I prattle on to Dave all the time about what I call "the road to legit." Any new brand faces the challenge of establishing itself as at least a reasonable alternative to its entrenched competitors. In order to even consider buying from a new brand, the first threshold it has to clear is that its products are suitable for their intended purpose. After that, a nearly infinite amount of purchase criteria are applied, depending on the customer and the perspective. But without at least inspiring confidence that the brand is on the level and capable of producing what it has claimed it has produced, a brand can't even make it into the choice set - that group of products in every customers' minds from which a purchase decision emerges.
People buy our stuff for different reasons, but nobody would buy any of it if they thought it was crap, no matter how good the deal. It's not crap, by the way. For some of you, hearing me say that and seeing me and Dave and the rest of The November Bicycles Road Trip team back up the claim by racing on our stuff is enough. Whether or not you believe the Wheelhouse is as good a bike as an SL4 or a SuperSix is not as important as realizing that people can race frequently and aggressively on November equipment and not suffer a spontaneous eruption of carbon shards.
Most people, however, need a little more convincing. And so we find ourselves in the same situation that every other bicycle technology company faces at one point in their career - how to become Legit. To me, a brand is legit when customers have to stop defending their purchase. Yes, we're a good deal, but we haven't progressed very far down to the road to legit if our customers respond to questions about their new bike with, "Oh, November? Yeah, it's some cheap bike I got online. I really wanted a Willier but need to put a new roof on the house instead. Maybe next year." We're happy to have these folks as customers, as part of our objective is to provide an alternative to unaffordable brands. But we'd much rather hear them say, "Oh, November? I was looking at a Willier but honestly couldn't justify the difference in price. The Wheelhouse is a great race bike without all the trappings that push the price up. And that Mike guy is irresistibly handsome."
In cycling, the road to legit almost inevitably travels through pro cycling sponsorship. My belief is that big brands that sponsor pro cycling do so largely to create content and context for the rest of their marketing programs: they get to splash ads in the magazines showing racers winning on their equipment, and can build charity rides, video content and online promotions organized around sponsored riders or the races they're competing in. For smaller brands it's a different story. Lacking the marketing budget to amplify the sponsorship commitment in the same way as bigger competitors, I believe smaller brands typically sponsor pro teams for two reasons: 1) to demonstrate (to consumers and the press) that their products are perfectly suitable for the demands of competition, and b) to get their logo on websites and in magazines without the expense of advertising.
It's a flawed model, of course. While it is true that professional athletes have many more race days per year over much longer and more demanding courses than your local office park crit, they also have the most pampered equipment on the planet, painstakingly maintained by a team of mechanics with a staggering supply of replacement parts at the ready, should any product suggest even a hint of failure. And many of the products the pros use are actually modified versions of what's offered to the public - frames stiffened with extra carbon layup, wheels built with different spokes, derailleurs with modified cages for stiffer shifting.
You want a real test of a bike's suitability for the rigors of amateur racing? Sponsor a team of flat broke college kids who can't afford to replace a tube without selling a textbook halfway through the semester, or a squad of track racing clydesdales who test a frame's stiffness significantly more than 140-pound Vincenzo Nibali, who is desperately in need of a sandwich.
Still, there is some validity in the pro sponsorship formula. It's overplayed and hyperbolic, but I do believe that the equipment that pros race on - including what they are paid to race on and supplied at no cost, which is almost everything (more on that next time) - is perfectly suitable for racing. I don't think you can look at results and say that this frame is faster than that one, or these wheels are better because this guy beat the other guy on those wheels which can't therefore be as good. But if you see pros race on something, it's safe to assume that it's capable of being raced on.
Now part of the reason I believe this is because we believe that the equipment at this level is 98% similar. Our frame may have triangular tubes instead of squoval, and our carbon rims may be a peaked U instead of a blunt U shape. But it's all raceworthy equipment just the same. The challenge new brands face is how to convince a market of that quickly and credibly enough to fuel growth.
The easy thing to do would be to throw a bunch of equipment at a pro team and be done with it. If we did that we'd likely hop in the HOV lane on the road to legit and get there a lot faster. So far though, Dave and I are still recoiling at the idea. The marketing ROI appears promising, but for the reasons I've discussed here we throw the BS flag on the whole practice. It may help us sell a boatload more bikes and wheelsets, but the tacit implications of pro sponsorship compromise our brand integrity. If it turns out that we think the increased sales volume from sponsoring a pro team allows us to improve on our current value proposition - by delivering even higher quality stuff, or even lower costs - we might come around (though if we did, we'd approach it with our trademark candor and skepticism).
Maybe we're naive. I'm totally fine with that if the alternative is to be seasoned, formaulaic and hackneyed. I just don't think we need to do what everyone else has done in order to get products of exceptional quality and unrivalled value under as many racers' butts as possible.