Hangdown in the Wheelstrings: Our Brand Could Be Your Life

Originally posted on December 6, 2019 at 7:06 am by Watts Dixon

The whiskey bottle was in the air before I could even register what was happening. A long, beautiful arc across the artificial daylight of too many streetlights, the only witnesses being the hidden stars … and literally everyone at the party. There was a cacophonous silence of anticipation as the bottle hit its apex and started to descend. It landed, then exploded, in the middle of the parking lot in proper fashion for any glass object lobbed from 30 meters away. An impressive toss.

The party was abruptly over. Apparently, there are limits to how hard a #partybrand can party.

And no, I wasn’t the one who threw the bottle, although I probably should have been, seething as I was that night with recklessness and emotion — an overwhelming urge to disrupt anything and everything I could.

I, myself, it turns out, had opted for simply coming apart at the seams. Tumbling downstairs. Puking in the #partybrand house. And, later, crumbling into a pile and crying. 

Or so I’m told. 

Dealer events, in case you were wondering, can be a complete shitshow if you know what you’re doing. If not, then I’m told they can also be great educational and networking tools for your shop. Jests aside, the latter is certainly true. Even at their most cliquish and with all of your (or my) best attempts at being antisocial, you can’t help but connect with some other dealers and learn a little about someone else’s shop and market.

Then there’s the sad fact that, for many shop owners, dealer events are often the only vacations we manage to justify. That, more than anything, is why I go. To escape the vacuum of my own day-to-day at the shop and find some much-needed energy and enthusiasm for the industry with some other people, somewhere else. 

The education components of these events are trickier. The seminars are notoriously hit or miss. I attend them partly out of dutiful obligation and appreciation for being wined and dined by the companies hosting us, and partly because even the most repetitive of presentations can be a timely reminder to finally just get off your ass and implement some of those ideas you hear regurgitated. I even sit through most of them in their entirety. Whether I’m nodding off to a soothing lullaby about the serviceability of an ebike I will never stock or sell or rolling my eyes at a PowerPoint on “dynamic marketing” from a non-bicycle-industry speaker’s self-published book about his stint in a completely separate facet of retail some 20 years ago. Or audibly chuffing at a design firm’s pitch on how to remodel your shop “for as little as $50,000.” (I did actually walk out of that one.) Or debating whether a checklist for promoting and maintaining “brand loyalty” to your shop is legitimately enlightening or just more insular doublespeak. Because dealer events are still their own kind of desperate vacuum, overtures of inclusion or not, a row of identical flannel shirts lined up at the urinals. 

And Brand Loyalty. What does that even mean?

Sure, we can talk about the metrics of “quality” and “service” like they inform the decisions we make regarding the brands we buy. But let’s admit it: More often than not, it’s based almost exclusively on some sense of identity. We support the brands that we think project who we aspire to be, whether or not they actually do. Less an informed decision and more a vanity. This is crushingly true in the outdoor industry, where we don’t so much sell “things” as we do a “lifestyle.” And yes, there’s a seminar for that. 

Even the very notion of “branding” borders on the absurd. It seems almost antithetical to actual growth. Taking an image, word or idea and seizing on it. Freezing it in time and trying to create dynamic mythology around something static. Modular identity.

A few years ago, after a day recovering from a night at QBP’s Frostbike (QBP is a distribution company), I sat down with two Mikes and a Todd to discuss the state of retail and the company’s relationship with shops in general. Their vision. Their role. Their future. 

Outside of the obvious “buying and selling,” we talked about the notion of “partnership” and how they would walk with and support shops as we grew and hopefully thrived, but they weren’t there to hold our hands or prop us up. My takeaway was “You are the brand, for better or worse.” They’d provide some resources, but the onus was on us to find our own chemistry. 

It sounds good, at least. And that’s about as much basis as most truths have these days. A sound bite that resonates. Kind of like a brand. 

And sometimes, despite breaking some bottles, or getting banned from the pool, or forgetting you’re not the only guest at the hotel, someone recognizes your brand and invites you back to their event.

Or maybe you just spent a bunch of money with them.

Illustration by Stephen Haynes

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