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.