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Cycling is one of those well-established industries where growth is hard to come by. Product innovation, savvy marketing and most importantly the identification of untapped market segments are crucial to keeping sales and profitability rolling along. As far as underdeveloped market segments go, it’s hard to go past women’s cycling.
The recognition of the potential of this market as one of the key opportunities for growth in the industry and the sport has led to a growing sophistication in the offering for women, taking it beyond the days of shrink it and pink it where a women’s product was just smaller and prettier than the version made for their male counterparts. So what are cycling companies doing now to deliver women’s products that cater to the specific needs of the gender, to deliver their marketing in a way that makes women embrace the sport and to make sure this opportunity turns into a reality?
To find out we talked to top executives at Giant, Rapha and Specialized in three different pivotal markets. In the first instalment of this three part series we talk to Olivia Bleitz, women’s business manager at Specialized United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom is Europe’s second largest market behind Germany and, as is the case across much of the industry, figures from European industry association COLIBI show that overall bicycle sales have been relatively static for a number of years. There is a considerable gender gap in cycling participation in the UK but the momentum surrounding women’s cycling has been gathering over the past few years. British Cycling has introduced the Breeze recreational riding programme, women’s cycling was one of the stars of the London Olympics in 2012 and last year there was an enthusiastic welcome for the first professional women’s stage race in Britain, the Friends Life Tour.
British Cycling has set itself the ambitious target of getting one million more women cycling by 2020 and it seems progress is being made. In 2014 British Cycling said female licence holders increased 14 percent and female participants in British Cycling registered challenge events jumped a considerable 44 percent.
The current state of play
Bleitz moved to London eight months ago to take charge of Specialized’s women’s category in the UK, shifting from the U.S where she also worked for Specialized. She has been with the company for around four years, choosing a job in the industry to align with her personal interest in the endurance sports of cycling and running. Bleitz said that one of the biggest changes she noticed from when she started was that initially a lot of pushing was required, but now those within the company, the retailers and the female riders are happily embracing opportunities in the women’s market.
“It feels like in the last 18 -24 months women’s cycling has really popped,” Bleitz told Ella CyclingTips. “It was always there, bubbling beneath the surface. We talked about this opportunity in the future and this opportunity that we needed to capitalise on and it is almost like in the last two years it has transitioned from opportunity to reality.”
“Women are flooding the sport and they are excited about it, retailers are excited about it and it has this tremendous momentum, which is part of what makes the UK so exciting. There are really, really passionate riders, really, really passionate retailers, and they want women to ride bikes and they want to do what it takes to make that happen.”
“The UK is a few years younger in the women’s cycling market than the U.S., which is really interesting just because you can see some of what has happened in the U.S. happening in the UK and the other thing about the UK market is the women here are vocal. They are loud about what they like and they are loud about what they don’t like. Anything that smells of or suggests watered down product or being talked down to or being patronising, oh my gosh they are on it and they tell you about it, which I think is fantastic.”
Specialized makes a wide-range of women’s specific products, from bicycles to shoes, helmets and apparel.
“We have put a lot of time, energy, effort, research, behind our women’s equipment in the last few years. Anywhere there is a rider benefit we are putting resources into developing that equipment,” said Bleitz.
“In the past women’s products had gotten a bad reputation, of being inferior, or they had the idea that we had just taken a men’s product and we had made it smaller and pinker and all of a sudden it is a women’s product. That is just not the case. We don’t make a product unless it has a reason for being and we don’t call it a women’s product unless it has a distinct feature that makes it better for the female rider. That could be an experience driven innovation … At the other end we are catering for biological differences. So, we are catering to the differences in the male and female rider and making sure that she goes out and has a great experience every time, on a product that is just as technologically advanced and just as carefully designed as anything else in that product line.”
“As long as we are building authentic product and providing women with the opportunity to ride that authentic product, that is what moves us forward way more than any sort of messaging.”
The marketing approach
Ambassadors tend to play a strong role in the marketing of women’s cycling products across the board, with the more relationship-oriented approach taking centre stage after it became clear that following the same marketing plan as worked for men just wasn’t effective.
“Historically at Specialized we have really heavily focussed on that premier athlete, that really high-end racer, but we have really shifted our focus in the last few years, especially when it comes to women. Eighty percent of the time we really need to focus on getting out at a grassroots level, understanding who that women is in a community that is welcoming … that is more inspirational than your top tier athlete.”
The remaining 20 percent goes toward the top tier athlete, as the aspirational figures still work for some and remain an important part of the mix. When asked if marketing based on high performance athletes may not be as effective for women because of the lack of coverage of the sport Bleitz said:
“Women’s professional cycling does not have the exposure that men’s cycling has nor does it have the notoriety, and I think there is a whole host of reasons why that is true. Even outside of the coverage of the races themselves I think what is really lost in (the coverage of) professional cycling for women is the incredible personalities that make up a women’s cycling team, and I think if there was more focus on that then they would be more inspirational to the women that watch them train and race.”
“Then, additionally women are just different to men and what is inspirational to them is different.”
“The UK is one of the largest markets for Specialized and the growth in the UK is pretty tremendous for the women’s opportunity, and it is outpacing a lot of our other major markets,” said Bleitz.
“As a company we are right at about 17 percent of our overall business being contributed by our women’s category, but we have big goals for the future. It is definitely one of the largest opportunities. Not only is it going to grow Specialized … but the only way we are going to grow the sport and continue to move it forward is to invite more people in.”