Thoughts On Promoting Aikido

An interesting discussion has been taking place throughout the Aikido community in recent years. Dojo membership in general has been declining. It comes up over dinners at seminars and break-out sessions at retreats. It’s discussed at over drinks after training. How do we let people know about Aikido?

Aikido first became popular in the 1960s and 1970s, along with the human potential movement, personal growth, meditation, and looking for deeper meaning in daily life. It was a time when people were actively working toward world peace, and the loving protection of all beings seemed like a common-sense idea.

Many I’ve talked to recently have been discouraged, believing our society is just shifting toward dabbling in interests that are quicker and easier. Their sense is that appeal of Aikido is simply declining, and while that’s unfortunate, there’s not much we can do about it.

They’ve got a point. In a world of shiny, amazing gadgets, the instant gratification of the Internet, and the glorification of competition (well, of winning, at least), and the objectification of the body, what would draw one to a lifelong pursuit of mastery in a martial art? There are no prizes in Aikido, no championships, and no apps with badges. Aside from earning rank as you progress in your training, there’s no external acknowledgement at all.

How can we explain the appeal and reward of training? We train for the love of it, and progress comes slowly. We know the difference the practice can make in our lives, and in the world. But what can we put on a banner hung over the dojo door that might entice people to try the beginner’s program? How do we communicate about Aikido in a way that gets people’s attention, while still being true to the art?

My professional background is in writing, technical communication, user experience design, and online marketing, so I find this an interesting question.

I’m more optimistic about the future. I think Aikido is once again in the right place at the right time. The need exists. People feel disconnected and disembodied. They may not have the words for it, but the longing is there for the kind of grounding and person-to-person connection that Aikido teaches, the body awareness, visceral sensation, and supportive community one finds in on the mat.

CrossFit has very successfully promoted hard, sweaty, physical training. (CrossFit has well over 2,000,000 likes on Facebook!!!) Coca Cola has been a huge success at selling flavored sugar water. These things didn’t just happen – there is nothing inherently desirable about these things – they had serious marketing efforts behind them. They were engineered to be cool and awesome, and to make people want them. There is no reason we should not be able to popularize Aikido – a physical and philosophical practice that’s accessible to everyone, and that makes a positive difference in the world.

Farmers’ Markets, Makers, Etsy Shops, and Music Festivals

For some time now people have been seeing through scientifically-marketed big-corporation, consumerism. The culture is shifting away from mass-marketed goods, mindless network television, and fast food. We find ourselves yearning for experiences that are healthier, more personal, and more real. We long for the satisfaction of accomplishing something difficult and worthwhile.

Consider the farm-to-table movement. People are increasingly shunning convenient, processed, mass-marketed foods in favor of getting to know growers at their local farmers’ market. Communities are demanding that their school systems by locally-grown produce. Community gardens spring up on vacant lots, and homeowners plant attractive vegetable gardens in their front yards in place of lawns.

Likewise, “maker” culture has been spreading, people are taking invention and production into their own hands, rather than ordering ready-made products online, to be delivered overnight. Etsy shops abound online, allowing customers to buy directly from individual craftspeople offering everything from hand-crafted wooden cutting boards to home-made goat milk soaps. Big, multi-day experiential music festivals involve hundreds of volunteers supporting thousands of fans in expressing and enjoying themselves, not just sitting in seats listening.

We want that individual connection with artists, chefs, jewelers. We value the story behind the items: “This bracelet was made by a group of women in Guatemala. They are providing for their families, and building a schoolhouse with the profits.” We find satisfaction in the direct, grounded experience of making our own things, and growing our own food. This seems to me to be a natural and inevitable rebound effect. We can only take so many big-box stores, chain restaurants, and mass-produced goods devoid of any human touch before we are compelled to search for deeper meaning and a personal relationship, even if it only comes in the form of a colorful bracelet and a hand-written note from a woman in Guatemala.

Aikido, with its hands-on, teacher-to-student transmission of teachings, tight dojo communities, cooperative training paradigm, and utopian philosophical influences provides an appealing alternative to learning skills alone through videos and apps. There’s a sense of belonging, and being a part of something important and beautiful. People are hungry for this!

Feeling Dirty About “Selling” Aikido?

Way back when, martial arts were secret practices passed down from master to student. That was important if you didn’t want your proprietary techniques – your secret weapons – falling into the hands of enemies. Some arts still operate that way today. You won’t find demo or exam videos on YouTube, and their schools can be hard to find. They don’t let “just anybody” in, either. There’s nothing wrong with that. In these arts, past and present, it was/is considered at best tacky to promote your art publicly, and at worst, treasonous. This is a strong thread in martial arts culture.

But if believe your art has value for the masses, and you aren’t afraid of anyone and everyone learning and practicing it, then you might want to let people know about it.

O Sensei was clear about his intention that Aikido be shared with all people around the world. He personally held demonstrations to promote Aikido. He wrote books about Aikido. He trained teachers and sent them abroad with instructions to share the art. “Everyone has a spirit that can be refined, a body that can be trained in some manner, a suitable path to follow.” The founder did not want the art kept hidden, only available to specially-selected people. We can honor his intention by sharing Aikido and helping people learn about the value of training.

A Cautionary Tale from the Equestrian Community

A wise friend of mine from Backcountry Horsemen once told me “Horse people are great at circling the wagons… and shooting inward.” There are so many little factions – trail riders, Western show people, jumpers, dressage enthusiasts, professionals, and backyard horse owners, to name a few. They are terrible at working together, and everyone loses as a result. The horse show people don’t come out to help on trail maintenance days. The backyard horse people don’t speak up and planning group meetings in favor of permitting a commercial training facility. The folks who putter along neighborhood trails don’t write to their representatives demanding public access to the National Forests and BLM lands. As a result, boarding barns don’t get built, community riding arenas are shut down, feed stores close, and fewer and fewer people get into riding and owning horses. I watched it happen during the 20 years I was into horses. I was on my local planning group, on the board of several horse clubs, and volunteering hundreds of hours toward trail work and other projects to support the horse community. Very few people showed up to to help or speak out. The neighborhood riding ring was removed, trails were fenced off, clubs dissolved, and many friends moved away to more horse-friendly areas. There are still thriving groups in some areas, but horse ownership is declining, and in my experience it’s due in great part to the failure of the equestrian community to work together for everyone’s mutual benefit.

I see the same pattern in Aikido. (It probably happens in other martial arts as well – I’m just not watching them so closely.) We could all do better by focusing on our common interests, and presenting a unified and positive image to the public. There should be (at least in the realm of public-facing communications) no sense of “us versus them.”

Lessons from Tai Chi

Mention Tai Chi in any random group of people, and you’ll find almost everyone has some idea what it is. They have a universally positive impression of the art. They’ve seen people practicing in the park, or in movies. They’ve read articles or seen news reports discussing hundreds of studies confirming the mental and physical health benefits of practicing Tai Chi. Their doctor may have even suggested Tai Chi as a gentle physical activity, or for stress reduction. It’s offered at senior centers and recommended by the American Medical Association. Everyone knows it’s not about street fighting or being tough. And nobody fusses that it’s not a “real martial art.” How’d they do that?

I’ve wondered if there might be a very talented marketing department at whatever international federation is responsible for Tai Chi worldwide. I suspect their isn’t, really, but still… How has that art come to the attention of medical professional, the media, film makers, and the general public?

Now try mentioning Aikido… Blank stares.

What can we learn from Tai Chi? Should dojos hold classes in parks? Should we offer free memberships to members of the media? I don’t have the answers, but it’s interesting to notice the broad popular awareness of Tai Chi, and consider how that might have come to be.

Where Are the Aikido Research, PR, and Marketing Groups?

One of the clients I worked with for a few years was a large agricultural research and marketing organization. The growers all belong to the organization, paying annual dues according to the size of each grower’s business. The organization in turn sponsors research on better growing methods, pest control, disease-resistant plant varieties, etc. The organization also conducts nationwide (USA) marketing campaigns to increase demand for the product, anything from publishing recipe collections to producing television ads.  Think of the campaigns like the California Milk Processor Board’s “Got Milk” or the almond industry’s “A can a week, it’s all we ask.” No individual grower – and they are mostly small family farms – can afford to fund long-term scientific research or place billboard ads all over the country. By banding together they are all able to grow and succeed. It’s the “rising tide lifts all boats” model – these growers are not in competition with each other – when demand for their product increases, they all win.

We already have large national and international Aikido organizations in place. Most dojos are affiliated with one. A common question raised in any discussion of affiliation is “We pay our dues, but what are they doing for us?” They legitimize rank, sure. But beyond that? It seems to me that the infrastructure exists. These organizations could be funding research on the mental, physical, and social benefits of practicing Aikido. They could be encouraging “product placement” in films and on television. They could be producing professionally-designed posters, flyers, photos, graphics, and tested marketing copy for their member dojos to use. They could have a strong social media presence, with images, videos, quotes, and others engaging and inspiring content for sharing.

Just as an informal test, I looked on Facebook (on 24 August, 2015) for all the major international Aikido organizations I could think of – the kind where dojos pay dues. I couldn’t find one of them at all. One has only 206 “Likes” for their page – that’s people who want to stay in touch and hear from them. (To put that into perspective, our dojo has over 900.) Another has just 155 likes, and their most recent post (a fairly poor image, with no explanatory copy or tagline to go with it) was posted 2 years ago. Still another has a public group, with 103 members sharing news and seminar announcements, and no communication at all from the organization itself.

Act Locally

A similar option, but with reduced scope, would be to work together with other dojos at the local level. Really, local dojos are not in competition with other. Each has a location and class schedule that will be more or less convenient for a given student. Each has a slightly different character or emphasis in their training and culture. People will find the one that’s right for them. Dojos in a given area could collaborate on public demonstrations, appearances on morning news shows, speaking engagements at libraries, community groups, etc.  When awareness and demand in the area increase, all dojos (and students) benefit.

Dojos have held brainstorming sessions and created posters, experimenting with a variety of messages. I hope to get permission to share some of their ideas here (with credit to them, of course), so please check back from time to time as this page evolves.

However we go about it, if we want our art to grow and thrive, we need to help people discover it. To do that we need to give them enough information to decide whether Aikido is something they might be interested in doing. Regardless of whether we each individually take on sharing Aikido with our friends, create dojo flyers and social media ads, work with other local dojos, or encourage our larger parent organizations to take it on, we need to make it a priority.

Being True to Your Practice

One problem with presenting Aikido in ways most folks would understand is that it can teeter on the edge of misrepresentation. “Learn Self Defense!” That’s not quite right. “Get In Shape for Summer!” That’s not really it, either. “Defeat all attackers!” Nope…

People know what karate is, at least. I’ve heard the idea tossed around that we’d be better off just putting “KARATE” on the sign to get people in the door, and then explaining later. There’s actually a Tang Soo Do dojang I know of that has done exactly that. I suspect it’s working well for them, but I hate the idea.

So how do we communicate about Aikido in a way that people get it, and still keep our integrity? People aren’t going to read longs blocks of text, at least not at first. What catchy headings and taglines might grab their attention, while still being true to the spirit of the art?

Meet People Where They Are

In any area of communication we have to speak in a way the listener will understand. Writing a manual in techie jargon won’t help a new software user. Sharing the science about the parasympathetic nervous system won’t catch the attention of someone who might be helped by meditating. Instead, clear, plain English instructions, or the invitation to “relax and de-stress” might be good starting points. We can speak in more depth later, once we gotten a conversation going.

So what might resonate with people who’ve never heard of Aikido, never trained in a martial art, and don’t know much about the subject aside from what they’ve seen in Kung Fu movies and mixed martial arts (MMA) fights on TV?

What hopes, images, and fantasies might fuel their interest? Do they find the discipline and ritual appealing? Do they want to feel safer walking to their car after work? Maybe they’ve seen the acrobatic rolls and falls, and just think it looks really cool.

How about fears, and concerns might they have? How many people have you spoken to about Aikido, only to have them shut down immediately, announcing they “aren’t into that kind of thing,” or “don’t like fighting,” when they have no idea at all what Aikido is?

We need to understand our audiences, and craft messages that will touch them.

Now What?

This page is intended to be a persistent resource. I will add information and ideas over time. If you have ideas you’d like to share with others here, drop me a note. I’d eventually like to provide downloadable templates for dojo flyers or social media ads – things that anyone can use to promote the art. I don’t believe Aikido is in an inevitable decline, only that we haven’t found the right messages to reach people. Let’s find them and get them out there.

For now I’ve disabled comments throughout this site because I cannot commit the time and attention required to manage them. Please share this, discuss these issues at your dojo and among friends, and send me feedback and ideas you’d like to share. Thank you for reading this, and for giving it your attention and thought.



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