Rapha is a sleek, premium cycling company based in London and is today one of the biggest names in cycling clothing. When Simon Mottram launched the company in 2004, cycling was in a different place in the UK. Lance Armstrong was at his peak. The Brits hadn’t yet established their dominance at the Olympics or the Tour de France.
It now supplies the kit to Team Sky, the leading British professional cycling team that includes 2013 Tour de France winner Chris Froome. And most importantly, its products are bought in their hundreds of thousands by cyclists around the world.
Mr Mottram says he came up with the idea for Rapha in 2001 because he was fed up with what he saw as the poor quality of available cycling clothing at the time. Mr Mottram wanted to design and sell clothes that looked good, fitted properly and worked well in terms of the support, comfort and protection they offered.
Drawing up initial jersey designs, he settled upon the name Rapha after he was inspired by photos of a 1950s road bike team called St Raphael. Rapha introduced a range of clothes for women in its sixth year of business. He then started to meet designers, research fabrics and visit potential manufacturers. With initial products made, and a website made up, the firm was open for business. Rather than pay for advertising, Mr Mottram decided to use his expertise as a brand expert to build up Rapha’s profile via word of mouth alone.
To help launch the business in 2004 Rapha held a Tour de France exhibition in a fashionable building in east London, inviting movers and shakers from the professional road bike racing community and cycling journalists. And from the beginning Mr Mottram worked hard to make Rapha an inspirational brand, posting glossy videos and long-form essays on its website, exalting the joys of cycling. However, it was in 2007 that sales “really started to motor”, as cycling suddenly started to become fashionable in the UK.
Mr Mottram puts this down to a number of factors, including the Tour de France visiting London that year, and the growing popularity of the government’s Cycle to Work scheme, which enables people to get bikes at a reduced price and encouraged more people to commute by bike.
With such successes inspiring more people to take up cycling in the UK, the biggest group of new amateur cyclists turned out to be middle-aged men, who were given the nickname “Mamils” – middle-aged men in Lycra. And these men more often than not have the money to buy Rapha’s clothing. The deal with Team Sky came in 2013, after Sky moved to Rapha from German sportswear giant Adidas.
The continuing success of the GB cycling team has also helped boost interest in the sport
Now employing more than 250 people in total; as well as the website Rapha has four bricks-and-mortar stores in London, New York, San Francisco and Tokyo.
But as most cyclists are aware, the brand has a polarising effect on people. The cause of the divide mainly comes down to the high prices that the UK firm charges. You either think that spending £110 on one of Rapha’s jerseys is worth it, or you consider it far too expensive, especially when you can buy similar products from other brands for less than half the amount.
The founder Simon Mottram sees Rapha as a “global lifestyle brand” — something previously unheard of in cycling. Rapha produces content, hosts events, and has 20 Clubhouses around the world that serve as physical hubs for its Rapha Cycling Clubs (RCC).
Rapha’s company mantra is “putting the customer at the centre of everything we do.” The Rapha Cycling Club (RCC) is Rapha’s deepest investment in its direct-to-consumer business model, which has been key to the company’s success. The RCC is how they create and sustain deep relationships with their core: serious cyclists who wear Rapha on the roads every day.
And it’s been successful so far. The RCC launched in December 2014, with local chapters based out of Clubhouses around the world. By April 2015, the RCC reported 600 paying members. In October 2016, the number had grown to 7,600 members. Today, it’s at 10,000+.
In exchange for a $200 yearly fee, members get a slew of benefits:
- Rides with friends. Weekly ones for members at local chapters and less frequent excursions and races.
- Exclusive Gear. Special RCC editions, priority access to new products, complimentary shipping upgrades, and a biannual magazine.
- Tools to Connect. An RCC app connecting members for rides and conversations. Private RCC members club on Strava.
- Clubhouse VIP Access. Road bike rentals, free coffees, monthly member social gatherings in 20 cities and growing.
- Annual Summits. Organized by Rapha twice a year and held in key cycling destinations.
- VIP Support. Full-time RCC team to assist with all aspects of cycling.
Rapha has invested in benefits big and small that encompass the cyclist experience. From what they wear to who they ride with to how they plan trips, RCC goes well beyond a simple loyalty program. For the right audience, the value exchange is clear. As you can see in the list of perks, Rapha has committed to connecting their brand with coffee culture. If you’ve ever been to a Rapha Clubhouse, you know they always have a top of the line espresso machine.
An RCC membership card gets you free coffee at any clubhouse in the world. Those cups of coffee give people a reason to seek out the stores more regularly than they normally would. (Note: Harley-Davidson also has cafes in their dealerships.)
Coffee also offers a light, social activity to club members. It doesn’t take training to sip coffee, and it doesn’t require setting aside hours of your time. You can spend as long as you like lingering over a good cup and conversation.
By charging members an annual fee, Rapha has a clear data point to evaluate their investment against. Beyond the profits, the RCC provides Rapha with a way to check on the health of their community.
Rapha has “185,000 customers around the world and 10,000 of those are members of the Rapha Cycling Club.” That means for every 18.5 Rapha customers, there’s 1 RCC member. That’s a pretty incredible stat. It gives Rapha a benchmark for the health of the brand — how engaged and passionate is Rapha’s customer base? Rapha can aim to keep the core community growing at a similar rate (or faster!) than its total customer base.
Part of cultivating any community is delineating who and what doesn’t belong in the community. To do that, Rapha sets minimum speeds for its rides. If you aren’t a competent enough cyclist, you can’t attend that event. There’s a baseline.
The RCC also has a set of rules for members. There are standards about the roles that need to be filled by chapter leaders in each location (i.e. a ride coordinator at every Clubhouse). Members are encouraged, sometimes required, to wear RCC gear on rides. Rider etiquette is made clear: they must “greet other riders on the road, wait for dropped riders, and help those in need.” And there’s even an official latin motto: ex duris gloria (‘glory through suffering’).mBecause the Rapha brand has a certain point of view and price associated with it, there are those who don’t fit the bill or resonate with it.
Rapha focuses their energy on providing a quality service, not tooting their own horn. You can tell that by their approach to publicizing RCC’s events. When they first launched the clubs, they did so quietly, without a bunch of fanfare. To find out about it and be a part of the early community, you had to really give a damn. Here’s one blogger on what it was like in 2015:
The first rule of Rapha Cycling Club is you do not talk about Rapha Cycling Club. Or something. And it is actually quite surprisingly difficult to find out about The RCC, as I am told the members are asked to call it. There’s very little on the Rapha website about the club and you can’t just sign up, pay the fee and become a member. Even in 2016, some of the events and store openings remain secrets to the general public:
Cycling clothes horses had been whispering about this [Pop-up Clubhouse in Los Angeles] since Rapha disappeared from its former retail location. After months of guessing, about 600 followers were asked to show up on Abbot Kinney for a Saturday night affair. For Rapha, these aren’t mass marketing opportunities — they’re for the people who care about them most. You have to be in the circle of trust to get the invite.
Rapha’s understands that the community doesn’t serve the brand. The brand serves the community. People don’t join the RCC to profess their love for Rapha but rather to do more of what they love — cycling with friends. Rapha’s role is to enable that. By holding fast to their role, Rapha gains not only the trust and support of avid customers but also a direct, consistent touch point with them. The RCC helps Rapha keep a finger on the pulse of both their brand’s health as well as the cycling community at large.
And yes, I am a fan of theirs.