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.

The Second World War by Anthony Beevor

This weighty tome was one of my recent holiday reads in France. Not the usual airport trash that I would typically consume whilst lying around drinking rose in the sunshine admittedly, but a book of such scale, intellect and ambition that I could have only tackled it on holiday with time on my hands.

I’ve read a couple of Beevor‘s books before on D-Day and Stalingrad and knew what to expect – the grand sweep of war told with masterful poise with the human tragedy of conflict seeping through at every twist and turn.

Growing up in the seventies, the second world war was never that far away from my consciousness and war films, models and a father obsessed by all things military certainly made an indelible impression on me. as such, I find myself more than a little bit interested in all things WWII.

In the past I’ve been interested in different elements of the second world war conflict from D-Day to the Holocaust and Pearl Harbour to Hiroshima, but to be honest never seen the entire picture which this book certainly sets that out.

From the build up to war in Europe, to its devastating aftermath in Nagasaki, the story is told in unflinching detail and Beevor is the kind of historian who brings his facts alive with real stories, anecdotes with relevance to the modern reader.

The recent trend for ultra realism in cinematic representations of conflict aside, the second world war for me has always been about tales of derring do and I guess the ability to show the real face of war was simply unavailable to film-makers in the fourties, fifties and sixties. I suspect there was even a lack of appetite for this type of representation. With notable exceptions like the landmark seventies documentary The World at War, it’s very rare that the story is told in its entirety.

This book does not shy away from describing the most brutal conflict the world has ever seen in graphic detail and it’s in these descriptions that Beevor really does hit hard, depicting a world almost indescribably violent that to modern readers it almost beggars belief. On top of that, it covers the major events and themes of the second world war, how they influenced each other and in turn, how the conflict grew into a war with the largest loss of life ever seen on the planet.

Beevor effortlessly moves from the political to the personal, telling the everyday stories alongside the strategic decisions. His narrative is lucid and engaging particularly with less well-known stories like the rape of Nanking with honesty and sympathy.

Reading this book in Northern France on holiday was an experience in itself, particularly as the book moves inexorably towards D-Day and the defeat of the Axis Powers. The French countryside we drove through providing plenty of evidence of the conflict after seventy years with memorials and military graveyards.

This was a monster-sized book that really did require will power to get through but Beevor was up to the task of keeping the reader enthralled in the unfolding tragedy and global drama of the second world war. He transformed his meticulous research into a series of dynamic narratives and gripping real-life stories.

Highly recommended.