How do you start a brand from scratch?
Yesterday evening, I learnt all the fundamentals from Simon Mottram, founder and CEO of Rapha, in the first of this year’s D&AD President’s Lectures.
We work in an industry where we are paid to advise brands how to communicate to their customers, but very few of us ever set up brands ourselves. With a career in brand development, Simon quit his job and created Rapha in 2004 – a sportswear and lifestyle brand primarily focused on road cycling. Due to see its annual turnover surpass £50m this year, Rapha also supplies the kit to Team Sky, the leading British professional cycling team.
Rapha’s popularity today is very different from the difficulties Simon faced when he was trying to secure investment to start the business, with it taking 18 months for investors to buy into his plan.
With cyclists flooding the streets of London every morning for the daily commute, and professional riders regularly popping up on our TV screens, it’s easy to forget that back in 2004, the sport was in a very different place. Investors used to snub Simon, proclaiming that cycling was just ‘for people who can’t afford cars’. It’s now one of the most popular sports in the world. More than 3.5 billion people tune in to watch the Tour de France each year.
Rapha’s extreme growth has coincided with cycling’s rise in popularity, and this is no coincidence. Of course, it has helped that the Tour de France came to England, and that the GB cycling team has gone from strength to strength, dominating the Olympics, with Bradley Wiggins even being crowned Sports Personality of the Year.
For Simon, this is what it’s all about. He started Rapha, out of an obsessive love of cycling, and his dream was not to create the best cycling brand, but instead for cycling to become the most popular sport in the world.
All 250 (or so) Rapha employees share Simon’s love for cycling. Every new employee gets a silk race number, which shows how long you’ve worked at the company and Wednesday is company ride day, when all staff are encouraged to take the morning off and go for a ride.
Rapha hasn’t been without its own controversy. It has polarised the cycling community with many cyclists arguing its products are overpriced and for poseurs. But Simon believes the business has been successful precisely because it’s focused ‘on a particular part of the market rather than trying to be all things to all people’.
“To thine own self be true.”
Written above the stage at Conway Hall, where yesterday’s lecture took place, Simon said the phrase rings true with him, arguing that staying true to their principles has allowed them get to where they are today. Despite their critics, you can’t deny that Rapha are a force to be reckoned with.
Check out D&AD’s upcoming President’s Lectures here.