Beyond pink it and shrink it: Layers of change in diverse Asia-Pacific (Part 2)

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The women’s market for cycling products is going through a period of evolution. The commercial opportunity posed by such an underdeveloped market sector is causing companies to invest time and resources into providing female cyclists with the products they want and need. In part one of our three-part series on the women’s market we looked at Specialized’s take from the United Kingdom and now we turn our attention to the Asia-Pacific region.

How are two very different cycling companies tackling the challenges and opportunities presented by this emerging market sector, particularly in such a diverse and rapidly changing region? To find out we talk to Sarah Clark, Rapha’s Asia-Pacific head of marketing and sales, and Joanne Lee, manager of the marketing and customer service department for Shimano in Singapore.

The market

The Asia-Pacific market is one of stark contrasts. There is the mature market of Australia which shows a significant interest in cycling as a sport, a fact clearly evident when you look at the number of Australian riders in the professional ranks. Then you have the populous Asian nations, many of which have a strong background in cycling as a means of transport but not as strong a record in the sport.

Asia is a manufacturing hub for a wide range of bicycles and cycling products for export, but in much of the region, the sales at home have been focussed on basic bikes for transport. Still, there is a shift occurring as income levels grow and the lure of more expensive bikes and accessories for recreation increases. In China, Shimano pointed to the continued robust growth in sport bicycles and a shift towards high end bicycles in its 2014 annual report. Medium to high end bicycles are expected to become the major product segments in the next five years, according to an ACMR-IBISWorld report on bicycle manufacturing in China.

The women’s market is also divided. In Japan, the city of Tokyo is often cited as a rare example of a city outside Europe where female commuter numbers are in step with the number of men. In other parts of Asia, cultural barriers hinder the female cyclist. In Australia, a number of programs have been introduced in an effort to boost the number of women on bikes, but even in this well-established market, women are still in the minority. Women’s cycling participation in Australia rose from 11 percent to 16 percent from 2010 to 2014 according to Roy Morgan research. Cycling Australia said female members were at 17 percent in 2014.

The current state of play

The growing importance of the Asia-Pacific market to high-end cycling clothing brand Rapha is demonstrated by its move to introduce the new position of a head of marketing in the region. Additionally, the company’s interest in an increased presence in the women’s sector is highlighted by their choice for that new position. Rapha appointed Clark to the job nine months ago. She brings a wealth of experience in women’s luxury brands after nearly 14 years at global consumer products giant Procter & Gamble and a passion for cycling which sees her regularly racing on the weekend.

Rapha was formed little more than a decade ago and its home base is the United Kingdom, where the group added a new dimension to its cycling-wear and a boost to sales when it became Team Sky’s official clothing supplier in 2013.

“The UK continues to be about that 30 percent and Asia is still tracking to 27 percent this year,” noted Clark. “We are really catching up and it really is the growth region of the future. We have such huge populations here, we have … growing pockets of wealth and really great growing racing. Australia is very well developed but even across South-East Asia and Japan we are seeing lots more amateur races come into play.”

Currently women make up a small but loyal proportion of Rapha’s customer base. The weakest markets are those where cycling is less developed across the board.

“They are around five to 10 percent of our customer base, depending on the market,” Clark explained “They are more active in the UK, the U.S. and Australia, which makes sense because when you look at some of the other markets, especially in my region, we are behind in the development of cycling per se.”

For the Japanese-based Shimano, Asia is the biggest market by sales, and in 2014, sales in the Asian region grew by over 20 percent. Shimano’s Lee is responsible for the after-market in South-East Asia and said the nature of that particular slice of the region is extremely diverse.

“We have a unique combination market in the[ South-East Asian] region,” said Lee. There are developed countries like Singapore, which are a hub for information and purchase, as well as countries like the Philippines which focus on do it yourself, or Malaysia where there are cycling events happening nearly every week.

“The market is growing strongly and we are seeing more and more people joining cycling as a sport, not just racing but also for healthy lifestyle,” said Lee. This includes many more female cyclists; however, the women’s specific market for Shimano in this area is not yet substantial.

“Unfortunately at the moment, the female cyclists in our region do not specifically request products for women, the (women’s) market is still relatively small compared to the whole market,” said Lee.

The products

Rapha is unapologetically a niche player. They are a luxury brand that started with the intent of filling a void in the market for high quality cycling wear with a sense of style.

Rapha introduced womenswear to the range in 2010 as the requests for women’s clothing were rolling in and the growth in the number of females taking up recreational cycling evident. Initially the company launched into the market by adapting men’s products, but by 2013 was developing a product range specifically for women from the ground-up. Another step up in the women’s range is coming in 2016. The variations from men’s products includes the obvious issues like different pads, colour and style choices as well as the less obvious, such as flattering fabric layouts and fabric choices that suit hot conditions yet maintain modesty.

In contrast to the niche position of Rapha, Shimano is the world’s largest maker of bicycle components.

“We have components that fit to a lady’s height. We have products that are specifically designed for women – cycling shoes, jersey, eyewear, and we also distribute helmets designed for ladies,” said Lee.

The marketing approach

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It seems relatively common that when cycling companies start to get serious about marketing to women they throw out the tried and tested formula’s they have used for men and start again. For Rapha though, they never followed the traditional cycling market plans so it has been a matter of adjusting the focus rather than starting again.

The four key values that Rapha builds marketing around are: love the sport, suffer, think for yourself and inspire others.
“When I first joined I thought: ‘Does Rapha appear too male? Is it too aggressive? And does this resonate with women?’ But as I travel the globe, and especially my region, I feel more and more similarities around how people approach the sport versus differences,” said Clark.

In fact, the whole concept of suffering is one Clark said she believes women excel at, as long as it is suffering with a purpose.

“It is not that women would be stupid enough to blindly suffer away,” Clark explained. “It is doing something because they know something great is going to come out of it.”

Rapha uses riding ambassadors, cycling clubs, engaging events such as The Women’s 100 and content produced in-house to create a sense of community around the brand.

“I think women get a lot out of going through these physical and mental journeys with a group. That is why we put a lot energy, even more so than with men, into our ambassador program so that these women can guide and inspire,” said Clark. “I feel it is even more important because it is a growing area of the sport. We have got lots of very strong women, but we also need to nurture and bring women across and help them to understand how it works and what they can get out of it.”

This concept of building a cycling community has also stayed true regardless of the region, whether it be Asia, Australia, the United Kingdom or the United States.

The marketing dynamics are very different at Shimano, as while the differences between men and women’s needs are clear and relatively easy to identify in products such as saddles, the focus with many other components revolves around size, not gender.

Shimano’s Lee, said the small scale of the women’s market for Shimano in the region meant that there wasn’t much promotion specifically aimed at women but added: “We will continue to promote and educate the riders that women’s specific products might fit them better and they will enjoy riding even more.”

The Opportunity

Shimano is expecting a steady increase in the women’s cycling segment in the region, said Lee.

“The market is definitely growing as women are more health conscious and they are into sports nowadays. We are seeing more women participating in local cycling events.”

For Rapha, its current size and low market penetration means that there are many opportunities for growth, it is just a matter of picking which ones to pursue first.

“If you look at Asia it is almost in a sense totally untapped,” said Clark. “Australia is pretty well developed but Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, these are all … growing spaces. The market will never be our limiter, it will more be our approach that will keep us a bit steady. We will always want to make it an organic growth, which is really rooted in an understanding of the sport and a growth of the community.”

Although the women’s category is currently only at five to 10 percent, it accounts for Rapha’s fasting growing segment.

“We are growing over 50 percent year on year. We see that our women are the most loyal, so we have over 60 percent retention of our customers year on year, which is great. Also we find that women spend more, so when women do join us they explore the range and often end up buying 15 to 20 percent more per year than a man,” said Clark.

Clark said the aim was to increase the female percentage of the customer base to more like 20 to 25 percent in the less than five years and for 30 percent of Rapha Cycling Club members to be female.

“We have got pretty aggressive goals,” Clark said.

In the the third and final part of this three part series on the women’s cycling market we talk to Elysa Walk, the general manager of Giant USA.

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