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business models, strategies and technologies

Prostate cancer, dapper dressing, classic motorbikes and mental health

How do you market a motley mix of classic motorbikes, sartorial elegance, facial hair and raising money for prostate cancer and men’s mental health? Answer = The  Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride

Not all motorcyclists have a dodgy social status or are mummified inside garish, anonymising protective clothing.

The Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride is an annual event at which more than 115,000 remarkably dapper gentlemen and gentlewomen (and some gentlesprogs and gentledogs, too) from around the world don their finest outfits and ride their classic, custom and vintage motorcycles to raise awareness as well as funds to support research to cure and treat prostate cancer, and to help deal with men’s mental health problems. Held each year since 2011, now in 648 cities in 101 countries (2018 figures), the event has raised over USD 31 million to date (2021). 

Multifaceted messaging

The  Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride is a quirkily multifaceted volunteer-driven phenomenon that manages to dovetail interests, concerns and sub-cultures that rarely overlap or intersect. This makes it a remarkable international marketing/messaging phenomenon. Aussie founder, Mark Hawwa, explains the concept well – here.

The most obviously visible component is a substantial hardware/hobby presence, as an international event exclusively for classic and vintage-styled bikes, café racers, bobbers, trackers, customs and scooters, as well as less-easily-pigeonholed sidecar and three-wheeler rigs. Naff modern fairings and plastic screamers inappropriate, old chap …

But there’s also a massive dollop of sassy sartorial statements, with tweed, ties and collared shirts at the forefront, sumptuously accessorised with cravats, waistcoats, breeks, braces, brogues, sixpences, plus-fours, uniforms, kilts, suits, tartans and tuxedos, and topped off with open-faced helmets and spectacular sunnies. On the distaff side, I’ve seen riders in fur coats and stoles, evening gowns, tulle creations and stilettos, as well as pillions riding quirkily elegant (and frighteningly impractical) “side-saddle”! Both sexes add pre- and beyond-hipster moustaches, beards and pipes aplenty, and it’s probably one of the few events anywhere in the world where the men seriously outshine the women in fashion bravado and self-indulgence.

And I’m guessing that’s why the event is subtly badged Gentleman’s not Gentlemen’s – conceived and designed for individual pleasure, self-indulgence and the underlying need for peer recognition/acceptance and mutual support. The core focus is internal and personal – life is not a spectator sport. Such sartorial elegance – often bordering on fuzzily romantic post-steampunk re-imaginings of a golden era – is unusual in this day and age. ‘Tis a strong, captivating story to tell, though the reality of those times was that you never really knew if your bike would actually even get you to your destination, or when. Which is why I and many of my contemporaries switched to Japanese bikes that we could rely on to run and actually get us there. Times have now changed for the better – tally-ho!

The stationary side of the DGR appeal

Movemberising – participants over gawkers

And then there is the messaging most difficult to take cool pictures of. The event is held in collaboration with the Movember Foundation, which is committed to helping men live healthier, happier lives. The now-worldwide Movember movement is known for its moustache-driven messaging about men’s health, suicide rates, mental health and what to do to help tackle these issues. One man dies every minute by committing suicide, while 307,000 men die from prostate cancer every year. Three out of four suicides are men, probably because we men are generally less well equipped to deal with life’s crises, and have fewer really close friends with whom we can talk. The peculiar culture of age-agnostic inclusivity and genteel welcomeness at the heart of the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride setup is one small but powerful way to help address this lamentable state of affairs.

All this could be controversial territory for some, because a motorcycle-centric event is – shall we say – an unfamiliar conceptual venue for overt (largely) male togetherness/bonding and – dare we say it? – “dressing up”. But the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride exploits the sheer vibrancy and self-indulgence of “dapper”-dom and well-mannered, respectful behaviour in an intensely personal good cause. The facial hair, snazzy dressing and celebration of motorbike individuality, combined with the importance of meeting up and the sense of community, are all supremely effective tools for helping people (mostly men) start a conversation they might not otherwise have had, or dared to start. Admittedly, it’s often typically male-flippant, but heck, you have to start somewhere!  I get goosebumps hearing what the event means for the actual cancer sufferers taking part. It’s a brilliant excuse to up your personal GQ (Generosity Quotient) in ways that might just make someone’s day.

Ride dapper

Curiosity drove me to watch quite a number of Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride videos, ranging from Chiang-Mai, Thailand (2018) to Moscow, Russia (2018). The concept seems to hold consistently and internationally, with stewards and officials usually suitably dressed up, too. Enthusiasm is a great motivator. In fact, the more the concept is complied with, the stronger and more enjoyable it becomes for the participants, making this a great natural regulator with less need for defensive “conceptual purity” efforts and “brand police” thinking.

It’d kill the unique vibe if the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride just became event no. 113 on the info list at each city’s tourist information office. This “membership” driver at least helps limit the numbers of sticky-fingered spectators and “experience”-hungry gawkers and gawpers who can ruin any sport, hobby or event for the real enthusiasts and aficionados. That seems to be why you must be logged in to the DGR website to view details about the event and where it’ll be taking place. The Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride is structured so the prime point of focus is the individual participant and the quality of experience for those riding, being photographed and talking to each other. It’s for the active, fund-raising riders, rather than passive, non-participatory masses. Great, style-dripping example here, with the 2014 Paris picnic.

Transparency builds credibility and cashflow

There are obvious lurking purpose-related issues associated with sponsorship/support (hats off to Triumph motorcycles – one of their PR intros is below – and Zenith watches) as well as lifestyle piggy-backing and cultural co-opting, but the gloriously rambunctious silliness of the concept trumps any petty PC concerns, hands down.

Not least because there’s a visible seriousness about the money side of the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride. This basically works via sponsorship of the individual riders. The organisation is very explicit about what is funded as well as about transparency and reporting, and this works wonders for both credibility and people’s willingness to part with their cash in a well-curated good cause.

The resilience of the basic concept was underlined during the Covid-19 epidemic, when DGR pivoted to using different formats to comply with local social distancing restrictions. The slogan became “Ride Solo, Together”.

And, by the way, the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride is in Denmark, too – see here. For those suitably motivated, or just curious, in 2022 the event takes place In Aarhus, Copenhagen, Odense and Sønderborg on Sunday 22 May …