Advertising in cycling: The how and why of avoiding sexist ad blunders

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The way females are represented in cycling advertising is one of those issues we have seen crop up again and again. The furore surrounding the recent Pinarello e-bike advert and the way it was perceived to belittle the female cyclist was just the latest example in a long history of sexist advertising. Likely it won’t be the last either.

In an environment where so many sporting brands have recognised the economic potential of appealing to the female customer, why do we keep seeing advertisements that do more to alienate than embrace the women’s market? Surely, it’s not that hard for a company with advertising experts on the payroll to identify themes that aren’t likely to play well with the female half of the population? Or is it?

Or is the answer that they don’t really care? And why, when the current customer base is mostly male should they?

We dug through the data and analyses, and spoke to an expert in the field to find out why we still see brands getting it wrong, what they need to do to get it right and, most importantly, the power of a well thought-out message.

Why so Sensitive?

Before we get into the how and why, lets look at the context in which this advertising is being delivered. Women in cycling are a minority. There are fewer out on the roads, fewer products targeted specifically at the female cycling consumer and dramatically less advertising. Then, there is the lack of media coverage of female racing – when you tune into cycling on television you are vastly more likely to see women as podium presenters than active participants.

So, why is that relevant to a discussion of how cycling products are marketed?

Context and perspective. You see, every time we write about ads that have offended, we get comments, generally from male readers, who denounce us for being ‘too sensitive’.  But what sometimes seems to be missed is that there is often more to it than the individual ad in isolation.

“I think a lot of people who say you’re being too sensitive haven’t experienced that feeling of invisibility or being the outsider, or being overlooked,” said Bec Brideson, who started Australia’s first female-focussed creative agency. “You’ve got money to spend, you’ve got a desire to pursue an activity and you’re not being given permission.”

Therefore advertising which reinforces that sense of being an outsider – even subtly – can have the impact of irritating a potential buyer rather than attracting them.

“I think it’s incredibly smart now to actually say where are our gaps, where are we missing that opportunity with any customer and how can we fill the void? Because that’s where the growth, from an unknown audience, is going to come from. It’s really a no brainer,” said Brideson, who is the author of a book called Blind Spots, focussing on the opportunity the female market presents.

And in trying to capture the customer in those gaps, perspective is everything.

How to do better

Failing to speak to the female market is a problem rooted in history.  Males have dominated in business and marketing theory formulation for years, and a function of that history is often that the fall back thinking generally is from a male perspective.

Even at times for women.

“Business history was built on the 150 years of doing it through the male lens. We can’t just expect because we’re women we automatically see it that way,” said Brideson. She saw that tendency toward a male lens in herself earlier in her career when she was working at an ad agency where men where dominant. “Because there were so few female role models and females in my industry I naturally found my mentors in men. So I learned how to think like them.”

So if involving women isn’t the simple clear cut answer it may initially appear, what is that first step in moving beyond the male lens and formulating advertising that better captures the female market?

“It’s about saying let’s start again. Let’s look at this from a completely fresh perspective because there are a lot of dollars at stake if we don’t get it right,” said Brideson, who worked with the Women’s AFL launch team to help them understand male and female lens behaviours.

The women’s AFL campaign is an example of a successful women’s sport campaign in what has historically been one of the biggest bastions of male sport, Australian Rules football. It launched with a completely new twist on a 90’s AFL campaign for the men.

“The people that get it right start with the premise of what what do women need? What do they want? What are they looking for? How do we better understand them and connect with them? Focus on the needs of women today, not what we think women wanted based on a past era,” said Brideson.

The women’s advertising specialist added that it was important to assemble a team of people that could understand the issue from a female lens. Which doesn’t necessarily mean a female team either as just because someone is male, doesn’t mean they can’t be adept at seeing things from a female perspective.

“I think there’s a lot of generic research done. There’s a lot of a lot of shortcutting and pinking and shrinking,” said Brideson. “It’s almost like you’ve got to go back to day one, ground zero. Ask how do we build this from the bottom up based on the female needs, once we understand who they are, what they want, where they are coming from and where they’re going.”

Care factor?

Of course that’s all presuming we are talking about a brand that truly wants to relate to the female market.

There are brands that have been forthcoming about their moves to shift away from the way the controversial way they portrayed women in the past. Assos is one notable example.

After their recent e-bike campaign Pinarello was also quick to pull their ads and issued an apology.

However, some are sceptical about brands who continue their out-of -touch campaigns and then apologise. Do they actually care about offending the women’s segment, or are they willing to shrug off the furore surrounding the ads for a bit of extra free publicity?

That’s certainly the way plain spoken Amanda Batty saw the issues surrounding the Pinarello campaign. She said this in a blog on the issue shortly after the ad came out last month:

“Make no mistake: Pinarello (and other companies who pull these stunts) are fully aware of what they’re doing, and it’s part of what I’m going to call the ‘cycling manipulation’ from here on out. It’s a pattern of toxic male behavior that leverages outrage to push free promotion. Do we honestly believe that a company owned by multi-billion-dollar entity LVMH makes these sorts of stupid mistakes?

They don’t. That’s just what they want us to believe. And it’s costing us dearly.”

Ultimately, only time tells whether apologies are genuine and a signal of genuine meaningful change, or just an expedient bit of lip service to appease those they have upset.

Up for grabs: One huge pile of cash

Beyond simple human decency and respect, there is a very big reason for brands to deliver ads that demonstrate respect for and engage the female half of the population – and that’s money.

In general terms, Brideson argues in her book that “while there will be nuances, the facts and statistics generally show that women are the biggest and fastest growing consumer economy.”

Backing this up is an Ernst and Young study which says:

“Women are the next emerging market in the world – that’s a fact. Over the next decade they will wield enormous influence over politics, business and  society. In the next five years the global incomes of women will grow from US$13 trillion to US$18 trillion. That incremental US$5 trillion is almost twice the growth in GDP expected from China and India combined. By the year 2028, women will control close to 75% of discretionary spending worldwide.”

The women’s market is one that the world’s biggest sportswear brands, Nike, has fully  embraced and it’s yielded the benefits of doing so. Trevor Edwards, Nike brand president said this at the 2017 investor presentation when he was talking of opportunities with significant growth ahead:

“One of those businesses is actually Nike Women’s, which has an incredible outlook, and as we continue to grow the market, this $7 billion business will continue to be fuelled by more women engaging in sport, wellness and activity. In fact, our growth in our women’s business is outpacing our men’s business and will continue to do so.”

But does this opportunity ring true for cycling as well?

The emerging market motherload

The male customer is currently the driver of the majority of sales in the cycling industry. But cycling generally is what financial analysts categorise as a mature industry, which means it is beyond the high growth phase and tends to track along with the broader economy.

IBISWorld reports ranging from those on Australia’s retail and repair market, to US bicycle manufacture and the Chinese bicycle manufacturing industry, all forecast lower industry value add rates ( the contribution of an industry to gross domestic product ) than the rate of growth in the overall economy over the next ten years.

In industries at this stage of their existence there are various tools typically used to help prevent them flipping over to becoming a declining industry or, even better, to catapult them back into the growth phase of the business life cycle. They include innovation, productivity gains and finally – the El Dorado of mature industries – tapping into new emerging markets.

As we have seen with the Ernst Young figures above, those emerging markets don’t come much bigger than women. And for women’s cycling the growing economic strength of the gender in general is also combined with ample room for cycling participation growth.

Cycling organisations like Cycling Australia and British Cycling have well and truly moved to recognise the untapped potential of the women’s market and are investing in its growth through programs such as SheRides and Breeze. In fact British Cycling said earlier this year it had influenced an extra 723,000 women to get on a bike since 2013.

The largest of bike manufacturers, Giant, decided to turn its women’s range into its own independent entity, Liv.

Many bike brands have clearly seen the sense of making female-focussed products from the ground up or even, in the case of Giant, developing a women’s specific brand. Plus, retailers are trying to throw themselves into the market by targeting female cyclists. For example in the UK, Halfords developed female specific product lines with notable female cyclists Laura Trott and Victoria Pendleton.

It’s initiatives like this, the implementing of programs and products in recognition economic potential, that help the process along.

“More attention from retailers and manufacturers on female cycling means that the gender gap should hopefully start to close as more women have the equipment they need to feel comfortable cycling,” said market analysts Mintel in a report on cycling in the United Kingdom.

But it’s not easy to track an increase in sales of cycling products to women, which is reflected in a degree of difficulty in finding financial growth figures for the women’s market. Unlike gender specific sportswear it is hard to see if that groupset, drink bottle or tyre was bought by a woman or a man. However, if an increased women’s participation continues to come through, the numbers indicate a promising growth market.

A market which advertising would be better off attracting, than alienating.

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