When the Message is the Bicycle

Three example bicycles

Summer’s here and we’re scrambling for offline time to enjoy it. From roadside stands to festive events, savvy marketers shift strategies to engage us while we embrace the fleeting warm weather. For many, the season includes cycling on that timeless icon: the bicycle.

From the early posters of the late 19th century, the bicycle has featured in advertising or served as a platform for it.  These days, this bicycle is increasingly used in not-for-profit, advocacy and cause marketing campaigns. In fact, when anthropologist Luis Antonio Vivanco wrote Reconsidering the Bicycle in 2013,  he named one chapter: “Good for the Cause” – The Bike Movement as Social Action and Cultural Politics.

It works effectively as a versatile communication ‘vehicle’ that can represent many values, such as: youth, health, fitness, renewable energy, sustainability, environmental care, transportation, even enterprise.

Here are a few examples where the creative core is the bicycle:

  1. Wrapping an value-laden social or political message around a bike to carry it to a broader audience. Examples include one bike I spotted aiming to take its anti-bullying and teen suicide prevention messages over 9,000 miles, as well as another with an anti oil wars message.
  2. Visually driving a safety public service message via stationary bikes. This is something ghost bike memorials have done to a certain extent since they began in St. Louis, Missouri in 2003.
  3. Embedding bicycles in an event, such as the Bicycle Music Festival, held in San Francisco.
  4. Putting a business ‘in the saddle,’ as the Bicycle Opera Project is doing this summer to take its music across Ontario.
  5. Building a cause marketing program around a socially conscious initiative featuring bicycles, such as the Village Bicycle Project.  Since 2009, The Cadbury Bicycle Factory has supported this initiative by providing more than 25,000 bikes to help children in rural Ghana get to school.

I think the bicycle is as an ideal fit for offline ‘grass roots’ initiatives — but do we have to stop there?

Cadbury and Grassroots bikeFull, integrated campaigns supported the Bicycle Opera Project and The Cadbury Bicycle Factory initiatives but others fall short of tapping the full potential. For example, after seeing the anti-bullying bike in Sausalito, California last summer, I searched for online references but found nothing.  I even Googled various combinations of ‘bicycle campaigns’ to no avail. How many more people they could have reached with greater impact if they’d bumped the sign’s quality up a notch and created an online campaign to support it?

Beyond cause marketing, I also wonder: Are there other ways to use this timeless icon in a for profit initiative? Maybe even in a Guerrilla campaign?

How have you seen a bicycle used to effectively drive a message, change an attitude or inspire an action?

Education Boosted By Integrated Campaign

I hope the 2011 Effie Worldwide Awards, which close this week, honor a campaign that matches or exceeds last year’s Grand Effie winner: the Detroit Public Schools’ (DPS), which epitomizes what I think of as integrity2impact.

When you work in communications, which not everyone ‘gets,’ it’s gratifying to hear of a program that exceeds objectives and links to cost savings or profits. Even better, if it shifts perceptions to the positive, like this school board’s “I’m In” campaign did.

This initiative was prompted by a $305 million deficit and school closures, driven by declining enrollment due to lack of public confidence. Years ago, I served as a communications officer for a large Canadian school board that faced similar issues. We offered a wealth of positives but I suspect like many school boards had to counter the fallacy that government-run or public sector programs are inferior to privately run initiatives.

Like the board I worked for, DPS honestly had many successes, but they were likely eclipsed by urban school crises, from virus outbreaks to fatal fights on school turf.

Leo Burnett and the board countered this with an integrated paid and earned media campaign that used appreciative inquiry, guerrilla-like tactics and the classic bandwagon principle. They created 172 blue doors to represent its 172 schools and the great opportunities behind them and placed them at community events and a downtown plaza. Each door showcased a school’s benefit to local neighbourhoods. Teachers, students, parents and celebrities used each door as a platform to showcase a school’s benefit to local neighbourhoods. Residents were encouraged to show their commitment with “I’m In” yard signs among other tactics. The impact? Enrolment rose by 6,500 and $49 million in funding was raised. [To read about this in more detail, see HBR’s article on it.]

With the explosion of social media tools and steady growth of cause marketing, I think other public sector organizations could potentially adapt this approach and take it even further.

TransitCamp for Social Change Fuelled by Communications & Web 2.0

Burdened by frustrated riders, cash shortages, a dysfunctional website and a declining reputation, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), heeded an innovative idea from the city’s local bloggers in early 2007: leverage the community’s network of transit and IT geeks as a vehicle for innovative ideas.

The result was TransitCamp, a day long out-of-the-tunnel thinking “think tank-like initiative” on how to improve the TTC – or more specifically its website, shelters, subway cars and the way it communicates with its riders.

The event was modeled on the California-born “BarCamp” format, which is an open-ended gathering where participants think creatively, across disciplines and about a specific theme or area of concern. In this forum, which can become a sleepover of several days duration, leadership emerges from the group but all participants are equal and all sessions are meant to be complaint-free crucibles of ideas that belong to the collective, not individuals. It sounds like a throwback to a 60 commune but appears to have merit in addressing today’s issues.

TransitCamp was held on February 4, 2007 and attended by 120 ‘campers’ comprised of IT geeks, communicators, artists/designers, web developers and university students – all united by a passion for transit. They used a range of Web 2.0 collaboration tools to engage with each other live and in person. Some of the ideas to emerge from the session included: setting up designated quiet cars and an ESL car; a design competition for metro passes; and distinct maps for each street car line showing its intersection points.

A more telling result was following the session, a previously issued RFP for a new website was canceled and a new one developed based on the needs and principles identified by the community of interest that collaborated at TransitCamp.

Buoyed by technology and social media tools, this communication initiative fostered cooperative problem solving between two potentially antagonist groups, and comes close to the ideal of 2-way symmetrical communication.

Was it 100% successful in terms of achieving flawless-transit? No, but it initiated constructive dialogue with riders about which trade-offs are most feasible – and set the stage for positive social and community change.

Interestingly enough, the TTC is currently in tense contract negotiations – but word is they are open to less disruptive alternatives if resolution can’t be reached by a strike deadline. And the second TransitCamp is set for this Saturday, April 5. The only sad note for communicators is searches of the TTC website could not uncover any mention of past or future Transit Camps – while blogs are full of them.