Aikido’s Branding Problem: Will Aikido Become the Kodak of the Martial Arts?

This post is authored by Ron Cicero. Ron has produced branded content and television commercials for a wide range of Fortune 100 companies and their brands over a 20-year career. His work has collected awards from the Cannes Advertising Festival, The Clios, The D&AD Awards, and the AICP, among others. He practices Nishio-style Aikido at The Dojo In West Los Angeles under 6th Dan, Chikako Bryner Sensei.

The internet hasn’t been kind to aikido. As very thoughtfully pointed out by Josh Gold in last year’s article “Aikido: Confronting a Crisis,” the downward trend in those Googling “aikido”—the inevitable first step anyone under 30 takes before starting a new activity—shows an art speeding towards irrelevance. What is more alarming than the lack of those searching, is what potential students find if they do.

Aikido’s Identity Crisis

Any high school textbook on marketing touts the importance of a brand’s USP, or unique selling proposition. And yes, like it or not, aikido is a brand that is competing for attention just like any other product or endeavor.

A USP simply distills, in a few sentences or less, the differentiating factors about a product or service that will attract the target consumer to exchange their capital (in this case mostly time) for what is being offered (aikido lessons). Sounds so simple that it’s easy to dismiss this concept as amateurish—except it’s often spoken about at length before Fortune 500 brands do anything. I know. I’ve had to suffer through many of these meetings while producing hundreds of TV spots for national and international clients.

The USP is not only a guiding principle for marketing, but for engineering what is being offered. As with anything this simple and yet profound, it often takes a lot of energy and discipline to implement. Take the former $31 billion global corporation Kodak. Their management was convinced for years they were in the film business, because that was their end product. Seems reasonable except … they were wrong.

What some very smart people at Kodak failed to realize is they were actually in the business of capturing memories. See the difference? Film was just the conduit and the emphasis on film prevented the brand’s USP from adapting to changes in the market and technology. The company was not willing to make the changes it needed to survive.

Seems crazy that the company who came up with the “Kodak Moment” and the technology to put cameras in phones couldn’t see this. But we all know how it ended—Kodak went from being one of the world’s most valuable brands to virtual irrelevance because of this mistake in understanding their USP.

So what does this have to do with aikido? Most aikido dojos are no different than Kodak because they don’t have a true understanding of what they are offering. Are they teaching self-defense? Moving meditation? Conflict resolution? Cardio-fitness? Worse, are they claiming they’re teaching self-defense when instead they’re focused on teaching something else?

Note: there is no judgment here. Aikido is remarkable in that it can be any one of these things. But no one dojo can teach a kind of aikido that can be great at all of them. If you cannot honestly and clearly state what your strengths and experiences are as an instructor, and connect that to the desires and expectations of (potential) students, then you are shortchanging yourself and your students and contributing to the decline of the art that we all love. You are making the same mistake as Kodak’s CEO.

Why your USP Matters

Let’s step into the mind of a potential student, a.k.a. the future of aikido. You’re 19 years old. You live in a medium-sized city. You Google “self-defense instruction in [My City].” These two photos come up:

Remember, you’re in the mind of a 19-year-old; a key demographic that many brands target because they represent a lifetime of patronage if you can capture their loyalty. Where do you, as our theoretical future student, go to learn self-defense? Unless you’re into dressing in costumes, I would put my money on you visiting the place on the right.

“But WAIT!” you (the aikido instructor) say, “I look like the person on the left. Hakamas are an important traditional part of the art and our school is self-defense-oriented and super badass.” That all may be true, but… 19-year-olds on the internet don’t care. The wake of great brands is littered with “better” products and services that had incredible histories and pedigrees—all before we could see and compare everything in seconds on our phones. A first impression may be the only impression. And maybe I’m making assumptions, but I’m confident a hakama does not scream “modern self-defense” to most 19-year-olds. As your brand consultant, I would also ask, “By current-day standards and practices, are you really, truly self-defense-oriented?” The instant information on our computer screens has brought assertions based on a limited pool of information into question.

Again, before the katanas are pointed my way, know that there is no judgment here. I have seen several successful schools in Southern California that have embraced “aikido as self-defense.” They cross-train in other arts, their students can actually throw a punch that connects, and they train with intensity. They have thriving schools and they are not alone.

I’ve also seen successful dojos that train in a way closer to tai chi and less about combat. And that’s okay too. The instructors know what makes them unique by today’s standards and practices. They aren’t on the internet posting videos titled “Aikido vs. Judo” and getting killed. And why would they? They understand that their USP does not emphasize self-defense, so they wouldn’t compare the two arts any more than a yogi would post a “Bikram vs. Boxing” video.

Knowing and communicating your Unique Selling Proposition is about relevancy and longevity. The clearer it is and the more alignment it has with what is being offered, the more it can attract the right audience and evolve with the times.

Aikido’s Internet Opportunity

Despite the current state of affairs, aikido could have a bright future if we help each other figure out, on a school-by-school basis, what exactly is being offered. There is no shortage of potential students looking for exercise and mind-body training options, especially those with a spiritual component (#yoga).

Likewise, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has exploded. There are close to 20 schools in a five-mile radius of me in Los Angeles. Aikido could be a great addition to, or replacement for, BJJ for a student who wants a grappling art that encompasses standing up and/or is a little easier on aging joints.

Facebook, Instagram and Google provide the opportunity to market to these folks with astonishing precision and cost-effectiveness. But first, you need to know exactly what your benefit is and communicate it well. Otherwise, the aikido dojo could be headed the way of the One-Hour Fotomat.

Editor’s Note: Thanks to Ron for sharing this piece with the Aikido Journal community. I believe the most valuable take-away from this piece is that the aikido community will be well-served if its instructors honestly assess their offerings and continually seek to find the most effective and compelling ways to communicate the benefits of their programs.

In a recent video interview with Christian Tissier (conducted by Seido), Tissier mentions that everyone who practices aikido knows its benefits, but it’s a formidable challenge to tell the story of aikido in a world of social media and an explosion of leisure activities, hobbies, and physical training options.  He says, “So our work is: what image do we want to give? I think it’s the main challenge in the years to come.”

This challenge creates a great opportunity for us to reflect on the art we love so dearly and find new and better ways to communicate about our art, our practice, and the myriad benefits it brings. 


Leave a Reply to Paul Araki-Metcalfe Cancel reply

  • Great article.
    When I first started Aikido, I was actually looking for a yoga class, but was compelled by aikido’s philosophy of redirecting an opponent’s energy. It seemed like something I could apply in other areas of my life where I had challenges.
    When I was in-between dojos a few years ago, I tried swimming and yoga classes, but was unable to find something that had the community and interaction with other people that aikido has.
    I think I’ve found that aikido forces me to interact closely with others on a level that I normally wouldn’t, and that doing so **sometimes** allows me to overcome negative preconceptions about people or even put past arguments to rest.

  • This is an excellent and thought-provoking article. I was moved to comment, even though I am not an Aikido practitioner, simply an admirer of the art. I do practice Japanese Jujitsu, Judo, and Kenjutsu, as well as the Korean martial art of Hapkido, which is related to Aikido in that it is also descended from Daito-ryu Aiki-jujitsu. I do study and try to learn as much as I can about other arts. I would be practicing Aikido as well, if I only had the time.

    All that being said, what sets Aikido apart from all the other arts, in my mind, are its philosophical and spiritual underpinnings, along with its emphasis on relatively non-violent defense. More than any others, it is a martial art that would appeal to intellectuals, people with an artistic temperament, and those with a spiritual bent. It would make a great complement to yoga practice, as it would appeal to many of the same people who are drawn to the more spiritual aspects of yoga. I think it would also appeal to vegans, PETA members, environmentally conscious individuals, people who practice mindfulness, and others of that type. Those people represent some significant and important demographics in today’s world, as they are segments of the population that can be found in almost every town or city nowadays. Those people could form a great pool of potential practitioners, and it would make a lot of sense to target them with marketing efforts. College campuses would be a great recruiting ground for young people. There are many out there who would be naturally drawn to Aikido, if only they knew about it.

    Rather than trying to modify Aikido to appeal to individuals who really aren’t interested in the kinds of things that makes it unique, I would say it makes more sense to put more of effort into targeting the right people who would naturally find the art appealing. I think it’s a mistake to try to promote Aikido on the basis of things that are not at its core. For example, while Aikido can certainly be used with great success for self defense, my understanding is that self development, rather than self defense, is the primary goal of the art. People whose primary interest is self defense would really be better served taking up an art designed specifically for that, such as a civilianized version of Krav Maga, or something along those lines. People who want to learn to fight in a cage, ring, or grappling competition obviously have better choices, such as Boxing, Muay Thai, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, to prepare them for that than Aikido. Aikido is really not for those people.

    I would say that Aikido’s unique selling proposition is that it is different. Aikido is for people who want to be reflective and mindful, people who want to develop themselves and continue growing as humans. It is for people who appreciate the beauty of traditional dojos, people who love clean, flowing, graceful movements. Simply put, it is for people who would want to put on a hakama. They’re out there. The Aikido community just needs to look in the right places to find them.

  • Good article.
    Lets find answers to the problem, rather than just point out and discuss the problem. The kodak company’s downfall, is typical for a Japanese company. The same scenario with another large Japanese company (Sony) many ears ago. They were facing financial collapse. They were saved by an american CEO being put into place, who opened up research and development and gave them freedom. They came up wth some amazing products which saved the company and set it on its amazing recovery and re-invention. Once saved, Japan shut down the research and development department, for freedom is a dangerous thing in Japan. Japan itself is the problem. Japan will not allow freedom. It rules with an iron fist. So very similar to the old China ruling faction. Japan refuses to join the world, and relax a little. I would rather share something than sit at the helm as it dies.
    Utilise the amazing business minds around us, and re-invent/market Aikido for the modern world. Not changing Aikido itself, the techniques are fine, but re-packaging the product to more suit the modern world.
    Good luck.

  • Hi Ron,

    your article is alarmist and misleading. Also it’s based on some false assumptions, which are probably understandable when I take into account that you are working in marketing. You have a skewed perspective.

    First, aikido is not a company. It is not “owned” by anybody. Terms like customer-value, mind-share or ROI don’t apply. Aikido is a body of knowledge and tradition that spread out from Japan that was taken up by people that have a certain image of the world, of themselves and their relationship with the people around them.

    Second, aikido’s goal is not self-defense, it should rank fifth’ or sixth’ when taking it up; for people looking for self-defence classes, aikido is a poor choice anyway and they will leave as soon as they realize it.

    Aikido has always been a ‘special interest’ martial art. The number of students is not a meaningful indicator of success. A dojo is a place where like-minded people meet to study a modern, yet traditional budo. I doubt that shiny leaflets, high quality video clips on Netflix or Facebook-campaigns will inspire the type of student that we are looking for.

    I am all in if it’s about making aikido known. But don’t you dare applying your consultant-speak to aikido.

    When I started 20 years ago, there were three aikido clubs in my hometown. Now there are a dozen. Reports about Aikido’s death are greatly exaggerated.

    • First. aikido may not be a company, but every instructor-owed dojo is. So marketing applies just as it does to any business.

      Second, aikido is a self-defense art – if it’s trained that way, as the article specifically states. While self-development is an important aspect – as it is in many traditional martial arts – it does not detract from the fact that the art was developed as a martial art, which inherently is self-defense oriented.

      The only question about any given art for self-defense is how long does it take to develop the characteristics important to self-defense. Some arts – like tai chi – take much longer as a result of how students are trained than others which have simpler principles.

      As the article specifically states, you can’t get “like-minded” people to your dojo if you don’t know what sort of person your dojo appeals to. And explicitly restricting yourself to a niche audience gets you a niche dojo – which may not be financially sustaining. Which is not the ticket to expanding aikido’s popularity.

  • For any one that has ever had to defend themselves against a skilled attacker, the idea of aikido being useful for self defense is laughable. In this day and age, self defense must address the needs reflected by modern scenarios. The numerous short comings of aikido at readying its practitioners against this have been recorded and expounded upon ad nausem, even by skilled aikidoka. To present this spiritual path as an effective form of physical self defense is fraudulent, and while there will always be snake oil sales men and frauds bilking the unwitting, if aikido truly wishes to maintain its veneer of dignity and respect, it would do well to not market itself this way. It has other benefits, and there are many who would find those benefits compelling. The call and need for something real calls to many of us, if not all of us, and when you attempt to market it as something it isn’t, it’s going to be called out. Aikido has extremely limited application in modern unarmed self defense and combat, and to claim otherwise only serves to discredit the speaker.

    • Hey Brian-Thanks for taking the time to write a response. The issue of Aikido’s effectiveness is not what I was addressing. I hope the larger message doesn’t get lost because any discussion on Aikido always seems to revert to the equivalent of “Aikido is useless.”

      I think we’d both agree there are very few publicly available self defense programs that meet all the needs of modern self defense. Not MMA (no weapons training), not Kali / Escrima (no handgun training), not handgun training (usually limited in gun protection or any other forms of conflict resolution) and of course, not Aikido (no striking and more). But just because all these pursuits are limited, doesn’t mean they don’t have any merit at all. It’s very black and white thinking to suggest, otherwise.

      The more widespread problem Aikido has, from my experience, is mostly HOW it’s practiced. Aikido shares many techniques with what you probably would label “more self defense oriented” styles. But, if they are not practiced against a resisting opponent, it doesn’t matter what the technique is, it’s not going to magically work when it’s needed. Aikido should, IMHO, be learned alongside other arts—just like BJJ,Boxing, etc. How can you defend against strikes if your partner doesn’t know basic strikes? This will be addressed in another article.

      For now…going back to the piece above…IMHO, an important way to attract students AND refine HOW you teach / practice is by really reflecting on what you are teaching, especially in context of what other options exist, and then stick to communicating those benefits, accordingly.

    • No, the idea of aikido as self defense is NOT laughable. I’ve scared the shit out of some would be attackers over more than forty years of aikido training. Yes… the fact is MOST aikido groups are doing something that would get them killed. I come from a root tradition, one of the oldest groups around, and it is useful for anything from brushing off a drunk to taking down multiple attackers. I was trained, in part, by a police instructor who was sent into mugging areas to take out multiple big muggers. Aikido is unlimited in its self defense capacity. It’s just been taken over, for the most part, by people who wanted something intellectual and pseudo spiritual and who drove “their” aikido in that direction. Real aikido (original, not modified) is perfectly fine for self defense.

  • Great article for dojos seeking run of the mill black belts grown on a farm, but it ZERO to do with anything related to O-Sensei’s Aikido.