, especially when it was used as a labeling factor.
- “Stop with the stereotypes.” The women-specific mountain bike advertising that used feminine colours, graphics and type treatments were generally scoffed at. Some even found the pink hair tie in a Trek Women’s ponytail offensive, we heard, “Why would they feel like they had to do that?” This aligns with a recent study by a US outdoor and travel study by Think T+O that said, “Female respondents are more likely to think that gender-specific marketing isn’t a good idea—and resent it. Only 15% of women think that travel brands should market to men and women differently. When looking at these stats, you notice that most men see gender-specific marketing as well-intending and most women find it offensive.”
Adventure has no gender. Images where adventure played the protagonist, and real women were included in the supporting cast, resonated well.
- “Can the condescension.” Worse than pink, flowers, and curly type was the language in some women-specific mountain bike marketing that suggested these women weren’t already empowered. Liv’s “Actually. I can.” campaign rubbed many in the group the wrong way. Their comment, “Of course I can. Why are you suggesting otherwise?”
- “Show that we can shred.” Irregardless of ability level, these women wanted to see other women who shred. Hard. Those marketing pieces that erred on the side of “accessible” were also considered condescending. “We want to aspire to be great riders, just like guys. An ad for a guy would never feature an intermediate rider.” These women also liked seeing women in bad-ass lifestyle images.
- “Give us someone we can relate to.” This is basic. Women need women to look up to. But they need to be real. Overwhelmingly, brands use women pros as they do men, but our women were less interested in race results and standings. They wanted to see women who were having great adventures. They suggested ambassadors rather than athletes as the potential source for inspiration for them.
Liv’s well-intentioned “Actually, I can” campaign is about overcoming obstacles however big, small, mental or physical. But the group consensus felt the anchor of the campaign—the tagline—implies women were wrong about doing something in the first place, and thus dulled the impact of an empowering idea.
- “Make it easier for me to try a bike out.” Universally, this group found their first and even second bike purchases alienating. They felt that bike brands didn’t work to speak to them. They all agreed that Demo Days were good opportunities for them to try bikes out. They also felt that they were focused on men and guy techs which they said was intimidating. Grassroots events for women were rarer and poorly promoted.
There were long discussions about how women are portrayed in images. From their body positioning to terrain / trail selection to who they were riding with (and in what order) were all factors that raised debate. In the end they said, "give us women who shred."
- “Find me through my other sports.” When asked where they could be reached, the conversation slowed. Many were introduced via a friend, which would point to the importance of brand advocacy for women’s marketing. What was clear, however, was these women were active and athletic. They were runners, skiers, snowboarders, paddlers and all ran in circles with clubs, groups, and retail stores that serviced them. Reaching out through those channels to incite trial was an obvious opportunity they all identified.
I’m excited to see where Rocky will take the advice dispensed to them that day. Anja Koehler and Sieneke Toering from their marketing and events teams were there listening and taking notes like mad. They wrapped the session with lunch and a ride on the North Shore mountains. A fitting thank you for some valuable intel!