How Rapha pedalled its way to success
Think back to 2004. That was the year 10 new countries joined the European Union, full of hope. It was the year retail tycoon Philip Green audaciously took on M&S. It was the year Nasa’s Mars rover landed safely on the red planet.
There was no shortage of confidence in the world. And so it was that Simon Mottram, a London-based self-confessed bike junkie, decided to start selling very expensive merino jerseys to cyclists. With hindsight, it was a spectacular move.
When people take up cycling, they generally fall head over heels in love with it. For many of our customers, cycling is probably the most important thing in their lives apart from family. Often, it’s even more important than their career.
The rise and rise of Rapha is an inspiring story. This boutique brand, which has a tendency to polarise people, has survived a financial crisis, a collapse in consumer confidence and a tumultuous Brexit to become a global phenomenon in just 13 years. Sales have grown 30% year-on-year from day one.
How has Mottram done it? The years spent as a brand consultant, pre-Rapha, clearly gave him the vision to break away from the peloton of other sportswear companies to create a business that was genuinely passionate about what it offered. Consumers were ready for something different, for a brand with meaning, for an offering that didn’t come from yet another faceless, corporate giant.
Mottram timed this breakaway perfectly. Rapha has enjoyed the benefit of slipstreaming the increase in the number of regular cyclists in the UK, which Mottram has attributed to the 7/7 bombings in London. With the tubes out of action, suddenly everyone was on bikes trying to get to work.
Right from the start the brand has associated itself with the true grit and determination of road racing cyclists. Rapha’s launch event in East London was a month-long exhibition in the Old Truman Brewery. Entitled Kings of Pain, it showcased six heroes from cycling’s golden era and beyond: Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anguetil, Raymond Poulidor, Tom Simpson, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault.
These riders, these people with real stories, captured what the business was trying to communicate. When fans parted with hundreds of pounds for a Rapha jersey, they were buying into so much more than a piece of clothing. They were buying into the stories of racing glory and suffering. They were inspired by Mottram’s genuine passion for cycling. Rapha has always been a brand with meaning.
It is also a brand that has been clever about how it engages with its customers. In addition to an online emporium of performance road-wear, accessories and publications, the brand includes shops, or ‘club-houses’ as it calls them, in which people can try on the clothes, have a coffee and meet fellow cycling aficionados. It organises luxury cycling trips and recently launched a cycling club, which has ballooned to 9000 members around the world. Members are able to hire top-end bikes from clubs in other cities if they want to cycle overseas. The club also organises social rides for people from all over the world who want to cycle and race together.
Rapha is, unashamedly, a lifestyle brand. Customers can experience the brand in person and immerse themselves in the culture of road cycling. Rapha’s profile was given another boost after it became the new kit supplier for Team Sky, the British professional cycling team, taking over from sportswear giant Adidas.
These days, experience is everything. People don’t tend to just walk into a shop to buy something, they have to have a relationship with it. They research products online, chat to their friends, enjoy coffees whilst browsing in stores, are influenced by social media and by a company’s values: it is a complicated, much more engaging journey.
Mottram, who saw this long before others did and yet was laughed out of many a meeting with bankers as he tried to raise funds for Rapha, must feel vindicated. Look who is laughing now. The company is being wooed by the very investment community he was begging for help all those years ago, with two private equity firms thought to have offered in the region of £150 million.
Raphia’s allure as a business lies in the fact that it is intriguing. Its products are luxurious and expensive, and yet they are not precious. They work as hard as the person wearing them. They maintain a sense of value. Fans argue that if you are going to splash £5,000 on a bike, you might as well look good and feel comfortable whilst riding it.
Most importantly, Rapha is the champion of a truly passionate cycling community. In an interview with The Telegraph, Mottram said: “When people take up cycling, they generally fall head over heels in love with it. For many of our customers, cycling is probably the most important thing in their lives apart from family. Often, it’s even more important than their career.”
This statement resonates when you look at the statistics. The global market for cycling paraphernalia is estimated to be worth $47bn – five times that of golf – according to consultants OC&C. The Rapha ride is clearly not over yet.