Re-establishing relevance in the road cycling market.
Interview with Bell Road Brand Manager, James Hibbard
This Spring, Dispatch helped our clients at Bell with a content marketing campaign to help the head protection leader re-establish relevance in the road cycling market: Bell All-Stars. Dispatch helped bring this project to life by developing an integrated marketing strategy as well as content strategy, management, and production. All-Stars is the brainchild of Bell Road Brand Manager, James Hibbard, and it’s definitely a passion project. We share his passion and wanted to dive into it a bit further.
Q: Recently, Bell has been both on and off the radar in the road scene, going from product introduction to introduction. How do you feel about more evergreen content like this campaign as a brand-builder vs. the infrequent blips on the industry radar?
A: In the cycling industry, the general tendency is to do just that— to jump from product launch to product launch instead of taking the time to establish a brand identity which lives beyond any given product. The real aim for us was to re-introduce the Bell brand to the road cycling segment—a space that Bell dominated through the ‘90’s and early ‘00’s. However, people’s collective memories are short, so now seemed like an ideal time to recount Bell’s history of involvement with road racing. With this larger brand narrative in place, when a new road helmet is launched, there’s an authentic brand story to galvanize consumers around. This is something that high-quality, rich storytelling still can achieve in a way that technically-oriented product content can’t.
Q: We all agreed that Bell is untouchable with its history in road cycling. How did you land on focusing on these specific eras?
A: As I mentioned, people’s memories are short, and when I landed at Bell—even within the building—everyone seemed to think of Bell only as a mountain bike brand but having been involved in cycling since the mid-1990’s (and even raced on several Bell-sponsored pro road teams myself) I remembered when Bell was ubiquitous on the road—domestic teams like UHC, HealthNet, Shaklee, Crest and Montgomery Bell, and European teams like CSC, Credit Agricole, and BMC. So, with this in mind, it made sense that as Bell was trying to re-enter the road space, that even prior to launching new products and re-establishing our sponsorship of a professional team, that Bell should tell the story of its long involvement with top-level road and track cycling.
In terms of the question of why this era, it was dictated first of all by when Bell was most active in the road space—I’d say this was from about 1990 to 2005 or so—but also in terms of positioning the brand, this period worked well, and within the slightly different spans of each of the rider’s careers, it was possible to tie each of the three riders to a particular shift in helmet technology—things like weight, safety and aerodynamics.
Road racing has changed a great deal in the last thirty years and the early part of this era, the early 90’s, was the tail end of the first wave of American pros truly succeeding on the international stage with Eddie B. as the U.S. National Team coach, the 7-Eleven team succeeding in Europe and in a lot of ways upending what had hitherto been a very insular and very European sport, so this spirt of “boundary breaking” squared well with Bell’s brand and in many ways. Racing then was very different from the current culture of World Tour pro racing which is epitomized by teams like Sky with huge budgets and a staff of sports scientists. Cycling has become far better funded, but in some ways lost some of its unpredictable charm.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the U.S. Postal team and the dark days of doping in cycling. The win-at-all-cost culture of cycling during the U.S. Postal Service era of cycling certainly isn’t something that anyone is nostalgic for.
Q: You’re connected to our three All-Stars in different ways. How did you decide on who to include in the program?
A: Each of the All-Stars in the program I had experience with in my time racing and knew well enough to have a sense for how they would come across on camera. Each of the guys were at their best during the pre-Lance era in American road cycling which was just a different era - a time where it was groundbreaking to be a top-level American in the sport. This larger narrative worked well with the Bell brand in aligning with our mantra of “breaking boundaries,” and also each did so in the tenets of the Bell brand.
Q: Leonard Harvey Nitz was formerly your coach. In the time, how did the stories of his racing days motivate you in your racing career?
A: His racing stories motivated me a great deal and I wanted to be a rider in his mold—capable across a ton of track events as well as on the road. Harvey could win everything from a one minute and change kilo on the track, to a 40 K road time trial. Developing juniors without burning them out is really difficult and I owe Harv a lot. He guided me from 14 year-old junior, through the national team system as a teenager, and onto several domestic pro road teams (Shaklee and HealthNet).
Whenever I was at a big event, I had faith in what Harv was telling me because I knew that he’d been there too. Knowing that he accomplished well in these similar aspects of racing was encouraging to me to be working with someone who has not just raced in those disciplines but also competed at the level he had.
Q: We think focusing on bygone track racing was totally fresh and a rather untouched category of present day road racing conversations. As a former track racer, what did this mean to you?
A: From a marketing perspective focusing on traditional track cycling is an interesting move as it bridges the current popularity in fixed crit racing, and the culture associated with it, and European road racing. I think there’s some fan fatigue for UCI racing and the scientifically-minded, winner-take-all approach, so I think the approaching of highlighting track cyclists was fresh and novel.
Q: Road cycling is defined by history more than newer or emerging forms of the sport. With technology being such a huge part of modern performance products, like the helmets Bell is marketing through this campaign, how did you balance the old with the new?
A: I think it worked out well in this campaign because even if the products the featured All-Stars used are technically old, the spirit of having the best equipment available at a given time transcends any particular era. Some riders are more obsessive on this front than others but any of the three All-Stars we included had the same motivation and interest in having equipment that allowed them to be the best. So, even if a particular piece of kit looks dated now, the motivation to have the fastest equipment still shines through.
Q: Sure, we stuck somewhat to our script for this project. If we were to dive a bit further with each athlete, what stones would you have turned over?
A: I think there are always interesting emotional and biographical turns that compel someone to undertake the sort of training and lifestyle necessary to be a top rider. At some point, I’d like a longer form piece which delves into what it takes psychologically to succeed. The equipment and how a given event played-out are always hooks, but the emotional component is what makes sports at any level interesting and worth caring about.
Dispatch enlisted tenured cycling journalist, John Wilcockson, of Peloton Magazine and formerly of VeloNews, to create the written pieces accompanying each All-Stars athlete profile. Knowing John personally and the fact that he covered the ProTour circuit for decades made it an easy decision to gather his words to add another dimension to this storytelling program.
Q: With the All-Stars campaign, we had essentially two dimensions: the first-person video testimonies and John’s profiles. What do you think the written form did to enrich each tale in addition to the accompanying videos?
A: It was tough to get a bit deeper into the stories beyond the length of a two-minute video as there are limits on audience attention. We just didn’t have time to do more in that format. To cover the full scope of their careers we needed to go further to tell more of the narrative of their career and what they achieved both on the bike and also what John uncovered in his interviews.
Q: Our videos incorporated archival footage in addition to produced content. Given the number of advanced visual tools and technologies available to videographers today, how did you approach balancing the use of technology with fundamental storytelling techniques in order to accomplish your vision for the All-Stars content?
A: What was interesting about the archival racing footage was that the quality of the footage brings viewers back to that era. Even in all of its grainy imperfection, the footage is a reference to that point in time—even if one was too young to have experienced it first-hand. Seeing this footage of what was the highlight of at least their life as an athlete, juxtaposed with their talking in the present, casts an interesting light on how people’s lives continue after a high like earning an Olympic medal or World Championship title. I think that seeing this helps to create a connection that people can relate to. For example, with Harv (Nitz) I thought it was an incredibly powerful aspect of his film when we had archival footage of him wiping a tear from his eye on the podium, set against his recounting of the day he won his medal—he had nearly the same reaction when telling the story to our cameras during our shoot as he had more than thirty years before on the podium.
Q: Being able to tease and tell these stories through an Omni-channel format on social media, through traditional media and even on Bell-owned properties creates a sophisticated distribution and engagement structure for audiences. What most excited you about modern day brand storytelling like this?
A: What most excited me was the ability to target specifically who we were going to attract to these videos and customize this approach depending on the platform. Then we tailored our media approach to fit that structure.
Q: The feedback has been pretty positive from audiences exposed to the campaign, with people sharing stories of their history with Bell and recollection of our athletes and these eras of racing through comments on social. Do you believe that people are getting out of our campaign what you intended?
A: I think they are, but also one of the interesting things about relying on athletes of this era is the accessibility to them and this manifest on multiple levels. First, as people see them now—twenty years on from their achievements—they aren’t super-human. They’ve shared their struggles to achieve what they did and this makes them more approachable. In the costly world of present day professional road racing, with athletes relying on large staffs of performance experts and physiologist, things feel very Formula 1 in terms of the rider’s inhabiting this rarified place where average people can’t as easily identify nor connect with athletes but I think in many ways the All-Stars humanize what it is to be a bike racer.