As brand guru Walter Landor famously said: “Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind.”
No other cycling company has demonstrated the truth of this maxim more than Rapha.
Rapha is a master class in branding, moody black and white photography, artistic travelogues and artistic films from around the globe create an aspirational image of cycling as a sport like no other.
The clothing brand has tapped into a rich vein of nostalgia about the golden age of cycling to create a business that turns over £39 million and has a chain of eight ‘Cycle Club’ shops, in some the world’s most fashionable cities.
The growth has been built on great marketing from founder Simon Mottram, but has also coincided with the boom in internet retailing, the stellar performance of British cycling and the rise of the MAMIL: middle aged men in Lycra, many of whom have abandoned the golf course for the road.
And it works. I have a wardrobe full of Rapha tops. Before each ride I spend several minutes choosing the right outfit. I know it’s vanity, but as Paul Fournel says, to look good is already to go fast.
Despite all of this success, are things about to change for Rapha?
Part of the early appeal of Rapha was its exclusivity, but now it is a common sight. The kit is extremely expensive and as a result Rapha is increasingly positioning itself as a luxury brand. Like many luxury brands as it becomes more widely known its cache declines. Think Burberry in the early noughties and you get the idea.
So how can Rapha maintain the impression of exclusivity, whilst growing its sales? Price is clearly one differentiator, but how much more expensive can you get without alienating customers?
Like many fashion brands, Rapha has been very adept at creating new collections, special editions and complimentary products. Every year they bring out their iconic Club Jersey in new colourways. But there are only so many Rapha tops that you can justify owning and does anyone really need a special cream for their retro leather cycling gloves?
This stretching of the brand has in part led to Rapha being parodied by groups like the Jens Voigt Army. Whilst this is all good fun, it does illustrate the potential pit falls of developing this luxury brand approach.
Rapha’s latest kit called Racewear Innovation is another step in the brand’s evolution, it features a design based on the ‘Data Print’ of Team Sky training rides. Whilst this is a great idea there aren’t many cyclists I know who’d have the confidence to wear a vest that looks like it’s been run over by a tyre. What’s more, I am sure this radical design will be rich pickings for anyone who believes the brand is more about looks than performance.
Another interesting element in the mix is the success of British cycling. Rapha has benefitted enormously from the boom in the sport. Bradley Wiggins Tour win and Olympic success as well as Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish have all played their part in placing the sport in the headlines. Rapha has closely associated itself with the success of British cycling and is the kit supplier to Team Sky.
However, the success of British cycling is far from assured. Sky’s 2014 season was disappointing and in the Track World Championships in France, Team GB fell short. Could a failure to deliver in Rio mean that cycling begins to revert to a minority sport resulting in a subsequent decline in sales of kit?
And if we put aside such weighty matters as the Olympics for a moment and focus purely on the quality of the clothing: there remains a nagging doubt that Rapha just isn’t quite as good as some of the competition. For instance brands such as Assos and Castelli, both of which have a longer and more successful heritage and put function ahead of style.
Whilst it scores highly for style, Rapha seems to have chosen to use heavier less technical fabrics for some of its tops compared to other brands. The fit varies enormously across the range and zips are often fiddly and difficult to use, especially when you’re wearing gloves. These factors are enough to put a lot of customers off.
Whatever happens next, Rapha remains a masterclass in branding. Its performance to date has been exceptional and it will be interesting to observe the next step in the brand’s evolution. As for this this year’s grey and pink super-lightweight jersey, I don’t really need it, but then again…
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