Friday, April 6, 2007

What's in a name?

A funny thing happens when you start a blog. Not only do you find yourself doing a lot more writing, but you find yourself doing a lot more reading, too. And usually that reading is in the form of other blogs as the stack of yet-to-be-read magazines and books on my coffee table will attest to.

One of the blogs I have found myself visiting recently is the Marketing Profs Daily Fix blog. It's got a ton of great marketing-related articles on it by a slew of marketing guru contributors from a variety of industries. In fact, Tim "Masi Guy" Jackson is lucky enough to be a contributor, which is how I found out about this gem of a blog.

The other night, I read a pretty interesting post that really had zero to do with bikes or the cycling industry, but it still managed to hold my attention for longer than 34 seconds. The post was entitled "Store Brands Give National Brands a Run for the Money" and it discussed how many retailers are having great success with their own house or "private label" brands up against the big national name brands. Once considered inferior quality, many private label brands are positioned as high quality, upscale products and consumers are quickly gaining acceptance for them.

This post really got me thinking about society's obsession with brand names. I mean, it's just a name, right? Just a little logo? Or is it? And of course, cyclists are not immune to this obsession. In fact, we are the worst. We are completely obsessed by the lure of that brand name on their stems, bars, saddles, and everything else that can be bolted or stuck to a bicycle in some fashion.

Believe me, there was a time where I was as obsessed by bike part brands as I was by designer jeans back when I was 12 years old. Before I started working in the cycling industry, whenever I purchased a new bike, one of the first things I did was start making a list of which cool aftermarket parts I wanted to buy because lord knows I just couldn't leave the stock bike manufacturer branded parts on the bike. What would people think? I would surely get laughed right off the trail! Images of blue ano CNC'd cranks and yellow powdercoated stems danced in my head, eventually dancing their way onto my bike much to the chagrin of my wallet.

Once I started to work in the cycling industry, that obsession began to fade rapidly. No, maxed out credit cards were not to blame; education was the culprit that killed that sick obsession. I quickly learned that many of the cool parts I lusted over were not made by some bike geek in his garage or in some slick factory here in the USA, but they were made in Taiwan instead. And in addition to this, I learned that many of the manufacturers of these aftermarket parts were all having their parts made in the same factory, by the same manufacturer. At first, I felt a little cheated since clever marketing of some of these factories led me to believe these products were made a little closer to home, but once you figure out that "everyone's doing it", those feelings fade fast.

Yes, there was a day when many of those high-end aftermarket parts were made here and some still are, but the lure of inexpensive labor, less environmental restrictions, and good quality has shifted most of this production overseas. It's just the way that it is. And having been in this industry for several years now, you see just how homogenized that process really is. It's really interesting to walk through a factory in Taiwan and see who's getting their parts made there. In some cases, the products are identical; only the logo changes. In other cases, there might be a minor tweak like a different handlebar sweep or bend that sets one brand's bar apart from another before the logo is applied.

Obviously, there are aftermarket parts which are truly unique. But many are not...only the names (logos) have changed. So what is in a name? This is where I'd love to read some comments from you, my dear readers, on why you choose the aftermarket products you do. Why do you pull the bar and/or stem off your bike that says "Haro" or "Specialized" or "Felt" on it and replace it with something that has a certain brand name on it, but may not be any lighter, better fit, better performing, or better quality than the part (or parts) you just took off? Why do you choose a certain name brand over another? Do you do diligent research, ask your bike shop, or query your riding buddies? Does a particular brand's marketing efforts entice you?

So tell me...what is in a name?


Ann Handley said...

Hey Jill,

Glad you discovered "Da Fix"!


wrw said...

Hard at work 'building that better bicycle'.
Lot of effort and time 'shot down' after a do diligence review, I must DEVISE BETTER PRODUCT!
Example, my HARO V3 uses a CANE CREEK 'Thudbuster ST' (USA) Suspension Seat Post and AVENIR Suspension Seat (TAIWAN) combination for an excellent rear suspension.
'Spine' shock is absent, 'Gump' steering (a.k.a. with my buttocks) fine while maintaining pedaling efficiency.
Remember, TAIWAN manufacturers, AMERICA innovates!

Whistler said...

Hey there, Tim sent me here to check out your blog - and to answer your question, I choose the products that will get the job done for the least amount of money. I imagine if I had more expenable income I might spring for something more fancy or cooler looking, but usually I'm just trying to get my bike to RIDE differently, not have more snazzy parts. I ride in town a lot and leave my bike locked up outside, so the less I have to attract thieves the better.

Whistler said...

I misspelled expendable, whoops.

Tim Jackson- Masi Guy said...

B3- Great post! Really, this is a good one.

Exactly what is in a name? Better engineering? Lighter alloys? What is it? In some cases, as you point out, it is 100% just the logo. Remember walking through factories during our visit and seeing products rolling on the line and being placed in Brand A box and then Brand B box... but they were the exact same product? Hmmm....

Handley- See, I told you I wasn't destroying the good name of the Profs!

Whistler- Thanks for being a good sport and doing what you were told!

Jim said...

Of course, both you and Tim's comments then fall into this simple one: given the same product going out the factory door with different names on them, why should I buy a Haro or Masi instead of a generically named bike with the same factory of origin at half or a third the price?

You had to see that one coming.

Tim Jackson- Masi Guy said...

Jim- Very valid point and one I'll never shy away from. Here's the deal- though we work with vendors who make frames for other people, we (and most of the other people) do design our own products. A Masi or Haro rides like a Masi or Haro based on the frame design. Yes, there are folks who buy frames that are 100% "off the shelf" and do not do any design for themselves- and I'm not passing any judgments. Where it gets the most "generic" is in regards to components. Honestly, as anybody in the business can tell you, there are really only a handful of vendors who make really top shelf parts that leave nothing to question, in regards to quality and reliability. Many of us (companies) go to these vendors because we all trust them. It isn't always price, but quality.

I always advise people to buy the bike that best suits them- whether based on price, performance, brand, fit, image, passion... whatever. If you spend too much or too little and don't love the ride... then what's the point?

In the end, ride what makes you happy.

(Apologies to Jill for hijacking her blog... sorry.)

jill hamilton said...


Like Tim said (and no apologies needed, Tim), you bring up a very valid point...and one I have planned for a future blog topic to see just why people buy the brand of bikes they do.

But back to this topic, Tim is absolutely right; it is entirely possible to buy an "off the shelf" frame from a vendor/factory in Taiwan, slap your logo on it, and market it as yours. And a few manufacturers do it. I would say most do not; every product manager or bicycle engineer usually tweaks the geometry or aesthetics of the frame in some way to make it look and/or ride differently than the competition.

And again, like Tim pointed out, we see this more with parts than frames. Some product managers simply write it off to "a stem is a stem"...but is it to the consumer? I can't tell you how many times I have seen people pull the "house branded" bike manufacturer part off of their bike and replace it with a name-branded aftermarket stem and gain nothing in terms of weight savings or performance out of the deal. Personally, I'd like to know why people do that.

My point with bringing up this question is not only to satisfy the above question out of personal curiosity, but also to help me professionally. At Haro, one of the things I am really pushing for with our product guys is to use the name brand parts in place of house brand (or non-logo'd) wherever possible. In some areas, this just isn't possible (like hubs, for example), but in other areas, it's just a few dollars more on the retail end to do so. I'd like to know at the end of the day, do people notice little details like this?

wrw said...

ON Point -
'Branding Iron', Messrs. Hughes and Jeanes
ISBN: 0-933199-04-0
A timely book about product 'branding' implementation, failure and recommendations for the future.
Why would Italian 'named' bicycles feature Japanese components?
I.E. Purchase a BIANCHI bicycle with SHIMANO components.
(Note, a European friend employs 'only' CAMPAGNOLO ware.)
Unfortunately, SHIMANO (and others) issue dubious wares at 'naming' vendor request.
Retail SHIMANO product is typically better quality and JAPAN labeled.
To this day,'SCHWINN' described bicycle wares and is a fine example of branding.
(Hint: Various 'historic' U.S. companies are solely branding companies today. Financier Mr. Wilbur Ross is now correcting this issue!)
Suggest Tim read this blog, my local dealer informed me of odd news for 2007.

Coelecanth said...

I'm always looking for the part that does what I want it to regardless of brand.

I have a no-name downhill stem on my fixedgear because it was the shortest stem I could find. It was the stock one that someone had gotten the LBS to replace with an aftermarket product. I was glad that it had no branding on it and glad to only pay $20.

My road bike has an aftermarket Colnago stem because it was light, the right length and featured some adjustiblity that I really liked. I was happy to pay $100 for it. I did however scrape its logos off.

I want my stuff to look like stuff not like a billboard and bike gear is partcularly bad for this. I do understand why manufacturers label everything. It's not that I want to deny the manufacturer their due, I'll happily tell people how good x,y or z is, it's just that hate how it looks. Well that and a certain curmudgeonly feeling that if I'm going to advertise for a company I should be paid to do so. :)

I think that brands are important to some people because they don't trust themselves. Either they don't have the knowledge to evaluate a product's quality or the don't feel like they have that knowledge. Theoretically a brand name product assures the consumer that that product is of good quality. Not always true of course, but a lifetime of advertising has programmed us to think this way.

Anyway, that's my 2 cents. I'm just talking out my * here, I suspect there are some good books on this subject.

Howard said...

I think coelecanth makes an excellent point about brand name and user knowledge. You buy the brand name because the marketing literature says it's better and the average cyclist like myself doesn't know any different. Plus, many of us have been raised with the "brand name is better" mentality.

While Tim and you see the same part(s) go into Box A and Box B, the consumer doesn't, nor do most shop owners. Therefore, their recommendations come from either the literature or real world riding experience.

I also think that most people view house brands as a way of cutting costs...think Trek and Bontrager. I can't tell you how many times I've heard "Bontrager sucks" but never a valid reason as to why. That didn't stop me from replacing my Bontrager wheels with Velomax, however.

When I thought about ordering a Haro, I reviewed forums and reviews, read other reviews, and talked to people who had them. Next thing I did was look for reviews on the components...and then I thought, "this is stupid".

It hit me that a) Haro wouldn't put crap components on their bike and b) I didn't know the difference between a Manitou shock or a Rock Shox, never having ridden either. So I closed my browser and now patiently wait for my bike to be built.

spicyride said...

for me it's completely about aesthetics. weight and the coolness factory def come into play (and of course safety). i also like to build my own bike. i don't want to have the same bike that someone else has. this is of course just my opinion. an example of aesthetics would be i wanted to get the fisher ferrous frame. i LOVE the color... it's not available though. then the new haro mary with that similar blue was shown to me. now i must have that. i love it. i had no interest in the copperish mary last year, same frame, different color. i'll miss the weird seatstays of the fisher, but the haro looks pretty damn good... i would be tempted to buy the haro mary complete because it comes with the mary bar, but i'd have to see what the rest of the components looked like before i made a decision.
i don't mind the trek/bontrager thing. everyone knows bontrager is trek, but i almost don't dislike it as much as specialized where all their components say specialized. in fact if i have any type of trek branded bike i almost feel weird putting any other component on there. reading this over i wonder if i'm alone in my pickiness?
i know of certain carbon bars made in the same factory... i know they are exactly the same except for logos and graphics. i would change it for whomever's logo i preferred.

jill hamilton said...

The comments just keep getting better and better! This is good stuff!

wrw...Odd news for 2007? I am curious. Do tell. And are you recommending that Tim read "this" in mine? He does read mine.

Coelecanth...awesome observations. Love your comment about people buying brands because they don't trust themselves. I do think there is definitely truth to that.

And Howard...yes, you can often research yourself to death. Pretty soon, you end up feeling like a dog chasing its tail.

Jim said...

Yep, the manufacturers do tweak their designs and sizes, but the average rider wouldn't know one from another were they similarly sized and would be oblivious to the fine tuned differences in geometry. I'll betcha that, once you drop out of racers, the rest of the bike buying public would not be able to tell one from another in a "blind" riding test. Remember, I am addressing the typical rider out there.

I suspect that a lot of those who do race would not be able to tell one from another at the sub-cm level of difference or the difference in a half a degree of difference here and there within the bike's geometry. Pros? I would give them the ability.

I also think that even the most sophisticated riders would not be able to see small differences in geometry.

How many times is the operative phrase "cool looking," does or does not "look like," "trade it for a logo I like,". . . "looking for" not "feeling for?"

Anyway, I do have a spot in my heart for Haro even though I have never ridden one - but that is another story.

Anonymous said...

Here's a thought: If you're having trouble deciding which brand to select, go with the one that's not paying (read: wasting) money to be the corporate sponsor of some event or stadium. I do my best to avoid those and stick with companies that market their products by means that don't make me feel like I bought it because of some tie-in to a stadium/field/event or celebrity.
Just my opinion, I could be wrong.
BTW, I got here after reading all the stories about the car-free week in Wyoming. If we could get that done here in NYC, wow, what a place it could be!
...Stephen - New York City