Rapha – building a brand through creativity

‘The reason why I love road cycling and why I’m passionate about it is suffering,’ says Rapha founder Simon Mottram. ‘It’s a very true, honest sport. It’s based on the idea of the more you put in, the more you get out. Suffering is absolutely at the heart of everything we do.’

Rapha photography, by Ben Ingham
Rapha photography, by Ben Ingham

When 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.

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+company.

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.’

The Rapha identity, designed by Luke Scheybeler and Nick Cooke
The Rapha identity, designed by Luke Scheybeler and Nick Cooke

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.’

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. 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. 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.

Story-labels feature in Rapha products, telling cycling tales
Story-labels feature in Rapha products, telling cycling tales

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. According to Olson the seven-strong central marketing and web team produces a new story or feature pretty much every week.

Rapha chief marketing officer Slate Olson is a former Nike marketing executive. He has described Rapha as being ‘quite indulgent’ when it comes to content. ‘We know we probably overproduce,’ he says.

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.’

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.

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.’

Rapha photography, by Ben Ingham

Source: Rapha

Rapha photography, by Ben Ingham

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.’

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A full version of this article appears in the May issue of Creative Review. Design Week and Creative Review presented a session with Rapha as part of Advertising Week Europe in London in April.

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Comments
  • Stephen Light November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    How about opening a Rapha store in Bristol just like the one in London. We have a huge cycling culture here and it would work. If you need someone to manage it don’t hesitate to call.

    Steve

  • Michael Lebron November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    “creating products and a brand that he as a cyclist wants. And therefore that other cyclists will want.”

    Well, I don’t know that I could ever say that everyone else will want something just because I do, lol. I collect and listen to vinyl records, but the 99% are mostly digital, and many don’t even know what a CD is these days.

    I am a cyclist who is old enough to have worn the type of jerseys that the Rapha style emulates (duh: see comment about vinyl). And I am a graphic designer and art director: I designed the black and copper colored graphics panels on my bespoke Waterford to be reminiscent of the orange and teal graphics panels of my 1971 Holdsworth Professional.

    And, I also like the look of Rapha (although I don’t get the pink: maybe someone can explain that to me). I have one jersey.

    I would argue that maybe we are talking about a particular demographic that likely appreciates vintage bikes, vintage bike-wear, and is style-conscious, who wants well-designed, classic-looking stuff.

    Which, judging from the majority of stuff I see bicyclists wearing and riding, is not a lot of bycyclists. Amazing at all that we are in fact £17M of purchasing power.

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