Crisis management and the power of a headline

For years, Specialized Bicycles has sent cease and desist letters to any and all in the bicycle business using names that Specialized’s legal research team feels can dilute their brands. In 2006, Mountains Cycles of Portland, OR locked horns with Specialized over Mountain Cycles’ use of “Stumptown” for their cyclocross bike. Although Stumptown is a traditional nickname for the city of Portland, Specialized complained it was confusingly similar to Specialized’s own Stumpjumper brand of mountain bikes. That disagreement more or less resolved itself when Mountain Cycles ceased operations in Portland later that year.

In 2009, Epic Designs in Alaska changed their name to Revelate Designs after they received a cease and desist from Specialized. Two years later Epic Wheel Works in Portland, OR changed their name to Sugar Wheel Works after Specialized made it clear that they would “allow the use of “Epic” on bicycle wheels, bicycle components or other bicycle-related products.”

In each of those cases, social media responded with protests and threatened boycotts, but that response was unheeded by Specialized.

Why did Specialized perform an about face in this week’s Cafe Roubaix saga? Was it really the power of social media, as so many observers claim?

Social media is part of it, but it’s not the complete story. Good writing and a great headline by Calgary Herald feature editor Tom Babin made the difference.

Although Cafe Roubaix owner Dan Richter says he received the cease & desist months ago, the story finally broke with publication in the online edition of a mainstream media publication. It was “war vet” that caught my attention on this one, and I imagine that’s what grabbed the attention of the thousands who were outraged with a “goliath” (a $500M dollar company ranked third behind Trek and Giant in the USA market) picking on a war hero just trying to make a living on the Alberta prairie.

Calgary Herald Headline

Specialized at first appeared to hunker down in the face of heavy criticism. After a couple of days of silence, it becomes obvious that Specialized Bicycles contacted a crisis management expert after they released a short statement to media on Tuesday. That’s also about when Sinyard must have started his eight hour trip to Calgary from San Jose, CA. On Wednesday, Specialized manages to neutralize the bad press with a personal visit by Specialized CEO Mike Sinyard to Cafe Roubaix, where we can see him in this video looking very uncomfortable as he eats crow.

This is crisis management on the cheap. Tylenol destroyed $100M worth of capsules after the cyanide scare of 1982. Odwalla spent $6.5 million to recall thousands of bottles of their beverage within 48 hours after an E. coli outbreak. Kryptonite’s lock exchange program to address their infamous “Bic pen flaw” cost the small company tens of millions of dollars.

Specialized managed this crisis for the cost of round trip travel to Calgary, a car rental, hotel room and meals, and Richter has reinforced Canada’s famous “nice guy” image with his gracious attitude and willingness to compromise through this whole thing.

Epilogue: Every good movie villain resurrects for a sequel or reboot, and the same is sometimes true in real life. Epix Gear, a tiny, five year old outfit in North Carolina which sells apparel for triathletes, says on their Facebook page that they’ve now received a cease and desist from Specialized on their use of a name that sounds too much like “Epic.” Epix Gear posts to Facebook:

Sadly, Specialized is doing the same to Epix now. I received a letter today from their lawyers- Our logo is in their eyes too similar to their “Epic” MTB frames logo. The text is DIFFERENT. The logo stylization is DIFFERENT. We are not competing for the same clients (apparel vs frames). They are over-reaching, as they did with the Roubaix bike shop. They withdrew that case thanks to social media pressure, and we would be very grateful if everyone could support us in our efforts to fight this!