Just in time for the postponed F1 season kick-off in Australia comes news of a collaboration between Specialized Bicycle Co. and Mclaren. The story has been posted and re-posted all over the net since its debut. For a mid to high-end bicycle company such as Specialized this has become a wildly successful viral marketing campaign – which shows no signs of abating. But what do McLaren get from the arrangement? The very few thousand bucks which they’d be likely to receive in licencing barely seems worth getting out of bed for – remember this is a company whose racing budget runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars. The Venge might cost a statospheric $9,000 but they ain’t going to sell too many of them. So there has to be another motive.
It’s not the first car company to see the value of a ‘badge engineering’ tie-in with a bicycle manufacturer: Land Rover, BMW, Mercedes, Maserati, Ferrari, Cooper all had or have bikes or whole ranges of bikes bearing their name. Almost all are manufactured by sub-contactors who pays the brand owners a licence fee. There are exceptions, some ‘car’ companies have gone so far as to actually design their own: Honda’s brief foray into competitive cycling produced a DH bike which was a technological tour de force. But such examples are very few and far between. The line-up of kids bikes in the Ferrari shop in London is a line of cheap far eastern kids bikes made expensive only by the branding. Enzo would not approve.
And who can forget the towering achievement that was Chris Boardman’s Hour Record and the subsequent acrimonious divorce between Lotus Sport and our very own bicycle design genius Mike Burrows? Lotus hardly sold any bikes but no doubt still considered the arrangement a success. Why? Well, from a marketing point of view having a range of branded products helps people to ‘buy in to’ the brand. Porsche were one of the first and have made a good living from it. Harley Davidson, amazingly, makes much more money selling Harley Davidson branded products than they do selling Harley Davidson motorbikes! That’s part of it but the real reason is – in this new age of environmental responsibility car companies are doing everything they can to ‘green up’ their image. It’s so common these days among oil companies and other exploiters of the world’s precious resources that there’s even a word for it: Greenwash. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a F1 fan. And a Hamilton fan at that. I just don’t think we should lose sight of the fact that carbon being spewed out by those cars into the atmosphere every race weighs a whole lot more than that lovely carbon bike.
Whatever you or I think of the Venge there can be no doubt that Specialized are delighted with the bike, the association with McLaren and the resulting global publicity – I fear that they’ve sold their soul to the devil.