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Rick Vosper: The toxic Bro Deal culture

Published May 20, 2019

“So you work in the bike business. Can you get me a deal on (insert product name here)?”

Raise your hand if this has ever happened to you. Now keep your hand up if it’s happened with a person you’ve just met for the first time, and those wereliterally their first wordsupon meeting you.

Yeah, that’s what I thought. Me too.

Here are a couple scenarios showing different aspects of Bro Deal culture at work:

Local racing or riding club comes to a local retailer. The members want, no, expect, special pricing for a season’s worth of bikes and equipment. In exchange, the shop can be their “sponsor” for the year, and the club/team will get plenty of “exposure” for the business and its partner brands. And if the retailer doesn’t want to play ball, there are plenty of other dealers in town, plenty of other bike and equipment brands, and one of them, eventually, will play ball. Because one of them, sooner or later, nearly always does. 

It’s not a simple problem. As a marketer, I’ve seen situations where having some local hotshots on my employer’s brand significantly improved the brand’s sales across the board, and that effect persisted for years. But I haven’t seen it work that way very darned often. Far more frequently, any promotion predicated on the nebulous concept of “exposure” has been a loser from the get-go.

But the retailer is the one in the real bind here. Do they suck up the margin hit (perhaps shared with the brand, but more often not) in order to retain the rest of the group’s business? Or do they let the group go elsewhere and write the whole thing off?

I don’t pretend to know the answer to that question, and it’s not for me to say in any case. The point is, it’s a tough call and it happens regularly enough that it speaks to a larger problem. 

“The Bro Deal is killing the IBD to such an excruciating point that I see it disappearing to a more evolved niche service oriented shop scene which cannot afford to Bro Hard." — Abbie Durkee, founder/owner, My Alibi Clothing

Here’s a trickier version of the same question. An employee in the bike business — retailer, supplier, maybe a sponsored athlete, it doesn’t matter — uses their employee discount to buy a bike and/or equipment for a friend or family member.

In this case, the Bro Deal is nonconsensual; it involves overt deception. The employee/ athlete/ whomever) receives the product with one set of expectations, and uses it for a different purpose not covered (and likely expressly prohibited) in the employee purchase agreement. Like the previous scenario, it happens often enough that it’s not just part of the cost of doing business, but an established part of cycling culture. 

In both cases, the cost primarily comes out of the retailer’s pocket, either directly through the discount, or indirectly because the shop has been dropped out of the process via end-run. So that’s reason #1 why bro deals (and by extension, Bro Deal culture) can be toxic: it costs the industry money, and we don’t really get anything in return. And in case you haven’t noticed, this is not exactly a high-margin business to begin with. 

But wait, it gets worse.

It’s not (just) about the money

Especially among consumers, people demanding bro deals aren’t just looking for a lower price. Getting the bro deal makes you one of the cool kids. An insider. And, obviously, a bro (Women can be bros too, but generally they’re not given the opportunity. More about that in a bit).

Here's the thing. Bro deals evolved to help people, often up-and coming racers who were sleeping on other people’s couches and subsisting on a training diet of ramen and past-date energy bars. But those Audi-driving weekend warriors or Trustafarian college kids aren't going to break their budgets by paying shop retail for a water bottle, even if they insist on calling it a bidon.

By definition, Bro Deal culture is exclusionist. The cool kids get the goodies, the hoi polloi don’t. That’s a huge part of its appeal, a huge part of its power and, at the risk of stating the obvious, an even huger part of its toxicity. Make no mistake, a bro deal itself might be good or bad (and we’ll talk about that in a bit, too), but Bro Deal culture is a fundamentally a culture of privilege. As with any privilege, it carries responsibilities. But those responsibilities are almost universally ignored, because they don’t generally come as a result of need, but of entitlement.

The fact that people feel entitled to the bro deal is the same reason they feel the need to brag about it. Show up on the Saturday morning ride with a nice new bike or piece of kit, you might want to show it off. But show up same item you got because you were cooler than your riding buddies, and no one knows that part unless you tell them. And if you claim you were “sponsored” for it, even better. And, believe me, you will. Because improving your status with your buddies is the primary point.

Which brings us to reason #2. Bro Deal culture is toxic because it makes the rest of our customer base feel they’re being ripped off. Because in many cases, they are.

There’s a reason they’re not called “Sis Deals”

Talk to people who are asked to give bro deals, who are mostly men, and it’s clear it’s almost exclusively men doing the asking. Women are far less likely to ask. I reached out to half a dozen industry women and alumnae whose opinions I respect to learn more about the participation of women cyclists in Bro Deal culture. They represent retailer and supplier sides of the business. Their take is radically different from what I heard from men (and frankly, than what I’d surmised from my own experience), and I think they need to be heard.

Here’s some of what they told me:

“Occasionally, I have come across a woman (sponsored racer) who is big on bragging about her deals; however, I believe that is few and far between. I know many sponsored female riders who do not brag about their deals. I definitely see it as more of a male bragging issue than female.” — Traci Berry, manager, Trailhead Mesa, greater St Louis area.

"I think it's 'bro deal' because it's mostly men. I'm sure there are women in positions that do exactly the same thing ... but it goes back to the whole social construct of exclusionary gender roles, that women are 'taking' something away' from men."— Anne Barnes, racer and owner of ABBikefit, Greater Chicago area

“Either they get stuff for free on a flirty level or feel they are getting ripped off like at the auto mechanic. It's such an erratic experience that most of these women don't even want to deal with shops.” — Abbie Durkee

 “It’s selective and fuels entitlement and expectation. It perpetuates in-groups and out-groups, and it denies opportunities to those who would benefit much more from discounting and sponsorship. The demographic of the bro dude crowd is so homogenous that the only thing you can see is white skin and flannel. So, we (women) buy into it less because we don’t have access.” — Chris Garrison, leadership consultant and Trek veteran.

So the third reason Bro Deal culture is toxic is that it shuts out women (and doubtlessly people of color, and LGBT folks, but also pretty much anyone else who is not already a part of it). That’s fundamentally unethical, and it’s bad for business. Yet we keep right on doing it.

All of which brings us to the fourth reason. Bro Deal culture is essentially viral; by its very nature, it’s a self-replicating phenomenon. People get special treatment, some portion of those people talk about it, more people want it. Absent all levels of the industry working together to rein it back, Bro Deal culture will only grow and fester. And the three impacts noted earlier — deteriorating profits, alienated customers, and the wholesale exclusion of potential and existing market segments — will only get worse.

How we move from 'bro deals' to 'earned incentives'

Bikes or equipment or services offered for reduced prices or for free shouldn’t happen because someone “deserves it” just for being who they are. The transaction needs to take place in a larger context, and that context deserves careful thought.

It can be done for reasons of pure charity (like the struggling young racer mentioned previously), or as affirmative action (think scholarship programs for women mechanics or inner city kids) that ultimately benefits the industry. It can be as a quid pro quo, as with customer loyalty programs: spend more money with us, earn special benefits. We can dress it up any way we want. But the bottom line is, well, the bottom line: we should offer these incentives when — and only when — they’re good for business.

But we don’t, and that’s for two reasons. The first is that Bro Deal culture has become an entitlement, and one baked so deep into bike culture that we don’t notice it at an institutional level (if there have been other BRAIN editorials on this subject, I haven’t seen them). The second reason is related to that viral issue I mentioned earlier. We have reached critical bro deal mass: there’s at least the perception that if you don’t come up with the swag or discount, the next brand or supplier or retailer will.

I should repeat that there are plenty of legitimate reasons for special pricing for industry insiders. It’s one of the perks of working someplace where compensation for entry and midlevel workers is typically 10-30% lower than comparably skilled positions in other industries on the supplier side, and even more at retail. One respondent I spoke to, a senior product manager with decades in the bicycle business, suggested that insider perks effectively become a tool to suppress industry wages, but that’s a chicken-and-egg topic for another time. 

We have reached critical bro deal mass: there’s at least the perception that if you don’t come up with the swag or discount, the next brand or supplier or retailer will.

Nor are bro deals exclusive to the bike biz. You see them in pretty much any enthusiast-driven category (Remember the movie High Fidelity, where the “employees” all worked for free?), and especially in the sporting and outdoors sectors. But those folks can write their own editorials. The larger point is not that incentives should go away entirely, but that we as an industry and a cycling culture need to get a whole lot smarter about how we implement them. 

Just bringing the practice below critical mass will start making bro deals the exception rather than the rule. As a whole, the industry needs to tighten up and enforce its employee discount programs (to be fair, this has been happening for years, if incrementally). And moving the entire premise from entitlements for bros to earned incentives for valued customers can help with the rest.

Now here’s the good news: just as the problem is viral, so too is the solution. The antidote to Bro Deal toxicity can be implemented one brand, one dealer, one town at a time. It’s also an opportunity to show leadership that’s too often missing in our fragmented and fractious industry. If brand leaders on the supplier side (I‘m looking at you, BPSA) and retailer side (and at you, NBDA) of our business can stand up and say, “this isn’t right, and we need to stop it, and we’re starting now,” everything else begins to fall into place.

Of course that doesn’t make it easy, but it does make it do-able. And the upside is considerable.

The cost of implementation is not merely tiny, but literally less than zero. Cleaning house on the toxic aspects of Bro Deal culture is a moneymaker from the start. Players in all segments of the supply channel get to keep more of the margin they earn, and existing customers begin to feel they’re being treated fairly. And maybe, just maybe, we start reaching out to segments of the market we’re currently pushing away, and let those potential customers know we want the opportunity to earn their business.

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