Brands are interesting, or at least I think so.
As a consumer, our relationship with brands is a complex one: it’s based on a multitude of experiences with a brand – it could be physical, for instance in a shop or it could be an emotional one, seeing a tv commercial. All of those experiences add up to what the brand means to us and I’d guess that most people don’t really think too much about it, we just get on an transact with brands. Or not, as the case may be.
It’s not often then, you encounter a brand so single-minded in what they are doing, it’s breathtaking.
Rapha are one of those brands.
If you’re a cyclist, you’ll know exactly who I’m talking about. If you’re not, you won’t. And that’s because they spend every single waking hour focusing on their customer – hardcore cyclists – what they like, what they want, who they are – you know, all the stuff a lot of businesses don’t do particularly well. I’d go so far to say that if you’re not a cyclist, they actually don’t give a monkeys about you – these guys are seriously focused on their bike riding customers.
Simon Mottram, founder and CEO of Rapha was speaking at an excellent conference I attended this week – Hull Digital. He is the founder of the business and the Rapha brand we see is essentially him, the embodiment of his values and beliefs. Rapha as a business has grown off the back of the popularity of cycling and particularly the MAMIL phenomenon (Middle Aged Men In Lycra). Middle aged men with disposable income in wealthy countries have essentially fuelled Rapha’s growth and emergence on to the world stage of cycling, leading to their sponsorship of the world’s best cycling team, Team Sky for whom 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins rides.
So they’re doing loads of things right: they love their customers and know them intimately; they are cycling nuts themselves so know what works and what doesn’t; their products are reassuringly expensive and technically the best available and they have a brand with superb provenance (their name comes from an Italian cycling team in the sixties) and a highly sophisticated, perfectly judged visual identity. What’s not to like?
Interestingly I was talking to a young dude who cycles competitively at club level at the conference and whilst he appreciates the Rapha image and ethos, he claimed he’d be ridiculed at his club if he turned up in head to toe Rapha. It seems there’s a culture of not trying too hard with your image in British club cycling – the tattier the kit, the more kudos it gains you, something coincidentally I’ve experienced first hand playing tennis at club level. It’s almost not the done thing to look the business, which I find bonkers. I imagine there’s no such culture internationally where our more stylish European cousins or monied Americans spending big time on Rapha kit.
I have to admit the geek in me really enjoys the attention to detail lavished on every product Rapha sells from gloves to jerseys to embrocation. They know full well that their customers are complete geeks too and cater for their every branded whim. It’s a joy to behold when not only is the product brilliant but the packaging is just as good too.
Rapha has really set its stall out to own a very specific space in the market and it’s a joy to see a brand at the top of its game. I just hope that they don’t get snapped up by a Nike and lose their independence – a similar thing happened a few years ago with once uber-cool brand Howies who lost their way after acquisition to the corporate world – who have since bought their independence back, tellingly.
My prediction is that Rapha will continue to plough their stylishly unique furrow, independently, for quite some time to come.