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BTA embarks on plan to strengthen brand identity, communications

Posted by on November 17th, 2010 at 2:36 pm

Current BTA logo. Don’t get too used to it.

Publisher’s Note: Before I get into this story, I want to share some quick thoughts about the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA). I’ve been beating around the bush about it ever since Rob Sadowsky came to town, but here it is as blunt as I can say it: By late spring of 2011, I suspect the BTA will be but a shadow of their current/former self. And I mean that in a good way. Given the new focus, vibe and internal practices Mr. Sadowsky has brought to the once-struggling organization and the strategic planning process they have just embarked on, I’m pretty convinced that the BTA will emerge next spring stronger and more on target than we’ve ever seen them. I say this based on the many different channels of chatter that I am attuned to and I say it with a high level of confidence. O.K., on with the (related) story at hand…

“It’s not just about BTA as a brand, but also about bicycling in general… It’s about building a better movement and to get some help developing messages so we can combat the backlash.”
— Rob Sadowsky, Executive Director of the BTA

The BTA has just inked a partnership with NORTH (a local branding agency) to firm up their identity and then turn around and do a better job communicating about themselves and about bicycling in general. I had a chat with Sadowsky a few days ago to learn more about this partnership and what it means for the BTA and its 6,000 individual members (a number which, incidentally has gone up by about 500, since Sadowsky took over about eight months ago).

Sadowsky said the BTA hopes that NORTH can “help us discover who we are at our core.” In addition to helping them create a new logo and overall design identity, Sadowsky says “It’s about the voice that we use, how to speak to people both inside our movement and outside the movement.” To help them find that voice, NORTH will help the BTA conduct surveys to find out what types of messages, images, and words that will strengthen their work and which ones they should avoid.

To get a sense of NORTH’s bike-worthy chops, you’ll recall that they were hired by Bikes Belong to create the “If I Ride” video that has been used nationally to promote the People for Bikes campaign:

After NORTH is done with them, Sadowsky says, the BTA will be ready to build a new website, launch a new logo, and “have a clearer understanding of how to use other forms of communication” (like Twitter, Facebook, and so on). Another key aspect of improving their communications skills will be in reaching outside the bike bubble. “As advocates, we are great at talking to other advocates, but need a language to help people make an emotional connection to cycling, the BTA, and the national movement.”

BTA's new office

About going beyond just polishing the BTA brand, Sadowsky added, “It’s not just about BTA as a brand, but also about bicycling in general… It’s about building a better movement and to get some help developing messages so we can combat the backlash.”

This communications and branding effort is happening simultaneously with another large-scale effort by the BTA to create a new strategic plan. On December 14th, at the annual membership meeting, BTA members will get their first chance to participate in the strategic planning process. Sadowsky says they’re planning to have a facilitated discussion about “Who the BTA is, how people perceive us, and where people see the highest priority for our work.”

I suspect part of this discussion will revolve around how the BTA balances being an aggressive watchdog group that’s not afraid to throw their weight around when necessary, versus a more conservative and professional organization that leaves the dirty work to others. They might also finally conclusively answer the question of whether or not they should expand their mission beyond just bikes to include walking and transit (like Sadowsky did as leader of the Active Transportation Alliance (formerly Chicagoland Bicycle Federation)).

NORTH will do the work — estimated at a cost of about $50-75,000 — pro bono. Sadowsky says the BTA has set aside money in their budget to make sure NORTH’s insights and ideas can be implemented. The BTA is expected to complete their work with NORTH by the end of January and the new brand and strategic plan will be unveiled by April.

Stay tuned. Things are going to get very interesting at the BTA these next few months. And, to the extent that they succeed and continue this positive trajectory, these changes could have a major impact on bicycling in Portland and beyond. I hope to see many of you at the membership meeting on December 14th.

— For more background and reporting on the BTA, delve into our archives.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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are
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the video north produced for bikes belong has the tagline “american bikeways network.” i have not seen the rollout on this, and cannot find anything on bikes belong or people for bikes. in fact, the entire phrase, in quotes, does not retrieve anything at all on google. any info on what is the thrust of that campaign? i would hope north does not come at this with the idea that BTA should track ideas coming out of this industry group.

Carl B.
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Carl B.

I’ll wait another year before deciding whether to rejoin BTA. A new logo won’t influence my decision. If facilitated navel gazing will help them discover ways to become effective and relevant, great. If all they come up with is more and more-expensive marketing, I’ll be disinclined to contribute.

John Beaston
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John Beaston

People For Bikes is at

http://www.peopleforbikes.org/

Sadly, it looks like Oregon is #19 on the state ranking for pledges.

Did I miss it? Again?
Guest
Did I miss it? Again?

Carl-
I agree. The BTA has some ground to make up before I give them my limited time and money again. All that work and nothing to show for it, unless you count successful Alice Awards Banquets as big accomplishments.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Guest

I agree that the jury remains out on the BTA in some regards… But from where I sit, they seem to tooling up and look to be on an exciting trajectory. If things aren’t markedly better for them by this spring, I’d be disappointed and a bit surprised. I can’t wait to start seeing some major advocacy initiatives coming from them… Portland needs their help now more than ever!

jim
Guest
jim

The jury is still out on Sadowski. Lets see how he is after a year, what his attitudes are, if he fits into Portland…

Joe Rowe
Guest
Joe Rowe

Anyone reading this can join me and Rob on Dec 9th.

Agenda: Should the BTA sell itself as a watchdog? Many people like me feel the BTA talks a lot, but acts like a deer in the headlights by rarely asking BTA members to call lawmakers. The BTA has taken the words of the IRS and said they can do very little.

Lobbying From the IRS: “The attempt to influence legislation for the purpose of proposing or advocating for or against the adoption of legislation. A 501(c)(3) can engage in some lobbying, as long as it is not a substantial part of the organization’s activities.”
http://www.stayexempt.org/ResourceLibrary/Glossary.aspx

Ted Buehler
Guest
Ted Buehler

Jonathan — I hope you’re right in your prediction. The board did a great job of selecting and hiring Rob, and I’m cautiously optimistic that Rob will indeed be able to beef up the organization.

Portland bicyclists — if you want to see Jonathan’s cautious optimism realized, contact the BTA and tell them that this is what you want!

Do any BTA insiders have suggestions as to who to send feedback to? In the absence of other ideas, we can always send comments to
* their general email — info@bta4bikes.org ,
* ED Rob Sadowski — rob@bta4bikes.org
* and Board Chair Stephen Gomez gomez@bta4bikes.org
* Or other contacts from their http://www.bta4bikes.org/at_work/index.php “At Work” index page.

& give them any specifics as to what you think they should be doing to ramp Portland’s bicycling conditions to the next level and entice more of Portland’s 20,000 daily bicycle commuters to join.

Ted Buehler

are
Guest

for a much more detailed discussion of what a 501(c)(3) org can and cannot do without risking its exempt status, see
http://www.irs.gov/newsroom/article/0,,id=154712,00.html

Chris
Guest

I just moved here from San Francisco, where the SFBC is doing an outstanding job of making the city a safer and better place to bike.

As a newcomer here , I honestly have no idea why there’s this dark cloud over the BTA, since I do not know the history. I probably should dig deeper on it, but hey, I figured since I was a SFBC member, I should also be a BTA member.

I joined up, and I have volunteered with them three times already. I recently helped with their Bicycle Safety Education graduation ride at an elementary school in North Portland, and it was great to be a part of 4th grader’s bike education.

Dead Kennedy’s singer, Jello Biafra, said, “Don’t hate the media, become the media!” Likewise, if you are not grooving on the BTA, then become the BTA, and change it from within. I’m hoping to infect it with some of the energy and enthusiasm that I got volunteering with the SFBC.

Steve Brown
Guest

I believe in the BTA’s new focus enough to have become personally involved with the organization. The people I have worked with at the BTA have shown a sincere commitment to making our region a better place to ride a bike. I agree with Jonathon that Portland needs the BTA to be a great organization and with Chris that the best way to see it happen is for us to make it happen. Join now!

mello yello
Guest
mello yello

Paint sharrows all over the place and be done with it. Gangs do it. Animals do it. Mark our territory so that all citizens are constantly reminded of alternate transportation.

Abolish most of the BTA staff and put all the money into media campaigns about Portland’s new emphasis on green tech, lest China take it all and dominates the market — as they are now doing on a huge scale. Bicycling is but one green tech.

Brad
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Brad

I’m optimistic about BTA. It needed new leadership with vision. The old guard may have been quality people but, they were far too chummy with the very people they should have been watching and pressuring (as evidenced by the fact they now work for Alta, have contracts with the city, etc.).

I also have high hopes for Rob as a strong leader and voice for cyclists. Coming from the rough and tumble world of Chicago politics, I trust he will advocate more forcefully and get better results. The old crew would swoon, suck up, and celebrate “a HUGE victory!!!” if it got two blocks of buffered bike lane in a lightly travelled part of town or a bike corral outside a popular bar. Nevermind that the most used bike corridors were still dangerous and inadequate, those two blocks and a few bike staples meant that BTA had juice, baby! Now give us more money!!!

I await the unveiling of the new BTA.

Stig10
Guest
Stig10

Safety standards for bike lanes please.

mello yello
Guest
mello yello

Street sweepers for bike lanes. Shooting rocks from high pressure tires at cars is…

jason
Guest
jason

Yeah, I’m gonna hold off on renewing my membership for a while also. I’d rather give my money to an established non-profit that will spend it implementing their vision over one that seems to have lost their vision and feels the need (wrongly IMO) to redefine themselves. I was very happy with the old BTA thankyouverymuch.

Hart Noecker
Guest

90% of nonprofits raise money simply to pay salaries of people to figure out how to raise more money. And now BTA is gonna rebrand itself. Style over substance.

matt picio
Guest

80% of people believe any statistics thrown out to them. Hart, have you ever volunteered for or worked for a non-profit? Examined a 990 for one? Salaries for the fundraisers typically are a small fraction of expenses. The biggest exceptions are the first year or two that the nonprofit has a dedicated fundraiser, like a “Development Director”. The majority of paid staff do the administrative work that supports the mission – and those non-profits that spend most of their money on the staff with little going to the actual programs tend not to be around long, especially during recessions.

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

I just got my BTA annual report in the mail today.

Thank goodness that they were able to host the SR2S conference in 09 since the staff ‘changes’ and the economy hit their membership income (my assumption – not the annual report’s).

Marcus Griffith
Guest
Marcus Griffith

I suspect the BTA’s future depends on how well it integrates pedestrians and not-activist cyclists into its long term plans.

matt picio
Guest

I’d be surprised if the BTA integrates pedestrians at all – that’s not their focus. The responsible thing would be to partner with established pedestrian organizations like the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition. WPC Exec Director Steph Routh is dynamically changing that organization. The next 12 months are key for both the WPC and the BTA. If those groups can keep building momentum and overcome the challenges of their respective pasts, then an exciting year lies ahead, in both the state and local arenas.

It takes time to change the direction of an organization, to build a team, form alliances, and to position an organization for maximum effectiveness. I’ve always been an advocate of levying criticism when and where it is warranted, which hasn’t made me popular with certain BTA board members in the last year – but I’ve also not been shy about singing their praises when they deserve them. The BTA looks far more promising now then it did 6 months ago. I have high expectations for them over the next year, and I think there’s an excellent chance that they’re going to meet a lot of those expectations – not just mine, but of the membership and the community in general.

velo
Guest
velo

I hope that this rebranding exercise is useful, it seems like something the BTA has needed to do for a while. A renewed focus and energy on a well defined core mission would greatly increase the BTA’s efficacy. I for one hope that they recognize the need to play in politics, but can do so in a way that is visionary rather then petty. There is no reason cycling needs to be a wedge or partisan issue if the cards are played right.

As for lobbying the BTA might consider creating a 501c4 affiliate that can do unlimited issue advocacy work if it decides that is part of it’s mission going forward. They cold look at the Oregon Bus Project as a good example of a 501c3/c4/PAC family of organizations that has appropriate legal controls in place for tax purposes.

Joe Rowe
Guest
Joe Rowe

well said Mr./Ms. Velo! It’s a model that works for bike groups in many cities. The BTA has been dragging their feet too long, making too many excuses and back door deals that backfire. No more spectator memberships.

matt picio
Guest

I think it might be worth looking into what changes Rob Sadowsky made in Chicago. While the environments aren’t identical, I’d be surprised if similar changes aren’t made here.

beth h
Guest

The idea of “branding”, especially for a non-profit organization, seems a little off to me. It speaks to the “designer” society so many us operate in nowadays, a society where image is everything and all too often is a tool used to hide the true substance underneath from the rank-and-file. I’m hopeful that’s not the case here, but the potential for this process to become too important at the expense of real action should not be underestimated.

I want to believe that all of this is ultimately for good, and by that I speak of a meaningful good, a good that will transform the relationship between bicyclists and other road users into something more positive.

I, too, am waiting. I felt really burned by the BTA in its previous incarnation, especially after my questions about a clear purpose for the organization went unanswered for a long time.

I admit I also have a healthy disdain for political lobbying and for electoral politics in general; I am disgusted with most politics in this country. I see most political activity as little more than a big black hole into which the American people are asked — and too often, compelled — to pour their hard-earned money, with no real return on the investment.

So if the BTA continues to be primarily a political lobbying organization it’s unlikely I’ll re-up. I have lost my patience with such things.
If, however, the BTA decides to emphasize grass-roots, community-owned bicycle activity and an assertive, take-back-the-streets approach to bicycle advocacy I will be far more interested.

Seth Alford
Guest
Seth Alford

Jonathan writes, “On December 14th, at the annual membership meeting, BTA members….” Jonathan, are those BTA’s words? If so, then it seems the organization is going to ask the members, “are you happy with where the organization is going?” Obviously the answer will be “yes,” or they wouldn’t be members of the organization. If the BTA really is interested in changing direction and become more effective, then it should also be inviting people to the 12/14 meeting who have walked away from the organization, like myself and some other posters above.