The Meaning of a Bike

My mountain bike is like a cougar. . . . It encourages me to push the limits.

Mountain bikes are more than just hunks of metal to many consumers—but what exactly does a bike mean to its rider? "Little has been done that compares different levels of involvement—how closely connected a consumer is to the product," says Glenn Christensen, a doctoral candidate in marketing. "We want to see what the consumers are really involved with and how involvement develops over time."

For one rider, for example, the subculture surrounding mountain biking held greater significance than the bike itself. Biking was conversing with other racers, talking about "gears, injuries, favorite trails, training, races coming up and past races."

To another rider, the subculture was secondary to the sport. "The bike is one with you, with the speed, the exhilaration. You're going fast downhill, avoiding rocks and bumps, and you can't have a lapse in concentration or you'll wreck."

Yet not every mountain biker is the stereotypical outdoor enthusiast, slamming a Mountain Dew as he jumps off a cliff. To discover how they differed, Christensen and his co-researcher, Torsten Ringberg, first administered personal involvement inventories that classified a sample of bikers into levels of low, medium, or high involvement. Then the bikers (who were University students) gathered pictures illustrating their feelings about bikes and biking, created collages, and answered questions about their choices.

"The collages approximated how the students thought and felt and represented their connections with the product and the sport," says Ringberg.

Among the 39 interviewees, Christensen and Ringberg discovered a wide range of themes. Connecting with nature, reaching an ideal fitness level, relieving stress, and spending time with friends appeared as motifs across all levels of involvement. Other individuals described mountain biking's connection to women's struggles, concentration, and aggression.

Nature photographs dominated the collage of one highly involved biker. "I'd go mountain biking in the wilderness and come upon this incredible vista," he explained. "I'd suddenly realize that the universe is so big, and my problems are so minuscule in comparison. The vista would just open up to me and my problems would all go through it—and then they'd be gone."

The feelings associated with the product, rather than the product itself, are most important to some bikers. "More often than not, when I start to ride a bicycle, I start to smile, and I start to feel good," one biker told Christensen. "It is like randomly smiling, just randomly laughing."

Other consumers are more attached to their bikes as objects. One viewed his bike as an emotional continuation of himself (his bike is judged by others and it is a reflection of his tastes) as well as a physical part (his feet are attached to its pedals). Another said, "My pictures exemplify the 'Dare to Compete' aspect of biking, the competitive nature of myself and women's athletics."

According to many riders, mountain biking is the taste of dirt and sweat, the sounds of birds chirping and of wind rushing past one's ears, and the absence of car exhaust, traffic congestion, and neon lights. It's "that earthy, woodsy smell, the scents of pine needles and crisp mountain air," said one.

Discussing the significance of their mountain bikes forces consumers to probe deep into their thoughts, "tapping into who they are and what is important to them," says Christensen. "And the collages tell the story of the consumers' ideas about the product in a composite, connected way."

By grouping consumers into levels of involvement and then further examining distinctions within these groups, Christensen, Ringberg, and their adviser, marketing professor Jerry Olson, have gone beyond how marketers typically analyze consumption. Their subjects appear to bear out their contention that consumers feel a deeper connection with their mountain bikes (and with products in general) than many marketers may realize.

"People think about products in very sophisticated ways," says Ringberg. "We're trying to gain some better insight into that complex universe of the consumer."

Glenn Christensen and Torsten Ringberg are doctoral candidates in marketing in the Smeal College of Business Administration. Their adviser is Jerry Olson, Ph.D., the Earl P. Strong executive education professor and chair of marketing, 701 Business Administration Bldg., University Park, PA, 16802; 814-862-6250; jco@psu.edu. Christensen's other adviser is Barbara Gray, Ph.D., professor of organizational behavior, Smeal College of Business Administration, 408 Beam; 865-3822; b9g@psu.edu.

Last Updated January 01, 2000