An inspiring triathlon brand: Is it possible?

A lone rider grimaces, as the sun pounds down on him. The sweat drips from his brow, as the endless series of switch-backs rise up and up above him. All he can think about is the road, the bike and the burning pain in his legs. He loves this pain. It embodies the beautiful sport of cycling.

Those of us that cycle instantly feel a connection. We know his struggle, and it is the desire to overcome that is a big part of what separates us, from everyone else. This imagery taps into our emotions and defines what we, as cyclists, are proud of.

The desire to struggle and overcome is a big part of what separates us cyclists, from everyone else.

Looking back at the rider, you notice the perfectly fit, monochrome pieces of clothing that, one has to admit, make him look damn good. Rapha, a cycling performance apparel brand, has successfully identified a market niche and has created a premium brand targeting die-hard, devoted cyclists, as well as weekend amateurs that aspire to that group. While its products are unquestionably top-quality, they also cost twice as much as some comparable items. In a commoditized cycling gear market, how did Rapha manage to create a premium, design-focused niche, where customers are willing to pay the premium for their product? Great marketing and customer experience are a large part of the answer. Rapha has tapped into the history of cycling and its great races and legends. They go beyond the product and connect to what appeals to many of us — the ‘cult of cycling’. By showing their passion for cycling, Rapha tries to show that it is much more than a pair of bibs. It is a statement of who the wearer aspires to be.

Triathletes are a similar breed to cyclists (after all, cycling is one of the legs of a triathlon). Triathletes also like to picture themselves doing many hours of lonely training, and pushing beyond their limits. The obsession with the sport is the same, in get togethers with friends, other topics are rarely discussed. Do you wonder if the demographics allowing for a more premium brand also work in triathlon? Just look at the carbon bikes in any transition area. So one might ask, while many other sports industries have seen some premiumization of gear and their fair share of storytelling, why is there no equivalent triathlon brand? Why isn’t there one that taps into the origins of the legendary race, the lava fields of the Big Island, or captures the emotions and essence of what triathlon racing and training is all about? IRONMAN seems to have taken a more mass market direction, launching new events such as IRON Kids races or expanding their branded merchandise portfolio to relatively unexpected products, including the M-shaped cookie cutter, and the IRONMAN finisher bath robe. Some even say the entire sport is becoming too vanilla — just ask Chris McCormack, who recently launched Superleague triathlon. It might just be the right time to also inject some fresh air into some top-notch tri clothing.

The last few years have seen new entrants, such as ROKA and HUUB, revolutionizing the category and introducing some great gear. They are product driven and top-notch (we love both), but they play the same card with the marketing being “science based”, showcasing the latest patented technology, talking to our rational self, and not the emotional one. There is space for a triathlon brand to tap into the ‘cult of triathlon’. It would be a niche premium brand that would appeal to both the heads and the hearts of triathletes….and capture extra value in the process.

What would need to happen for a successful premium triathlon brand to establish itself in the market? There are a set of five tenets that work together to create this positioning. To get it right, all of them need to be addressed.

  1. Define what values and emotions triathlon stands for. It’s not just selling a product, it’s understanding what motivates the customer. This is at the core of a “storytelling” brand. What are the triggers that hook people on triathlon? What images and memories best evoke the passion of the triathlete journey? What brings triathletes together and keeps them together, i.e. how should we define our “cult”?
  2. Build a great product — this is really table stakes. A great product is needed to create a premium brand that can demand premium pricing. However, some of the consumer education can be left to other brands. What is needed is attention to every little detail in order to reinforce brand positioning and to justify higher prices. It’s not only about performance, sports clothing must become embedded in our lives. It has to look great and evoke passion for the sport. Small details matter. Great companies get it.
  3. Think about the entire experience that supports a premium brand. This includes the way items are sold (online only or with stores as showrooms), the return policy and the way the item is packaged and shipped. There are costs to all of these. However, this is what it takes to build a true premium brand. Is the $200 jersey that someone bought at the start of the season, now too loose for them at the end of the season? Rapha will swap it for a smaller size.
  4. Identify your brand advocates. Endorsements in sport have been important historically. Almost every big name brand has used celebrity athletes, including Nike, Under Armour and others. With the power of social media, the dynamic can shift. A brand like Rapha taps into everyday athletes like you and me. This includes people we know, people we trust and people we see next to us on the road. It is almost counter intuitive to have the glitzy celebrity lifestyle associated with the brand. It is essential to identify the right influencers that can speak the voice of the brand. You must get them on board. If they identify themselves with your brand, they will be the best, most authentic advocates.
  5. Finally, build a community. This involves moving away from a product only business to a club of likeminded people. In their local cycling clubs, Rapha organizes meetups and group rides for local cyclists, this way creating a strong feeling of community amongst their brand advocates. They can share product releases with this community ahead of public announcements and reward them for feedback.

There is a gap in the premium triathlon apparel market. Players like ROKA are going increasingly more mainstream to drive scale. As a result, no one is capturing this space. This gap could be closed by someone who, in addition to having a great product, captures triathlete hearts with an emotional story that reflects why ‘we tri’, and why we love the sport. In other words, a great marketer that sweats the small details to reinforce the brand without wavering.