Since departing his native Australia for China in 2006, former urban planner and velophile Shannon Bufton has honed his considerable energy into bringing the bicycle back to Beijing. Last weekend, he went all out; unveiling a new high-end bicycle exhibition, Beijing Bike Week, from within the capital city’s opulent Jingbao Mall.
Bufton, with his cycling-mad Beijing-born partner Liman Zhao, has developed a multi-tiered platform from which he can strategically tap into the qualified cycling population in Beijing, whilst simultaneously seeking to invoke fundamental shifts in the public’s perception of cycling through advocacy, education and events.
After founding the Smarter Than Car advocacy website with a fellow expat, Bufton decided to move into the bicycle industry itself; setting up SERK – a marketing, distribution, events, and market intelligence company – in 2009. With such a broad scope, Bufton could be promoting, selling, marketing or lobbying for cycling at any given moment.
It was at the inaugural Tour of Beijing last October that the keen cyclist – who also competes in the local road cycling series from time to time – had the idea for an event that would reposition the image of the bicycle. Having piqued the China Bicycle Association’s interest, and that of a well-connected individual who could provide a lustrous setting within Jingbao Place – a gleaming brand corridor, irresistible to cashed-up Chinese – for a reasonable price, Bufton threw himself into a project for which no precedent existed.
The concept was simple enough; Beijing Bike Week would be a small, curated, event in which a handful of bicycle brands – selected and separated by unique brand origin – could engage with influential, high-net-worth consumers. The resultant insight gained would potentially inform that brand’s development program in China. Of course, its easy enough to email a proposal but try selling the concept to a time-starved marketing manager with a full inbox. The answer? Pitch to the creatives in their (visual) language:
After several weeks of negotiation, Beijing Bike Week reached agreements with six brands willing to try something new. Avanti, BMC, Cervelo, Look, Swift and UCC all opted in, promising to deliver the top available models from their latest catalogues. To underline the cultural significance of bicycles in Beijing, the loan of six unique bicycles from the China Bicycle Museum – including one owned by China’s last emperor Puyi – was also successfully negotiated.
Luxury brand malls are designed to be exclusive, socially speaking, so the four-day exhibition, from 15-18 March, also featured an events program – including Goldsprint and Alleycat racing, bicycle polo and a bicycle film festival – specifically for people whose ring collections are fashioned from CNC-machined 7075 aluminium.
Beijing Bike Week wrapped up on Sunday, so Cycling iQ contacted Shannon to see how it went, what he learned, and whether he’d return next year.
Let’s first measure your confidence in Beijing Bike Week’s future. Will you do it again next year?
Definitely. This is the start of an idea, which we thought about not too long ago. We wanted to reposition the image of the bicycle, which we did by association with the environment it was in and the media that attended. We were promoting to the highest consumer segment, which is why we wanted to show the best bikes in the exhibition. Everyone here agrees there’s a lot of potential but we need to work together to achieve it.
Did the media interest meet your expectations?
Yes, I think so. We sent out press releases to all the major new organisations. Some were local publications whose attendance we had to pay for, but the foreign (English-language) media – such as the China Daily and Global Times – who we didn’t pay money to, covered it the best.
As a new recreational/fashion idea, there’s quite a bit of coverage and interest in cycling. That’s partially because its seen a trend in the West and the bicycle here in Beijing is part of the old culture. Secondly, the Government is trying to push positive news out about cycling. I went on Beijing radio for a one hour show and talked to them about Bike Week and cycling in other parts of the world. Afterwards, I spoke with the presenter; she said they’re getting messages from their superiors to promote cycling as much as possible. The Government is definitely interested in the promotion of cycling here, which is great.
Can you describe the location of Beijing Bike Week for people who may not be familiar with it?
The brand mall we were in is one of the highest-end malls in Beijing. Jinbao Place, in Jinbao Street, is Beijing’s luxury consumer goods street, with a particular focus on automobiles. Across the road, there’s a Ferrari dealer; next door to the mall is Aston Martin. Lamborghini is down the road; Mercedes Benz is to the west and famous hotels and high-end restaurants are everywhere. Within the mall itself, there is Gucci, Burberry, Vertu, lots of small boutique European brands that cater to the high-end of town.
How many people visited the exhibition?
We estimate 1,000 visitors. For comparison, we recently exhibited at ISPO. There were 27,000 people there, but we wouldn’t have had 1,000 come to our booth because the event was too massive. The six brands at Beijing Bike Week each got specific attention, so I think that’s not too bad for our first year. We think about 30% of the visitors just stumbled upon the exhibition.
Did you get a good representation of general public versus people who could be considered as pre-qualified for that event?
Most visitors were not necessarily luxury mall consumers. I talked with quite a few of them. It was interesting to hear their response. The first response was always “wow, I didn’t realise bikes could cost so much!” We did have registration for our events and they were all pretty much cycling consumers or fans.
Given it was only an exhibition, did you have to turn away any sales?
There was one gentleman I spoke to who wanted to buy a bike on the spot and interestingly enough he wanted the handlebars turned upside down! He basically asked what the price of the bike was, where the brand (Swift) was from, the weight and then he said “do you have any of the handlebars you could turn upside down?”. It was right at the end of the exhibition, he had his credit card out and he was basically ready to buy. But the frame was the wrong size. We got his details though, so we can sort him out later.
Were most people attending the show interested in the bikes as product?
There was genuine interest in the technology. Chinese consumers are used to bikes that haven’t really changed that much since the 1950’s – that heavy, single-speed, steel bike that falls apart after 200 kilometres. For them to see a 20-speed carbon fibre bike with electronic gearing and lightweight titanium components…it’s like an out-of-this-world space-age technology. There is an interest in the product and the technology behind it. What we’re trying to do is get them to make the mental leap from bicycle-as-commuting-device to associating the technology of bicycles to that which goes into the high-end automobile or gadget they know and are interested in.
Is it a big mental gap to bridge or can they realistically see themselves using such a bike?
A lot of Chinese consumers, because they’ve ridden in the past, know about the joys of riding a bicycle – they still en masse haven’t cottoned on to the idea of riding for recreation; there are pockets of people who have, and they are growing quickly. It’s like when I was growing up in Australia and I told my friends I was riding 60-100km on my road bike while they were all out playing football or cricket. They thought it was interesting, but it didn’t engage them to the extent they wanted to do it also.
Were the events popular?
We had very unseasonal snow on the Saturday night, which I think affected our numbers on Sunday. We had 140 riders at the alleycat race. For most of them, it was their first time. We had bike polo, which was more of an exhibition match. We’d like to really develop the cycling culture within the event.
Within the existing cycling community, how is the level of product knowledge?
Well, the brand presentations at Beijing Bike Week were quite lively. Each brand gave a ten-minute presentation, and there was a lot of interaction with the audience. On that particular day, there were a lot of cycling fans. They were asking questions like where the carbon fibre was made, what type of testing they did in the wind tunnel. Chinese consumers are really interested in data; they want to know where testing is done, they want to be sure the technology they’re buying is tested and authorised as the best.
If you look on forums in China, there is a lot of expertise starting to develop about technical aspects.
Absolutely. There are probably a good 20-30 cycling forums in China that are very active on a daily basis; similar to ones you’d find in parts of the west. For instance, someone posted a picture of the Colnago C59 bike with disc brakes. Then someone else would post a translated article from CyclingNews or another website in Chinese. Then another person would say “there’s this brand called Volagi that also has a bike like this”. So, there are quite a few people in the community with high knowledge who also translate English information to Chinese.
What brands, in your opinion, are doing well in China already?
The brands that have subsidiaries, like Trek and Specialized, have invested a lot for several years; they are the top brands when you survey Chinese consumers. Look does well too, due to sponsorship of the national team and local races. Look is one of the best-perceived brands. The main thing is brand trust. Because Trek and Specialized have been in China for a long time now, consumers know there is a bricks and mortar store they can go to; they know the products are going to be genuine, not fakes.
We had one guy at the exhibition who wanted to have an “Armstrong bike”. He pointed to the BMC and asked “what is this bike?” We explained it was the exact same bike that Cadel Evans used to win the Tour de France last year. He said he’d never heard of it and wanted the bike that Armstrong used. We said Armstrong wasn’t riding anymore, but he still wanted a Trek bike as he’d heard of it.
What is the perception of Chinese-made bikes?
Consumers are sceptical the Chinese-made bikes are as good as the best in the world, even if some of these Chinese brands talk to consumers about being OEM to some of the best brands in the world. That doesn’t seem to have an impact. There is still scepticism about home-grown. UCC is doing quite well at the lower end of the market, but I don’t see any Chinese brands doing well at the high end because consumers want a recognized foreign brand and that’s how it’s going to be for a long time.
What insight have you gained that you can now share with brands who might be interested in selling their premium road bikes into China?
There is definitely a market for high-end bicycles. However, it is a very uneducated market when it comes to what these bikes are about. What was interesting about that guy I mentioned before was he didn’t even blink at the price of the bike, but he also didn’t really understand what the bike was to be used for. Many consumers that came along thought the bikes were only used for racing. They didn’t realise that everyday consumers all over the world use these bikes for recreational riding.
There are a lot of consumers out there but they need a better introduction to the idea of cycling. The same goes for the media. A lot of the media we spoke to were interested in talking to their readers about cycling but they had no idea about the bikes. All they knew were the types of bikes they saw people commuting on. Next year, we’ll do more events around introducing the idea of road bikes, and what to do with it, to consumers.
How about advice born from your own experiences in building a brand so far?
Focus on a region. Build your brand in that region. The work we are doing with Swift is so far all in Beijing. We’re doing that so we can get momentum here. Most important, get people riding your bikes. Build relationships with existing stores, clubs, industry, etc, so you can leverage those relationships when cycling becomes popular.
It’s about being patient and also about understanding, in China, when the flow starts, it’s a flood. Where that point occurs, no one really knows. Finding information to predict that is not easy either. It’s a very difficult market to predict. If you want to have a part of the market, the buying power is there. We hope it will be events like Beijing Bike Week that help raise the profile and understanding of cycling amongst consumers.
Does the Chinese Cycling Association provide membership data so you can see how the sport is growing?
It’s very inaccessible. To be honest, I think CCA are not yet an overly sophisticated organisation. They are at the beginning of the process. I don’t think there is that much data that exists and, if it does exist, I don’t expect it to be that high quality.
Knowing what you know, would you open up a high-end bike shop today?
Chinese consumers are a very difficult bunch to understand. One of the anecdotes I would use relates to Apple. When I first came to China in 2004, Apple was not really popular at all. When the iPod came out, nobody had iPods. There was one Apple store in Shanghai and it wasn’t even an official store. Then the iPhone came out, and it still wasn’t that popular. Then the next generation iPhone came out and it absolutely exploded.
That potential is here in China, and there are quite a few people who believe that’s going to happen with bikes in the next 3-4 years. I already believe that, so we are setting up a little bike shop and café in Beijing. There’s interest in the bike and a lot of media interest in cycling. As those things gain momentum, I think there will be a point it will explode and everyone will get back into cycling as a recreation.
What are the changes you’re likely to make to Beijing Bike Week next year?
Next year, we’d like to be in a similar consumer street, but one with more foot traffic, and have more demonstrations about how to use the bicycle and the technology. The feedback we got from brands with Beijing representation was excellent but I’m sure brands outside of China are going to want a lot of foot traffic for sales (activation) afterwards. At this stage we’ll leave it in this timeslot, unless we can create a strategic partnership with Tour of Beijing.
Consumers are absolutely interested in trying out product. We’d like to create a recreational component out in the mountains, with product demonstrations and nice food; try to create an atmosphere to show them how their weekends could be improved with the addition of cycling.
In one of the areas where I ride outside Beijing there is a polo club, horse-riding area, golf courses; those types of activities are very popular. On a sporting level, games like tennis are experiencing spectacular growth. I can see with my own eyes there are more people out riding. There are hundreds of people already driving into the mountains and exploring, which could easily be converted to a cycling experience.
[Disclosure: Cycling iQ had a small supporting role in Beijing Bike Week, primarily helping Shannon to connect to bicycle brands with whom SERK had no contact. Though no formal agreement was entered into, SERK insisted on reimbursing my time and this was accepted.]