On May 2nd, members of the Toronto Cyclists Union will vote on a proposal to re-brand the organization and change the name to Cycle Toronto. I’m encouraging members to vote ‘no’, and this blog post explains why.
First, let me say that I think the discussion is a healthy one to have, and I think it’s great that the Board of Directors has put this proposal forward. Re-evaluating a brand, and exploring re-branding is a positive exercise for any non-profit or corporation.
In the end, there will always be benefits and drawbacks to a name-change. So, the question is simply: do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks? So, let’s explore both.
This can be easy to underestimate. Changing the name of the bike union doesn’t just mean printing new business cards and changing the URL. Changing the name creates a series of obstacles:
• Swag: There is a tonne of bike union promotional materials out there on the streets of Toronto. Thousands of bike union stickers are stuck to people’s bikes, helmets, binders and fridges. Thousands of buttons are pinned onto jackets, shirts, hats, panniers and backpacks. And people all across the city wear our T-shirts with pride. These brand items all serve as marketing materials and promote the bike union every day – for free. As soon as you change the name, suddenly these promotional materials aren’t promoting anything. Our inventory of public marketing materials will instantly plummet from thousands – to zero.
• Larger promo items: The bike union has also invested money in items such as our vinyl signage, and our large 100-square foot tent. These printed items will obviously become obsolete.
• Social Media: The bike union joined twitter in October 2008, and over a period of forty two months we’ve slowly built our followers list to over 3,400 followers. If we re-brand, we’re right back at zero with a new account. (Update: I’ve been told that we could easily transfer our twitter account to a new name, without losing followers or lists.)
• Google: Over the last four years, the bike union has directly and indirectly created an amazing amount of content on the internet. This content is all currently searchable on Google, and includes thousands of mentions in news articles, essays, blog posts, etc. With a new name, all of that disappears. None of them will show up when you Google “Cycle Toronto”. Same goes for YouTube, where hundreds of videos will no longer show up, when people search for the new brand.
• Administrative Effort: Changing the name of the bike union, internally, will take a tonne of work. It means re-designing everything from letterhead, to e-mail signatures, to envelopes, business cards, voice mail, invoices, bank account, web pages, bylaws, newsletter templates, etc, etc. Each hour of work invested into the name change, is an hour of work that isn’t being invested into advocacy. With only two staff members, their time is worth gold.
So, those are some of the drawbacks of changing the name. But, of course, it’s not the end of the world. Many organizations have overcome all those obstacles and successfully re-branded. Major companies have done it, like Business Depot (Staples) and Dominion (Metro), and many non-profits have as well. But it is a huge hassle, and a drain of resources. So it should only be done for a really good reason.
Well, let’s just be blunt about this: It seems there are some folks out there who are turned off by the word ‘union’. For whatever reason, they don’t like unions and they don’t want to be part of a union. The motivation for re-branding, and dropping the word ‘union’, is that the group will become more accessible and will attract a wider range of potential members.
I don’t doubt there is some truth to this. But the question is: how many people are we currently alienating, and is it worth the cost of re-branding to reach out to them? This is of course impossible to measure, and we have to hypothesize and guess.
Here’s why I have trouble with the argument: The letter from the Board of Directors essentially says that our current name is a barrier to rapid growth, and is holding us back from meeting our true potential. But in the same letter, they tell us that our membership has doubled in the past year, “from 1,018 to over 2,100 since our last AGM.” That is an incredible feat, to double the membership in a single year. It illustrates strength, momentum, and great leadership. How many other organisations could claim to have doubled their membership in 2011? Yet, we’re being told that our growth is being terribly stifled. That just doesn’t make sense to me.
I’m also not convinced that there are a large numbers of people who won’t join our group because of the word union. Marketing is a funny thing, and one thing I’ve learned is words themselves don’t actually contribute to the meaning or feeling of a name, as much as the branding that surrounds the words: the images, the reputation, the colours, the fonts, etc.
So when people think of the “Steelworkers Union” or the “Canadian Auto Workers Union”, they might associate the word ‘union’ with a variety of things, depending on their politics: strength, pride, courage, or corruption, greedy, angry, militant, etc. But does that mean the word ‘union’ will always trigger those feelings – in any context? Of course not. That’s because words take on different meanings, in different contexts.
When people go to Union Station, do they think of labour strikes and militant advocacy? Probably not.
When suburban conservatives move into a new house, and have to decide where to purchase their utilities from, do they rule out Union Gas? I would guess the answer is no.
When people think of Union Carbide, do they imagine a group of left-wing activists? I would imagine not.
Did George Bush or Ronald Reagan ever refuse to present the annual “State of the Union”, because they don’t like the word union? Of course not. Neither would Sarah Palin, or any of the Tea Party folks. Because in that context, the word ‘union’ just means “we’re all in this together”. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop picking up the garbage.
And what about all of Europe? When twenty seven countries decided to come together and form an organization that represents half a billion people, they called it the European Union. How many people view the EU as a radical left-wing organization?
Or what about wedding vows? These folks who are so scared of the word ‘union’…. did they censor their wedding ceremonies, asking their priests and rabbis to please not mention any ‘blessed unions’?
Who are these people, anyway? Honestly, if someone is so anti-union, that they wouldn’t join a group just because of the word union, do I really care if they join the bike union? I’m not sure.
And how many of these raving right-wingers are there? This is Toronto, after all. This is a city in which Tim Hudak’s conservatives won ZERO seats, out of 22. And in the last federal election, the party that made the greatest gains in vote percentage was the New Democrats – in the suburbs! So, again, I think we need to ask – are there enough people who feel alienated by the word ‘union’, in Toronto, that justifies the hassle of changing the name?
I’ve learned over the years that you can never make everyone happy. And if you try to make everyone happy, you’ll ending up sacrificing common sense.
I should also add a quick note about grants and foundations. We’ve been told by the board that they have “run into unexpected pockets of resistance when applying for grants”, and they think this could be partially due to our name. First, I believe our reputation is more influential than the name, and just as we have successfully applied and received major grants in the past, there will be more to come. But let me also say, that I’ve never been a big fan of grant money for the bike union. When I did my research in 2007, visiting member-driven advocacy groups in NYC, San Fransisco, Chicago, Seattle, Ottawa, Portland and Vancouver, the main lesson I learned is that the most effective groups were the ones who kept grant revenue under 10% of total revenue. And the groups that were falling to pieces, were the ones who became too dependent on grants. So, to be honest, I’m not really worried about what the funders think of the name. The bike union exists to provide relevant services and value to it’s members – not to foundations.
To summarise, let me just say that I’m not scared of change, and sometimes big changes are important. But personally, I think the proposal to change the name of the Toronto Cyclists Union to Cycle Toronto is the wrong change, at the wrong time, and being done for the wrong reasons.
I think the negative costs greatly outweigh the potential benefits.
I want the bike union to be accessible, and diverse. But I believe we can easily reach out into the suburbs with our current name. Heck, even Denzil Minnan-Wong proudly joined the bike union last year. And he’s one of the highest profile conservative leaders in Toronto.
Throwing away our successful brand (and all the stickers, buttons, signs, tents, T-shirts and hyperlinks) that go with that, during a period of momentum and growth, to appease a small group of radicals, seems like a crazy idea to me.
If we were in a situation of declining membership, that would be a different story. We’d have to identify the cause of stagnation, and find a remedy. But we are in the opposite situation. For the first time in the history of Toronto, we have a healthy, active, staffed bicycle advocacy group with a steady flow of revenue from a growing membership. This is astounding! There have been many attempts in the past to build such a group, but the conditions were never quite right. Roughly ten years ago, the Bicycle League of Toronto was formed – but didn’t attract enough members to survive. Meanwhile, Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists adopted a volunteer-driven grassroots approach, that eventually lead to burnout. Other groups, like the Toronto Bicycle Network (with a thousand members) have been primarily focused on recreation cycling, not advocacy. Now we have the bike union, with staff who are paid to carry out effective advocacy at City Hall and community-building across the city. This is a story of success, and the credit should go to the staff, the board, the volunteers and the brand.
The brand was carefully crafted, to be inclusive, accessible, family-friendly, effective, and fun. And it’s working amazingly, with constant monthly growth.
But let me finish with three quick points:
First, I want to add a disclaimer to all this. I’m the founder of the bike union, so it’s natural that I would feel sentimental about the name. So please take all of this with a grain of salt, and consider my opinion to be partially biased towards the past.
Second, I want to say that the Board of Directors is awesome. They work really hard, all year around, to ensure that our organization stays afloat and grows. They are committed and dedicated, and are trying to listen to the membership for feedback and guidance. And I think it’s fantastic that they’re being bold, and pro-active, and putting a major proposal like this out there for discussion.
Lastly, and most importantly, I just want to say that people shouldn’t get too worked up about the outcome and the discussion shouldn’t become divisive. It’s just a name, and the bike union (or Cycle Toronto) will grow and prosper – with either name. The discussion, debate, and the vote should all happen in a respectful manner with an acknowledgement that everyone involved has the best interests of the organization at heart. And once the vote is done, everyone should fully get behind the name of the organization, whatever that name is, and move forward. There is a lot of work to be done, and we’re in a great position to make Toronto safer, healthier and greener for everyone.
Make sure to renew your membership this year, get involved with your local Ward group, and offer some volunteer time to the organisation. With your help, we can transform the city.