When Simon Mottram was seeking funds for his idea of a premium cycling brand in 2001, he put together a short film to show to potential backers. Set to a Pavarotti aria, a succession of iconic racers from the past decades of road cycling are depicted struggling up desolate mountain passes, baking in the heat of the sun or streaked with mud and rain. Hunched over the handlebars, their eyes roll back in their heads and their mouths hang agape with the almost superhuman effort. ‘It’s quite hard to explain to investors about suffering,’ Mottram says.
Cut to 2014 and this penchant for pain has made Rapha a cycling icon in its own right. It had sales of £16.9 million last year and was named in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 list. Rapha has outlets in the US, Japan and Australia and last year became kit supplier to Team Sky – one of the world’s leading professional road cycling teams. Rapha jerseys can now be seen on the backs of Tour de France winners Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, as well as fortysomethings out for a Sunday ride around the Surrey Hills.
Mottram’s background is in marketing and before launching Rapha he worked for agencies including Interbrand, Circus and Sapient. This experience, combined with his passion for cycling, doubtless explains the clarity of his brand vision. “You have to start with a key customer insight,” he says, “and for me that customer insight comes from the fact that I was a cyclist who hated the products that were around back then.”
Rapha was set up in 2004 by Mottram, who worked with creative director Luke Scheybeler. Designer Scheybeler had worked for agencies including Sapient and Rufus Leonard. He left in 2009 and now runs consultancy Scheybeler + Partners.
When Rapha launched, the concept of high-performance cycling kit that actually made you look good was practically unheard of. Scheybeler says, “Pro-team Lycra was a mishmash of mid-90s corporate Euro graphics. Designers could print anything, so they did: swirls, stripes, clashes, fades, patterns.” Mottram describes the look as “like an explosion in a paint factory”.
Rapha was different. Its colours were muted and well-chosen, it mixed Lycra with other fabrics such as merino wool. Its branding was subtle. Reviews of Rapha products often suggested, in complimentary terms, that you’d look just as good wearing the clothes in the café or pub as you would on the bike.
Rapha’s aesthetic referred back to an earlier, more stylish time. Mottram talks of seeing an image in a magazine of legendary Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx, who dominated the sport in the 1960s and 70s. He says, “The reason it’s interesting is because the clothes Merckx is wearing look amazing. This is because of the way garments were produced in those days – you couldn’t just put colours where you wanted, and if you wanted a logo you had to have a panel or stitch it on with very complex embroidery. You couldn’t have swooshes or crazy graphics.”
Scheybeler says that for the design of the initial collection there were a few rules. “No curves, few patterns, match the logo to the background, keep construction simple. When I designed the left arm stripe [now a Rapha signature], I was simply removing elements from a jersey until it worked. I started out with a classic multi-panel design and ended up with a black jersey with a single band. It was a eureka moment, I realised I’d stumbled across our version of Adidas’s three stripes.”
Rapha’s name and identity also links back to the classic European cycling scene. In the 1960s, French aperitif brand St-Raphaël sponsored a cycling team of the same name (as in Formula 1, cycling teams are usually directly named after their key sponsors). St-Raphaël operated a second team called Rapha. Mottram says, “I thought it sounded European, it sounded luxurious and emotional.”
The Rapha mark, created by Scheybeler and refined by typographer Nick Cooke, is based on hand-lettering from the side of a Citroën H-Van seen in a French book about the Tour de France. Scheybeler says, “One of the reasons we originally chose the name was for the way it looked in a script. I did a few mock-ups of various possible brand names and ‘Rapha’ just looked good, even in crappy standard Edwardian script.”
For the marketing material, Mottram and Scheybeler worked with photographer Ben Ingham, who shot documentary-style images of Rapha-clad cyclists cruising along roads or climbing mountains. Scheybeler describes it as a ‘method’ approach, with the riders just riding and the photographers and art directors staying out of the way. One model, he says, covered more than 250km on the day of a shoot. Ingham’s resulting photography is almost always intense and, for anyone even the slightest bit interested in road cycling, impossibly glamorous. Sweat, gritted teeth and 1,000-yard-stares are common. Here’s that beautiful suffering again.
This emotion and experience is something that Rapha aims to bring to every touchpoint – including its products. Tucked into every Rapha item is a small label that tells a story. It could be about a famous rider or a famous ride, or simply an explanation of an esoteric cycling term. Rapha’s collaboration range with Paul Smith features quotes from Smith, himself a keen cyclist before a teenage crash and subsequent injury led him into a career in fashion.
Rapha chief marketing officer Slate Olson describes these story labels as an element of ‘surprise and delight’ as well as a way of embedding the brand into all its products. These story labels are just a small part of the content Rapha produces. The Rapha.cc website hosts a wealth of features, essays, films and photography. Recent additions include films of rides in Yunnan, China and the Pacific Northwest and a review of the UCI Cyclocross World Championship. According to Olson the seven-strong central marketing and web team produces a new story or feature pretty much every week.
Olson, a former Nike marketing executive, has described Rapha as being “quite indulgent” when it comes to content. “We know we probably overproduce,” he says. One of the downsides of this, according to Olson, is that quite a lot of the content can get buried in the website and can be difficult to surface.
Mottram though, says Rapha’s prolific content production “is not a profligate or crazy thing to do”. He adds, “If you look at how much we spend on marketing overall, we don’t spend more than probably any other brand – we just spend it differently. Instead of shouting a lot all over the place we just make really cool stuff. It can be harder to measure, but overall it definitely works.”
The singular Rapha brand vision also manifests itself in merchandising. The company has always sold directly to customers, initially through its website. Mottram says, “If I love the product, why would I sell through bike shops which can be staffed by people who don’t care as much?”
Rapha launched its first permanent bricks-and-mortar store in London’s Brewer Street in 2012. Designed with retail consultancy Brinkworth, the Rapha Cycling Club features a café and bar and screens cycling races and films. Mottram describes it as “basically my perfect hang-out”.
It is, of course, perfectly possible to be cynical about Rapha. A brand set up by a marketing professional could be seen as being preconceived and one with such overt attempts to create a community could be seen as cliquey or elitist by those outside that group.
Cycling, as Mottram says, values purity and authenticity, and as such you might expect cyclists to have a reasonably low tolerance for bullshit. Spoof website Jahvahaah is typical of anti-Rapha sentiment, satirising the brand with a combination of moody black-and-white photography and headlines such as ‘sans serif’ and ‘even more seriouser’.
A recent Guardian article carried the headline ‘Rapha cycle clothes: easy to mock, but also easy to love’. Writer Peter Walker outlined the sceptics’ view of Rapha as “over-priced faux-designer catnip for the more gullible fringe of the monied, middle-aged, new-to-cycling demographic”.
But when reviewing Rapha clothes he went on to describe the rain jacket as “truly lovely” and the winter collar as “perhaps the most comforting single item of bike gear I’ve ever worn”. He adds, “For fans, Rapha’s near-ten year history is a glorious procession of good design.”
This takes us back to Mottram’s key customer insight – creating products and a brand that he as a cyclist wants. And therefore that other cyclists will want. Directing this passion into everything the brand does. “This can be a bit harder if you’re BP or if you’re Tesco,” he says, “But there are still passions in people that can be kindled.” Quoting author Simon Sinek, Mottram sums up another of his and Rapha’s core principles, “People don’t buy what you do – they buy why you do it.”
Angus Montgomery is editor of Design Week. Design Week and Creative Review presented a session with Rapha as part of Advertising Week Europe in London in April. For more information visit advertisingweek.eu