King of the Cobbles [Editorial]

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by David Schloss on Dec 10, 2013 at 12:13 PM

No one likes a bully.

Charlie Brown

That’s a message that’s held true in society as long as there has been a society. The oldest examples of human writing include a list of harmful acts that could be committed by someone and the punishment ascribed to those act.

As the glaciers of the ice age receded from the planet and humans shifted from hunter-gatherering to farming, it became necessary to stop taking things from other humanoids and to start working together. So ingrained is our sense of fairness that infants possess a clear understanding of what is just and what is not.

There is a secondary and related human trait that was probed in depth on a brilliant RadioLab episode but boils down to this: people root for the underdog. It doesn’t matter the context (big company vs. small company, famous artist vs. undiscovered talent, big rock vs. small rock…), people root for the scrappy contender instead of the oppressor.

This is why we all cringe in sympathy with Charlie Brown as he brings back a teeny Christmas tree and gets berated for his stupidity. We all feel like Charlie Brown sometimes. It’s why we all gleefully watch someone kick the ass of a thug trying to knock them out with a single punch and it’s why we get so happy when we see kids dressing like someone they love to keep them from getting picked on.

This is the context into which Specialized stepped last week when the Internet learned of the company’s decision to send a cease and desist letter to bicycle shop owner Dan Richter, and the subsequent rush to support him from every corner of the cycling world.

If you missed the back story, Specialized, who owns the right to the trademark Roubaix, sent a quick note to Richter, telling him to change the name of his shop “Cafe Roubaix” or face the full force of their legal wrath. The Calgary Herald ran this story in a small piece but it soon spread virally. Within hours I saw people on Facebook declaring they were abandoning plans to buy Specialized bicycles and products that they’d been about to make. (One of whom I know personally and was absolutely about to pull the trigger on a Venge.)

The Herald has reported, naturally that Richter has received offers from around the globe to help him defend himself from lawyers offering to work pro bono, he has run out of inventory on his shirts after they were bought by supportive ‘net shoppers and he’s been scrambling to just answer the calls and emails that have poured in.

Didn’t you just get a little glow of warmth when I wrote that? The feeling of justice being served through the contribution of many against a larger foe? That’s what Specialized didn’t count on. Probably because they don’t usually get their C&D’s published in newspapers.

Like many multinationals, Specialized has its share of legal battles and scrapes and is known for being particularly aggressive with competitors and dealers alike. While their reputation for making good products is sterling, their reputation for dealing with people is not.

Usually that’s not an issue. A letter to a bike shop here, a letter to a Chinese knockoff company there. We don’t see what goes on. But when Specialized took it to a small shop, they accidentally triggered our innate detectors of injustice and hostility.

Richter is a sole proprietor, the most “American” type of businessman, and while his shop is in Canada and he is Canadian, the reaction here in the states is especially profound because a small shop is exactly the sort of business that American’s profess to love. Specialized has accidentally become Walmart facing off against Main Street.

There are a few factors here that should at least give pause: Richter opened a business whose name included a word that was already trademarked—not a smart thing to do in general. He also produces a set of wheels with the Cafe Roubaix name on them, and that’s probably what caught Specialized’s eye. While it’s a stretch to say that a person might mistake a teeny bicycle store for a subsidiary of Specialized, it’s certainly more likely that a wheel set sold with that name could be mistaken for being made by the company with the trademark.

Look at it this way: Specialized has worked with a number of bike stores to develop concept stores, stocking only Specialized branded gear. Here’s a shop that uses a Specialized trademark, could there be some confusion? I think so.

But there’s a larger problem here and it’s the disgust most cyclists seem to feel at the thought that Specialized owns a trademark for something that’s both a city and a famous bike race. Roubaix, it feels, belongs to all of us because it is one of the sport’s most defining races. It is hard, it is beautiful and it is ours. Utter the word Roubaix around cyclists and you instantly see who is “one of us.” That is why Specialized co-opted the name to represent a bicycle of exceptional facility and durability in the first place. It evokes something passionate.

Yet there’s a feeling that owning the name to an historic icon is unfair. Roubaix shouldn’t belong to one company because it belongs to all of us.

Cyclists are used to the feelings of antagonism. We get pushed to the shoulder by honking and swerving cars. In all but the most forward-thinking municipalities we’re an afterthought, lacking even basic protections and amenities. In most cities we’re little more than hood ornaments. Billions of dollars spent for highways and Not In My Backyard sentiment for a bike path or rail-to-trail. We, as a group are fed up with being pushed around by bigger and more powerful entities.

So along comes Specialized. Let’s assume that their legal department is right in their assertion that they must defend their trademark to prevent losing it (despite some opinions to the contrary). They send a pretty typical letter to a company to force them to stop infringing on their trademark. This company has the money and the muscle to win these type of cases just because their targets can’t put up a fight.

To the cyclists it feels just like a big, aggressive car is bearing down on us. Only this car is being driven by a bunch of cyclists.

And that Specialized right into the court of public opinion. Unlike a traditional court of law, public opinion isn’t swayed by the dollars and the legal pedigree, in fact the more powerful and the more successful a company’s legal department the more they look like a bully. Add in the fact that it’s the Christmas season and that Richter is a disabled vet (although that fact has nothing to do with the case, it keeps coming up in the media) and you’ve got a PR disaster on your hands.

You have to wonder (and Specialized I’m sure is wondering right now) what the math is on this issue. How much money does it take to win back a customer that you’ve infuriated? Could the dilution of the trademark have cost them as much in lost revenue as it will to try to fix this problem?

Honestly a year from now most people won’t still remember this. When 2015 bike buying season comes there might be so many new customers entering the market that those who vow not to buy a product from Specialized now might be insignificant.

But the bigger problem for Specialized, and for the massive giants that are the financial forces driving the industry is that customers no longer see them as allies. There have been so many recalls and doping scandals that are tied to the big names that the level of trust in the industry has eroded. What will it take to convince customers that there is a level of trust and commitment that seems lacking here at the close of 2013.

One thing’s for sure, a cease and desist letter ain’t it.

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