The Book of Interbike

In The Book of Mormon — the Broadway musical, not the sacred text of the Latter Day Saints movement — a Mormon missionary in remote northern Uganda, interpolates elements from Star Trek, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings into the official teachings of the church. In doing so, he achieves success where others have failed — because the stories he makes up are more relevant to the lives of the Ugandans he’s been sent to convert.

(Bear with me. This post is ultimately about Interbike, the largest bicycle industry trade show in North America being held later this week.)

The Book of Mormon
Ugandans and Elder Cunningham | Photo: The Book of Mormon on Broadway

So the made-up stories of Elder Arnold Cunningham deal directly with topical social, political, and even medical problems of Uganda. Yet Cunningham feels conflicted about just “making things up,” but he rationalizes that it’s okay as long as he is helping people. Cunningham’s rationale is based on these factors:

  1. The Ugandans have real problems that need to be solved,
  2. Others have failed to convert the Ugandans using the standard missionary methods, and
  3. Appealing to villagers’ ignorance and gullibility is a more effective way to achieve positive results than appealing to their intelligence and reason.

I’m going to Interbike tomorrow. It’ll be my second time there, and my first time representing Commute by Bike.

Campfire Cycling Fridge
Interbike is about collecting stickers for your bike  shop  fridge

Interbike is about bikes. Interbike is about having fun in Vegas. Interbike is about watching for new trends, innovation, and products. But most of all, Interbike is about making money in the cycling industry. There will be ambassadors from thousands of bike shops there hoping to figure out what the heck people are going to want to buy this year. And there will be hundreds of sales representatives promising that they are selling that thing that people are going to want to buy.

And the nonprofit sector also has a sideshow at Interbike. The League Of American Bicyclists will have a small presence, and maybe People for Bikes and other advocacy organizations. They believe (I assume) that a healthy cycling industry is good for all the things that make cycling good. But they are the true believers who aren’t in it for the money.

And then there are the Interbikers with a foot in both worlds — the Elder Arnold Cunninghams of the Cycling world, of whom I am one. I’m a true believer, but I work in the private sector — in marketing no less.

My job is to crack the code, to solve real problems, to succeed where others have failed, and to apply data and creativity. My job, I sometimes feel, is to exploit the ignorance and gullibility of consumers to convince them to spend on cycling and get their lethargic, sedentary, damn asses out of their cars and on bicycles!

For their own good, of course.

What do they want? An Apple logo plus a commandment from Oprah? A celebrity sighting? A cure for baldness on wheels? A note from a doctor? A promise that cycling will make them smell better, look younger, become more virile, more affluent, more sexy, and more confident?

It can’t be that they want better bikes, because bikes are already good enough.

Seriously, aren’t they?

Yes, for the high-performance cyclists the margins — although already razor thin — can be shaved and ever shaved again with better designs and components. Or at least there is money to be made with new design fads touted as marginal improvements. And this is largely what I expect to encounter again at Interbike.

But for the average cyclist or potential cyclist, there’s not going to be some new design twist on a frame or a component that will make enough of a marginal difference that the unconverted will suddenly realize the utility of cycling. That case for utility cycling is as settled as the shape of the world. (Round, not flat, by the way.)

A bike designed in 1940 will solve the average person’s transportation problems just about as well as a bike designed in 2011. Sorry, Interbike sales reps.

So what is a marketing missionary to do? Make things up? Appeal to the fears, insecurities, and social aspirations of consumers?

Yeah. Like that works.

Interbike 30Actually, it does work. That’s the nature of much of the marketing with which we are inundated every day of our lives. Turn on your TV or check your spam folder if you don’t know what I’m talking about.

Again: What’s a marketer to do? Up the ante of fear and false promises in an attempt to stand out from all the other marketing messages?

The fictional Arnold Cunningham in the fictional Book of Mormon learns that even the ultimate sales pitch — promising eternal life as an alternative to burning in hell — isn’t enough. He learns that he has to actually help people here on earth in order to succeed. Ultimately the Ugandans in the story wise up to Cunningham’s mythology — as intelligent people will do. Yet they are left with some useful metaphors that have made their lives better.

That’s not just how it works in fiction. I lived and worked in Africa in The Peace Corps. One lesson I learned is this: When people aren’t responding to your message, there’s nothing wrong with the people; there’s something wrong with your message.

You can’t promise to improve someone’s life unless you understand the person’s life. When I hear myself thinking, Get your lethargic, sedentary, damn asses out of your cars and on bicycles! I know the problem is my thinking.

So in my world — the world of bike commuting and utility cycling — I know that the bikes people need are out there. I just need to renew my faith in the subtle arts of marketing and advocacy — also known as the dark arts of marketing and advocacy. (I’m lucky to work for a social entrepreneur; we don’t dabble in the dark arts at Campfire Cycling.)

There are signs that the bike industry is coming around, and isn’t solely focused on sport and recreational cycling — although worship to that sacred cash cow is still strong.

Will Interbike renew my faith? I’ll let you know. I’m ringing that doorbell tomorrow.

Disclosure: I haven’t actually seen “The Book of Mormon,” but I’ve listened to the soundtrack nonstop for about a month, and I’ve read the Wikipedia synopsis. So I kind of know what I’m talking about.

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