ETN: Boy, Equestrianism can be Unyielding

For Christmas, we bought our 12 year-old son a course of riding lessons at an Equestrian Centre operated by friends. He’s grown up around horses and, as my wife Helen is a keen BE 90 and 100 eventer, he’s always enjoyed a day out at the events at which she competes.

We’ve always encouraged him to participate in sport. He’s played rugby league for one of the top amateur clubs in Wigan (which, as it’s the home of the World Club Champions, is a pretty big deal) and he’s the reigning U-13s ‘Bowling Award’ recipient at our local cricket club. He’s a useful goalkeeper and in June, he’ll participate in the Great North Swim (half-mile) in Windermere. You can safely say he knows his way around a changing room.

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In the interests of peer group credibility, no identifiable photos!

This isn’t the first time we’ve tried to harness his equestrian talents – and the last attempt (at a different yard) didn’t end well. In fact, those few lessons might have represented the entirety of his riding career. Highly-recommended as it was, the place was small, poorly-lit, lacking in basic facilities, held together in part by baling twine and surrounded by pot-holed, muddy surfaces.

Of course, we’re all familiar with ‘the horse world’ – we use that phrase, don’t we, as if we inhabit a ‘Harry Potter’-style otherworld but in reality, it’s mostly a shorthand for ‘lower your expectations’. Back in the ‘muggle’ world, some of the parents of the other children present must have wondered what on earth they were doing there. I imagine they were initially thrilled to explore this rather glamorous world of horses and all its stereotyped allure of power, wealth and mystery. If so, it wouldn’t have taken long for their preconceptions to crumble. If they went, hoping for Jilly Cooper, they found the reality was more like Henry Cooper.

“I won’t remember your names, I shall just refer to you by your pony so each of you remember your pony’s name” shrilled the almost comically Blytonesque instructor. Her instruction, while technically adept, was delivered in militaristic fashion, schoolmarmly in the extreme. Was this a lesson for beginners or an initiation test? With such uninspiring surroundings and questionable levels of encouragement, it didn’t take long for the magic to fade to our then 9 year-old and eventually, after one unfortunately-executed flick of a lunge whip had connected with his buttock, not the pony’s, there was no going back. Literally.

It wasn’t that he disliked horses or riding, just that the positives of the experience weren’t sufficient to sustain his interest in the face of so many negatives. Speaking from my own experience, I’m tempted to conclude that this is a particularly male reaction. For girls, the horse or pony always seems to represent more than just the means of conveyance but also a companion to look after, to form a bond with, to understand. I’m not saying boys are neglectful or uncaring but in general, riding to them is primarily another form of experiencing the thrill of motion or, more basically, danger. Everything else it involves is merely a means to achieve that end. Ergo, if boys are denied the fun and left only with the sense of connection with the animal for their motivation, I’m afraid it’s safe to conclude that most will opt out.

How do I know? I remember being thrown (and trampled) at a similar age and reaching the point that I wondered why I was doing this. The fact that I chose not to pursue riding any further was not due to it being wholly negative but that other sports entered my world, sports that were lower maintenance, less punishing, more fun and infinitely more cool.

In the thirty-odd years since then, it seems equestrianism has hardly progressed in its attitude to boys. Maybe there’s even less incentive to even try to include them today, in the face of the efforts of football, rugby, cricket etc. to recruit their stars of tomorrow. Perhaps the status quo is just too comfortable.

About twenty years ago, I read an opinion piece in an American riding magazine which argued that, confronted with the combined marketing efforts of American football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey, was it really a surprise that so few boys wanted to take part in a sport that required them to dress in attire that had hardly changed in centuries? I’m sure you could re-print that article today and it would be no less challenging or relevant.

And here lies the essence of the problem: it’s a vicious circle. Riding is simply not welcoming enough to boys, therefore it’s unpopular with boys, which inevitably skews it towards girls. This has the effect of marking it out as “a girls’ sport” to the mainstream, which acts as a further disincentive to any boy who then dares to cross the Rubicon. I’m thrilled that our son is learning to ride but I’m well aware that indiscriminately posting pictures of his lessons on social media would mortally wound his peer credibility.

I know we mustn’t take for granted the number of girls coming into the sport but in comparison to boys, it’s always been a far easier sell. The 2015 BETA survey reports that while 26% of all regular riders are male and that 27% are under 16, there’s no published data to suggest how those under-16 riders are split, boys to girls. Anecdotally, I’d suggest it’s far more skewed to girls than the 26:74 we might like to presume. Can we afford to believe that we’ve done all we can to make riding accessible to boys just because it’s a little more difficult to attract and maintain their interest?

One sacred cow to consider sacrificing is the supposed attribute that equestrian sport has greater value because both male and female riders compete together. Swedish academic Birgitta Plymoth produced a paper in 2013: ‘On the Difference Between Masculine Needs and Feminine Practices in the Context of Swedish Equestrian Sports’ and cited the story of the Zetterman Stars all-male showjumping team as an example of how gender segregation can help to restore the appeal of the sport to male audiences, thereby increasing male participation. Taken to its logical conclusion, I’m imagining a cross between HOYS and ‘Robot Wars’ and already, it’s appealing to my inner 9 year-old. Is equestrian sport prepared to be so bold in order to maximise its future participation?

Or should we just re-print this article in the 2037 ETN?

  • Look out for my next post, about the pros and cons of producing a catalogue, in the July issue of ETN, out July 1st.

ETN: Criticism – Are You Shaken or Stirred?

I recently came across an article on LinkedIn, rather provocatively entitled ‘Marketing in the Equestrian Industry – Why it Really Needs a Shake-up’ by a lady called Isobel Witts.

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Reading it, I raised at first one and then both eyebrows as its author describes how poorly you’re all doing at connecting with ‘the customer’ – whom she claims to represent. I haven’t done any marketing to the equestrian consumer for about a year but a couple of paragraphs in, I could feel my hackles rising at this blunt deconstruction of a whole industry’s efforts, mine included. I found myself gleefully spotting the various assumptions and delighting in areas where the point is oversimplified. In short, I became incredibly defensive for no logical reason.

Eventually, I arrived at the part that’s a sales pitch to help you put everything right. Ah, I should have known! Grab the attention, pique the interest, provide a desirable answer and leave a call to action – it’s literally the textbook way to make a sale. Her disclaimer really should have read the other way round: “I’m a real customer who happens to be selling consultancy”.

But does that render her words meaningless, lacking in any credibility simply because they’re there to support a sales proposition? If you believe that, then by extension you’re kind of admitting your own ad copy is bereft of any integrity, aren’t you? There are always basic truths in promotional literature, the trick is the extent to which they’re clothed in hyperbole or they exaggerate the absence of an alternative – just enough to stimulate response while avoiding claims of deception.

Shouldn’t this be an opportunity to re-evaluate your own communications to see how many of the sins the author describes actually apply to your brand? Is equestrianism is still too keen to embrace its heritage as a ‘calling’ to which few are worthy and in which a lifetime of study and apprenticeship is the only path to true enlightenment? Back in the real world, most of its consumers are people who simply want to have fun owning and/or riding a horse, not feel like they have to ascend to the level of a Jedi Master. If such people are willing to consider spending money with us, don’t they deserve our help and encouragement in ways that will motivate them the most?

There’s an episode in ‘The Simpsons’ where Japanese game shows are described as being different from those in the West because they punish ignorance rather than rewarding knowledge. It can be a fine line and it’s easily crossed. We’ve all seen this done over the years, haven’t we, retailers: someone not entirely confident calls for a slightly left-field item like a de Gogue. If it’s in stock, we sell it whether they need it or not under the convenient pretext that the customer is always right; if it isn’t, we’re tempted to make ourselves feel better about missing a sale by dismissing the possibility that it would have been used properly, anyway. Does that sound uncomfortably familiar?

It’s not just a case of what we choose to communicate, it’s also a question of methodology: “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”, as I think Bananarama more succinctly put it. We need to think about using the most compelling ways to engage with our audience – and including media they may wish to consume more than we do. If that means it’s time to start using scary words like ‘blogging’, ‘vlogging’ and ‘Instagram’, maybe it’s time you were less scared by those words.

Be honest about your own communications offering – is it at odds with what you expect from other companies when you’re the one sat in the customer’s chair? Ignore for a moment issues like scale and cost. I know you won’t want to throw another X thousand pounds at that website you only seem to have had for five minutes. Try to find out how many punters you’ve annoyed this week because they stuck with your fiddly site on an iPhone – and be amazed that some of them still ordered something! Estimate how many extra sales that could be if it was just easier for them to do what they want to do in the way they want to do it.

I know Tesco can seem to do these things in an afternoon and you can’t and I know money doesn’t grow on trees but surely ignoring changes in customer behaviour is only going to make things worse, isn’t it?

Feed companies have least insulation from criticism and it’s canny of the article to direct its disdain in that direction – they generally have far greater revenues than anyone in the industry and from a relatively narrow range of products. You might conclude that it’s more cost-effective for them than anyone else to invest in the kind of content that she claims will engage her. To a certain extent, this may also be true of some brand-owning suppliers.

For almost everyone in retail, with more modest revenues and a range that can run into thousands of products, it’s not that simple. Having said that, if there was a way to prove that the more good copy you include about your products, the more units you sell, wouldn’t that justify the effort? Actually, there is a way to demonstrate that relationship but you’ll need analytics you can trust and popular, consistent-selling products to test it properly.

We can all choose to react defensively to criticism or we can let it inspire us to think again about what we do and why. Ms. Witts and her colleagues may be just what you’re looking for – and I’ve sort of walked into the advertising trap she laid by making reference to her article – or you may find the most effective response is merely to stir yourself into action, challenge your own assumptions, understanding and standards in order to bring about a shake-up yourself. Good luck!

  • Look out for my next column, about the challenge of attracting boys to riding, in the May issue of the ETN, out May 1st.

ETN: Plus Ça Change, Plus C’est la Même Chose

IMG_3608My first visit to the BETA trade show at the NEC was in 1996, twenty-one years ago. By then, I’d been to the ‘Travelling Fair’, I’d already met many of the industry’s luminaries, attended several fairs in other markets; and spent a childhood punctuated by the county show circuit, celebrating my birthday at the Horse of the Year Show at Wembley.

My first BETA, therefore, wasn’t quite the revelation to me that it might have been but if it’s true to say I was born into this industry, my initial immersion into its annual gathering was certainly akin to a baptism…of tweed!

Despite the impressively forward-looking venue (you can’t deny it, ‘proper’ industries have their trade fairs at the NEC), it seemed to me to be a collective populated overwhelmingly by a certain ‘type’: white, middle-aged, land-owning men – mostly decent chaps of course but very much of a particular sort. Yes, if you looked hard enough, you would find a Lucy Carr-Seaman, a Vanessa Roberts or even an Oliver Skeete breaking the monotony but even then the tendency to tweed remained. As the members of the dance group were themselves back then, ‘diversity’ was a concept in its infancy.

I agree, it’s an easy stick with which to beat anyone’s history, especially an industry built around an animal which has been domesticated for millennia and which became functionally obsolete decades previously. Tradition has always been and will always be a potent selling point and, this being Britain, the compulsion to embrace the past is powerful. It’s therefore understandable that an industry such as ours was unlikely ever to have been at the forefront of inclusivity.

Back then, I was determined to survey this familiar world anew with more objective, more professional eyes. I suppose I was mostly amazed by the apparent presumption that ‘horse’ equals ‘country’ and vice-versa – forever and ever, Amen. I’m not saying that the two are unrelated – we can all agree there is significant overlap – but coming from a Northern town set between two of England’s biggest (and at the time, grimiest) cities, it jarred with my experience of burgeoning district shows in which children of scrap metal dealers competed with their suburban friends on ponies provided by their parents’ hard work and social mobility.

Two decades later, it still jars a little – even though I hope I’ve gained a much wider understanding of the complexion of the market we’re here to serve. I can’t deny that in ‘the Shires’ (wherever they may be defined), that rather cosy relationship pervades but it still seems little more than a continuing stereotype to the majority of the rest of the country.

Perhaps these days, it’s really a case of two separate niche industries deliberately combining to create a more sizeable entity, capable of punching together at a heavier weight. Or it’s just a sign of the inertia that comes with the involvement of ‘The Establishment’. Maybe it’s now being perpetuated by new consumers actually ‘buying into’ the well-spun image that ‘horsiness is next to rural-ness’ or possibly it’s got something to do with the ongoing debate about hunting. I don’t know.

I accept ‘the countryside’ is a fertile area for new participants and I realise we mustn’t overlook that, for the sake of the future but I’ve always felt it’s not the only area worthy of attention if equestrianism is ever going to flourish as much as it can.

I therefore attended BETA 2017 (my twenty-second) wondering whether the pace of change had increased much beyond the glacial, being careful not to set my expectations too high…

I can report that we are still disproportionately comprised by a brigade of such ‘chaps’ but nowhere near as much as we were. Fate, the passage of time and commercial opportunity has seen the old patriarchy loosening its grip and becoming increasingly replaced by new people in a variety of shapes, colours, genders and outlooks.

This is important because difference refreshes the thinking of the companies with which we do business – and that invigorates our product development, our marketing strategies, our operational processes, our employee policies and everything else. A former BETA Council colleague, whom I respect hugely, once told me “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. I won’t embarrass him by naming him – or by pointing out that he’s one of the very ‘chaps’ I considered back in 1996 – but that’s the very essence of the need for diversity and the main danger of consistency and traditionalism for its own sake. As he’s proven, it mustn’t be presumed that patriarchs are incapable of embracing change but I’m sure he would be the first to agree that fresh thinking is a much more elusive commodity in an environment which displays a reluctance to evolve.

What else remains? The tweed – although now it’s a badge of hipster fashion as much as a uniform of the traditionalists. ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’, you might conclude – but these days, you’re just as likely to hear it said in French.

  • Look out for my next column, about the impact of criticism, in the April issue of the ETN, out April 1st.