REI dishonors the dead with new “Ghost Bike” brand

REI ghost bike graphic

Ghost Bike: A ghost bike, ghostcycle or WhiteCycle is a bicycle set up as a roadside memorial in a place where a cyclist has been killed or severely injured (usually by a motor vehicle).[1][2] Apart from being a memorial, it is usually intended as a reminder to passing motorists to share the road. Ghost bikes are usually junk bicycles painted white, sometimes with a placard attached, and locked to a suitable object close to the scene of the accident.

For the past few years REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc) has been on a mad tear to show they are a legit player in the urban biking business. They’ve made some good city bikes, some functional and affordable bags, rain gear and so on. They teach classes on urban riding and give money to the right bike organizations.

They look to be as they claim — legit urban riders.

So imagine my shock to see the headline in Bicycle Retailer (hat tip to Byron at BikeHugger on Facebook this morning) proclaiming:

REI to be exclusive retailer for Ghost bikes in US

“GHOST BIKE?!?” I exclaimed. Seriously? Could they not realize what a mistake this?

Though it’s been a while since I’ve been employed in the industry, I still follow it. I’ve been aware of Ghost Bikes (a German brand.) And even remember thinking “cool, but that would never fly here” — for obvious reasons.  You see (and this is for any REI Bike Merchandising Managers or Marketing folks reading along who may have skipped the definition at the top of the post):  In the United States (at least), a Ghost Bike is a memorial placed at the scene of a rider serious injury or death (usually from a vehicle collision). It’s a terribly sad symbol. It means a person has likely died!

But that’s not what we hear from REI. Instead,

“Partnering with Ghost brand bicycles allows us to offer a premium, high-performance, award-winning bicycle brand with full distribution across the United States,” said Mike Cannon, REI merchandising manager for bike. “We are impressed with the level of detail, smart design and engineering Ghost brand bicycles bring to the industry. The line will also help round out our bike assortment so REI can better support all levels of cycling.” —Bicycle Retailer

I don’t condemn the Ghost Bikes brand for their name — again, they are a German company and,  aside from the obvious language reasons, the whole bike-car-death relationship is entirely different (ie, when a car hits a rider in Europe, the driver is usually punished, therefore, no need for a Ghost Bike). However, I do, strongly, condemn REI for choosing to enter into (and trumpet!) their exclusive relationship with a brand carrying such a disrespectful name. 

REI likes to brag that their new big-money CEO/President,  Jerry Stritzke, came from a specialty brands background: Coach, Lululemon, Victoria Secret and more. So here’s a question, Jerry: At Lululemon, would you have allowed a men’s fitness brand called “My father’s Cardiac Arrest“? Or launched a line of “Mugger killed Mother” purses at Coach?

No, because that would be disrespectful to anyone who lost a loved one to a heart attack or street violence. Not to mention that you wouldn’t want to saddle your brand with a poor-taste marketing stunt.

So I ask again: how can a company that endlessly touts their urban riding/bike commuting chops not know the negative connotations of a Ghost Bike? Especially since less than a month ago, a local rider (and more importantly a wife and mother), Sher Kung was killed when she was run over by a truck as she rode down one of Seattle’s  urban riding/bike commuting lanes. Much public outcry followed. A Ghost Bike was prominently placed as the centerpeice of her on-site memorial and featured in much local media about the tragedy, as well as serving as the starting location of her memorial ride.

Anne Ghost Bike TwitterIs it possible REI  staffers — again, a local Seattle company that claims they are fully vested in urban riding — have never actually ridden in Seattle. That they’ve never seen a Ghost Bike on local corners or heard tell of one? Impossible. My children have been aware of Ghost Bikes since at least 2008!

Sher Kung Memorial Ghost Bike. Creative Commons photo by Flickr User Jay Thompson

Is it possible no one from REI attended the memorial or even noticed the tragedy on local media? They give money to organizations that lead the memorial event. They have a dedicated public outreach team. Surely REI knew.

Is it possible that no one from REI never tried to “Google” their new exclusive partner? Possible they never noticed that the first entry is Ghostbikes.org (excerpt: “Ghost Bikes are small and somber memorials for bicyclists who are killed or hit on the street….”).

Is it possible that they never noticed the second entry is the Ghostbikes.org page dedicated to Ghost Bikes in Seattle, WA? Or that the 3rd Google Result is the Wikipedia page/definition I quote at the beginning of this post.

In fact you have to go down to result # 4, to find Ghost-bikes.com. Even if REI’s bike and marketing people were completely unaware of the Ghost Bike symbolism, how is it possible that they didn’t bother to check the Google for damning information. I’d think that would be dotcom branding 101 for $2B company.

Obviously I don’t know how this really went down. But I do know there were other options, such as about a zillion other bike brands out there REI could have gone all exclusive with. Or they could have negotiated to use Ghost-made Bikes, but rebrand them for the US.

Ghost, by the way, is a sub-brand of one of the world’s larger bike-holding companies, Accell. In case you’re a small-business supporter (as I hope you are) , you don’t have to worry that an about-face from REI will damage an up-and-coming brand. According to Bicycle Retailer, Accell also owns Raleigh, Diamondback, Torker, Currie, Redline and SBS (Seattle Bike Supply) in the U.S. and has brought in European brands Haibike and Lapierre to the U.S. Accell AG, with an almost half-billion dollar market cap, doesn’t need your or REI’s cash!

And because Accell brands and REI have a long history — I find it highly likely that Accell would have been receptive to feedback about how their brand would play with REI customers. Or again, even if they told REI to piss off, there’s still those zillion other brands REI could have got busy with.

At this point though, none of my speculation should matter. Surely the company just dropped the ball and didn’t actually plan to hurt the families memorialized by these Ghost Bikes.

But now that REI has been informed of this grave (no pun intended) error, the company should quickly act to repair their relationship with urban riders, and find some way to demonstrate respect (contrition?) to the many people out there — customers or not — who have been impacted by the death of a bike rider.

Immediately ending the relationship between REI and Ghost Bikes is the required first step.

disclosure. I’m a former (10+ year) REI employee from way back in the day. Anne and I met in footwear stockroom in the summer of 1991. We didn’t know it then, but it was love at first stock. I have so many great memories about “the co-op” but frankly, their direction over the past 15 or so years has been highly disappointing. Profits and growth above all — which I could understand if they were a publically traded company. But REI is not. It’s a co-op. There is zero pressure from the core membership to abandon their original values.

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18 responses to “REI dishonors the dead with new “Ghost Bike” brand

  1. Riding a bike called Ghost bike is just bad juju.

  2. A classic example of a company failing to really connect with its local market.

    GM (Vauxhall/Opel) bombed when they tried to sell the Nova in Spanish speaking countries No Va = doesn’t go/work

    A bike hire operation paid an agency to develop a brand, but fortunately had a focus group of cyclists involved pre launch, daving themselves a mix of embarrassing image and a potnetial lawsuit – they had picked the name Like-a-Bike, without checking and learning that it is a childs scoot bike, well known to those involved in training kids to ride.

    In the UK we have the image “Bow Tie and Braces (suspenders)” to describe the high energy individuals in marketing, who blunder in with that ill-researched, over hyped to the highest level of cringeworthiness concept and the full OMG, fantastic , sooper rhetoric. Another one for the textbooks?

  3. well said Tim and Dave H. Tim have you back from anyone at REI?
    Marge Evans

  4. @Dave H — the Nova example is a myth. By using it, you are guilty of the exact same thing you are accusing REI of.

    • Here’s Snopes on the Nova legend. Spoiler: It’s not true. http://www.snopes.com/business/misxlate/nova.asp

      Though in defense of anyone confused, they also say admit that this isn’t the same thing as forwarding an un fact-checked Facebook post — people have been *taught* this fable by experts:

      “The Chevy Nova legend lives on in countless marketing textbooks, is repeated in numerous business seminars, and is a staple of newspaper and magazine columnists who need a pithy example of human folly. Perhaps someday this apocryphal tale will become what it should be: an illustration of how easily even “experts” can sometimes fall victim to the very same dangers they warn us about.”

  5. Pingback: (Late) Morning Links: The OC Register says hell no to Give Me 3, and the New York bikelash beat goes on | BikinginLA

  6. Hey guy, the brand is German. Clearly they don’t have the ghost bike memorials in Germany. An all white bike to memorialize a fallen cyclist is in no way going to be confused with a Ghost brand downhill bike. Don’t be such a damn crybaby.

    • Thanks for your comment, I think. We strive for respectful discourse here at carfreedays.com and any time you call someone a crybaby for making an informed argument, you’ve sort of blown your chances of being taken seriously.

      As I noted in the post, I don’t hold the German brand at fault. The situation there is different, and yes, the brand predates our Ghost Bikes. My problem is with REI. They’ve built their company on a commitment to respect, diversity, and community involvement. The Ghost Bikes are important to some of their members, and therefore not addressing issue means they fall short of the very values they claim to hold.

      Thanks for reading 😉

  7. I would think that it would be hard for any one to confuse a ghost bike honoring a fallen rider with a Ghost brand bike. Sure, they hold a word in common, but I can’t see any way the German bike or REI is dishonoring anyone. Sorry, I’d gladly buy and ride a Ghost bike.

    • Hi Lon — thanks for the comment. Yes, you’re totally entitled to buy and ride a Ghost brand bike. I hear they are great. However there are people who have been personally touched by such a tragedy and find the naming disrespectful. It’s really unfortunate. Had they stuck to German when they named the bike, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion about a Geist Bikes brand. Which actually, would be a simple change to make.

  8. Your making a mountain out of a mole hill. Clearly they aren’t purposely trying to disrespect fallen cyclist. Not a big deal…

    • Thanks for your comment. I don’t think REI is purposefully trying to disrespect the memorials either, that doesn’t matter. The disrespect is still present. My point is that if REI is as engaged in the urban biking community as they say they are, then they should have known better. And now that they do know, they should act in the spirit of culture, diversity, and community involvement they claim as a foundation of the company and come up with a bike brand that doesn’t offend some of their community.

  9. Big deal about the name. They brought a good German bike brand to the U.S. that wouldn’t otherwise be available. Stop being so sensitive. There are much worse offenses to worry about in this world…

    • Thanks for your comment, Mike.

      I’m glad you agree it’s a big deal — that IS what you meant, right? Because, indeed, the concept of a ghost bike remains a HUGE deal for, you know, the people who have had friends and loved ones die in traffic.

      Sure it’s a great German brand. I get that. But it’s not like it’s a cure for cancer — it’s a marketing campaign for a bicycle. REI can always find other bike brands or rebrand Ghost to be more US=appropriate (and to appropriately match their for their corporate mission statement if they choose. No matter how cool mountain bikers think Ghost is, well, it’s just a bike and Ghost by any other name will still ride as sweet.

      So yes, I totally agree there are other things to worry about in the world. Which is why I’m not sure why Ghost and REI persist with branding like this — they could choose virtually any other name, including the German word for Ghost: Geist. Wouldn’t that be a kickass name to have on your downtube? — and we could all move on.

      Because sticking to an insensitive brand name just because you used it in another country and have a ton of stickers already printed, well, I think we can agree is not one of those offenses we should have to spend any more energy on.

  10. Tim, I think your pushing the boundaries of public vs consumer expectations here. A Ghost Bike Memorial is still a very small (albeit righteous and noble) ideal, and is not widely recognized by the vast majority of cycling consumers.
    REI most assuredly looked at that parallel and weighed the possibilities of backlash. But in a big box retail world there just isn’t anything there… there is no intellectual property liability and almost zero marketing kickback.
    And doing a Google search of “ghost bike” and expecting a European company to come up on a purely American search engine is bush league marketing research at best. Any Marketing or Ecommerce manager would know that 1st page search results will not give anything more than a small trend of information from a very broad search parameter, try searching for [specialized or Trek] on different computer than your own (like a library or internet cafe) and you’ll see even the most powerful bike brands share 1st page results with completely random generalizations based on the word “special” or “trek” whereas your website and search habits (on your own computer/IP address) Skew the results of that particular search because Google knows your search habits and I assume they tend to be a lot of “bicycle” specific searches? which is what your search results will lean towards, Yes Google knows way more about you than you could possibly imagine.

    Ghost Cycles is a very well branded bike brand in most of the rest of the world which trumps a small American (and I remind you I respect the Ghost bike memorials very much) urban cultural niche.
    And actually REI does not have a ton of other options (well rounded bike lines) to sell in their stores, because most notable American brands will not sell to them because of their commitments to existing customers or IBDs which REI would definitely upset an existing market share of any brand. Yes REI is similar to Walmart when it comes to bike brands, if they [REI] stock a American name brand (like Trek, Specialized, Giant) then all IBDs near any of their store locations would suffer greatly.
    In reality REI gets the scraps (or bottom of the barrel) of most bike brands like K2, Diamond Back or Schwinn/GT which they would not want to sell based on those companies brand faults (and lack of a full line and price range) and they have struggled with this for a long time.
    REI has been lucky to keep Cannondale through its turmoil of up and down sales and branding history without falling into the IBD double edged sword.

    I would venture to say (with very strong industry inside knowledge) that REI was lucky to make a deal with a company as well rounded as Ghost Cycles, as well as it was a strategic move on REI’s behalf to stave off movement from some other very large competitors throughout the US and some for which I know are looking to move into the US.
    Unfortunately REI is not doing as well as you would think, and the next 10 years for them is going to be extremely tough because the largest Retailer in the world has started setting its sites on outdoor/action sports and once they realize how lucrative it will be for them… Retailers like REI, Scheels, Backcountry.com and many others are going to die off just like the IBDs they killed when they moved into bicycles.

    And no I don’t work for REI (anymore) but they are one of my customers and I know how they run their business.

    • Thanks for the well-reasoned comment. I do agree REI is in a tough spot as far as *some* sourcing goes and completely understand (and have seen first hand), the conflicts/availability of products they can get in their stores vs. due to conflicts with IBD (and other retailers beyond bikes) territories, etc. Point taken. FWIW, I also know they have difficulty in their “urban bike” vs. “mt. bike marketing” and sales strategy (not to mention their overall hardgoods/softgoods mix) and how they balance that against their classic “hiker” business — early 80s Harvey Manning MTB battles anyone? At any rate, I understand and relate to many of your comments.

      My point — that I still stand by – is that if REI is going to trumpet their urban biking chops and claim involvement in local bike culture, they better be aware of and address (and the addressing it part is key!) an issue that is important to at least part of the audience they are trying to cozy up to. Especially, when there’s a high-profile death (and resulting ghost bike) less than a mile away from your “Flagship” store in your “local” city (For others out there, REI’s actual headquarters are 20+ miles away in an ex-burb, former farmland, car-centric wasteland. I’ve worked there. The location sucks. The commute from Seattle is horrible and that as a result, most of the non-retail staff doesn’t even *live* – and certainly doesn’t *commute* in the city of Seattle, even though they’d like customers to think otherwise).

      Had REI addressed the Ghost Bike/ghost bike issue (in the original press release, on Twitter or Facebook, etc), they could have avoided people like me making a big stink. It wouldn’t have required much — even just a “we’re aware of the urban ghost bikes, blah, blah and while don’t directly think there’s a conflict with this European brand, we take the safety of urban bicyclists very seriously. We’ve supported x, y, and z organizations for a tune of X$/year. We’ll also be making a contribution to (some appropriate organization like Bikes Belong or to local urban bike education programs, or…) for each Ghost Bike we sell – which by the way, could be the *same* dollars they are already giving, just earmarked differently to show they “get it”) – blah, blah blah, because as the we at the Co-op have always believed, more people on bikes — any kind of bikes — makes the world a better place.” Or something like that.

      You say you’re pretty sure REI considered the ramifications and decided there were none worth addressing — I still disagree and think it’s that they really didn’t know because their bike merchandising team either doesn’t ride or that they’re roadies or MTBers down in the Kent Valley (Team Novara!), and they’re just plain ignorant to “urban riding — hence my comment about them making a quick Google search (I’m a librarian and work as an information consultant — I know what research is). But anyway, let’s say you are right and they *knew* about “little-g” ghost bikes and decided it was a non issue.

      In that case they were wrong — if you look across social media, there was indeed some backlash — yes, even beyond me. Heck Bill Strickland — former editor of Bicycling — even commented on Twitter about the bad name “Oh no—in the US, a ghost bike isn’t one you want to ride.” It’s not just fringe PBR-hipster-weirdos who noticed the negative association between “Ghost Bikes and ghost bikes.
      Maybe this one mistake won’t hurt them as far as immediate sales of the bikes go, but this and other mistakes will cumulatively cost them something. Maybe that cost is just loyalty, but loyalty is not companies should undervalue in a post-Amazon era.

      The whole issue of REI and big box stores dying in the face of the internet could be reality. I personally think REI has brought a lot of this on themselves by trying to grow-grow-grow while they played with Monopoly money (ie, returning a tiny dividend managed into your pricing is not the same as having owner or shareholder pressure). REI then thought the internet was going be a big help when, in fact, it actually just puts them into a position of having to compete with the Walmarts and Amazons (and other zero margin online retailers). Maybe had they stayed a smaller, more manageable, “actual member” focused-co-op (versus people joining just to get 10 percent back focused), they might have been able to stake a claim as deserving of their customers — even if they can’t compete 100 percent on price with the faceless online retailers.

      I was there for a decade when they made some of what I consider expansion mistakes (IMHO as a “pre-1-million” co-op-number holder) and then watched their initial forays into online as an online-operations employee in another industry. Frankly, a lot of REI’s growth and success in 20 of the past 30 years has just been dumb luck — being in the right place at the right time when specialized, expensive sports were seeing previously unheard of growth. This wasn’t always good business, it was just slightly better business than their competitors (or it having enough cash to weather their mistakes until they could figure out what they did wrong — at least that time).

      This reply is way too long, but I do appreciate your comments and felt they were deserving of an equally considered response. If nothing else, I think we’re probably in agreement that the next 20 yrs won’t be quite as easy on REI. And I’m afraid, it’s probably a bit too late to go back to a pure co-op mentality. Should be an interesting show.