For a long time we took a hard stance against advertising, on the grounds that incremental marketing expenses would chew through our capital and require (and allow) us to raise prices. We launched with a mission of organizing our entire operations around streamlining expenses so we could keep our prices as low as possible. That, coupled with a candid approach (executed largely though this blog) would help tell our story better than ads. And it's been successful. Most of our exposure has been a result of our word-of-mouth friendly approach, which causes quite a few people who do find us to point their friends and teammates this way.
We still have the same desire to stay small, so aren't interested in ramping up marketing in order to scale or take the business to some mythical next level. But since we launched in 2010, a few things have changed. First, the number of pop-up bicycle brands has multiplied, many making similar product and pricing claims to ours. This makes differentiation more challenging, as we didn't stand alone either on price or product. And even if these pop-ups (I can use that phrase since we were one ourselves) churn pretty quickly, they're replaced each year by a new venture, keeping the market nice and crowded. The other change that's occurred since 2010 is the increasing visibility of direct-from-China as an option for bikes and wheels, putting a lot of price pressure on anyone in the market who chose to acknowledge the swelling demand for $500 carbon frames and wheels as a threat. We did, and we still do, so we made some changes.
Chief among them, as you may have guessed, was the Rail 52 - designed in-house, developed expressly by us, validated in the wind tunnel and brought to market. All in plain sight, in real time, right here on the blog. We elected to do it that way because we knew a lot of people would be skeptical if we kept the whole operation under wraps until suddenly one day - poof! - a proprietary design that competes with the best on the market, from this value-priced open mold outfit. Our objective was not expressly to sell more wheels, but to increase the legitimacy of our brand so we could compete better with established brands and avoid being lumped in with the pop-ups and Alibaba. To achieve this objective, the process was as important as the product.
That same motivation is why we've begun advertising - not to sell more wheels (I've worked at the Interactive Advertising Bureau and have consulted with many online advertising companies and can assure to you that running online ads is no way to sell more product), but to help tell that story of legitimacy. The ads pictured here are now running on CyclingTips, and will start running on some other cycling sites soon.
We used a creative brief to tune the message. "When fast matters most" is siimple, but also aims squarely at our objective. I'll take you through the brief to see how we got there.
The first thing we did was identify the Highest Hurdle to Clear. More than just the challenge we face, it's the heart of the heart of the problem. Finding it requires acting like a 4-year-old. "Our greatest challenge is that people are comparing us to China direct at half our price." Why? "This makes them not see real value from our product." Why? "Lumping us with unbranded doesn't elevate unbranded, it erodes our position." Why? "Instead of taking a chance with the whole unbranded / off-brand / underbranded category, they feel safer with brands sold through their LBS." Why?
We kept going down that road and ultimately realized that the greatest challenge has to do with a product's price being a shortcut to perceived quality. The more something costs, the more people think it's worth. We are less expensive not because our product costs less to make, but because it costs less to sell. Still, we suffer in the market expressly because of our value-oriented operation and positioning. Ironic, no?
The second step in the creative brief is to identify the Market White Space - some need that our customers have that isn't met currently. This step was a little easier, and less annoying. Pretty quickly we alighted on a key insight related to what we found in the Highest Hurdle step. People really dont like to pay a lot. Instead, they want to pay a little for something that costs a lot. What percentage of $2800 Zipps and HEDs and Mavics do you think have actually been bought at full retail? How many of the sets you see at the business park crit or the coffee shop ride have been obtained through some sort of a team deal? You can't know, but you do know that that guy is sporting some fine ass 3 bills wheels. And that guy is more often than not happy to let you believe he dropped that kind of bank to be (ok, look) so fast.
So yeah, ego is involved in the purchases road cyclists make. That may sound more self-evident than insightful but it really influenced our understanding of the challenges we face. Cyclists want to have nice stuff - both to give them confidence in the purchases they've made and also because the equipment we use (and display) defines who we are as cyclists. It's simply more gratifying to have a set of wheels that people think costs $3K than it is to have a set that ostensibly costs less, and have to apologize for them in some way. So the unmet need we identified is that it needs to be somehow acceptable to have cycling gear that costs less, for reasons aside from the fact that it costs less. In this industry, you can't win on "because they're cheap." But maybe you can win on "They're good. (Oh, and also they cost less.)" There's more detail on that thought on the blog here. Wouldn't it be great if you could spend less money on wheels and bikes and feel exactly the same way about them as if you paid twice as much for a different brand? That's the unmet need.
The next step is to find the Brand Ceiling. How far can we realistically push an idea so that it influences the way customers view us, and still remains credible? In the context of the first two steps, we first sought to figure out how we might give less expensive a bit of caché. But then we realized that we can't try to pump up the cool factor of paying less. Rather, we'd do better to obscure the price by focusing on the product. Make the price an unexpected surprise once we sold the product in on its performace and design. So the brand ceiling we spotted is that November means cycling performance and quality. Period. And the low prices? Let us not speak of those again.
Put all of that together and you have a creative strategy. We saw that the way through all that morass was to build Aspiration into our products and brand. Instead of leading with what they cost, turn up the volume on what they will do for you - whether that means your sprint top speed, your bike split or your ego is left deliberately vague.
"When fast matters most" is one way of tying it all together. For some people, we expect (hope?) it will build credibility for the brand because it begins with a product benefit instead of a price. But we also want to address the unmet need of wanting to pay less and still get something that inspires confidence and envy. For some people, perception matters more than performance. But if fast matters most to you, the price you pay is secondary. (Some of our competitors use a similar positioning to justify high prices instead of low, which I find to be a delightful counterpoint.)
You'll see this same strategy employed in much of what we do moving forward - from website copy to blogs and emails and other ads. It won't always be the same language, but for a marketing strategy to work the message has to be consistent and persistent. Fortunately both Dave and I are stubborn SOBs, so consistency isn't really a problem for us.