ASSOS has had a turbulent relationship with female cyclists throughout its history. The Swiss brand founded by Toni Maier-Moussa in 1976 has always been known for creating excellent quality apparel, but their marketing has been used for a long time as the prime example of ‘what not to do’.
Scantily clad, or wearing jerseys with leather trousers and heels, ASSOS women have generally not appeared to be the picture of athleticism and grit and most magazines with women at the helm have refused to feature them in product reviews – TWC included.
This is a shame – especially since their new CEO Phil Duff tells us that despite the 18 World Tour Teams of the pro peloton being supplied by 13 different brands (none of whom are ASSOS), 70 per cent of riders have an ASSOS chamois sewn into their shorts. If that's true, then they've got to make a good chamois.
However, change is afoot. The company was bought by a selection of investors – including ski brand Black Diamond CEO Phil Duff, last year. ASSOS hosted an event at London’s Design Museum on Wednesday to share their history and heritage, and celebrate their changing approach. They’re so focused on an 'about turn' in terms of women's marketing, that next month they’re hosting an evening discussion at LookMumNoHands! – the very location where they were pinpointed at the recent ‘Women and Cycling Media’ debate as an example of what’s wrong with marketing of women’s cycling apparel.
The London Design Museum event saw over 120 guests from the industry enjoy a Q+A with Toni Maier, presented by OJ Borg from the BBC cycling podcast BeSpoke, and an outline of the recent changes given by new team member Phil Duff. As well as the two events, and giving us an exclusive interview, ASSOS also revealed they're opening a mono brand store in Regents Street, London. They really are getting closer to the customer - a failing Duff told us that has impacted them in the past.
We caught up with new CEO Phil Duff to find out more about how the marketing for the long time black sheep of cycling has changed…
TWC: Tell us a bit about your relationship with ASSOS and how you came to be involved…
Phil: I'm an American, and I've been a very long time ASSOS customer. In fact, when Toni Maier started the company, back in the mid 70s, I was bike racing. The whole peloton switched from wool to lycra in less than a season. I bought a couple of pairs, so arguably I was one of the first ASSOS customers.
My professional life has largely been in the financial services on Wall Street, but in the 80s I had a series of investment in outdoors and athletic brands. I didn’t know Toni personally but I figured out a good way to get an introduction, and over the course of a 2 year period we formed a relationship, friendship and eventually a business partnership.
I’ve been here since September, and I’m running the business. The deal Roche Maier [Tony’s son who has now taken over] and I have is that I'll run the business operations and that enables him to focus on what he's particularly good at - product innovation.
ASSOS make good [if expensive] kit. We know that. But what went so wrong with the marketing?
ASSOS as a company kind of fit my stereotype of a Germanic family owned business. Many of those types are founded by people who are awfully good product tinkers, and certainly Tony Maier falls into that category, nearly 80 years old, he's still designing in the basement of his house. Some of those product tinkers have produced some really world-class products. But they often have a negative characteristic… in that they somewhat hate dealing with customers.
The good part of ASSOS was the innovation of product. The weak part was the whole customer facing side of the business, in terms of brand messaging, connection to the customer and dealers. Everything was produced in house and no effort really went into marketing.
Did you want to change the marketing approach straight away? And why was it such a big focus for you?
To me [changing the women’s marketing] was one of the easy, no brainers. As a general rule, women are around 30 to 40 per cent of the market now and growing faster than the male segment. And at the very top end, they actually spend more per person per year than their male counterparts.
Even leaving aside the statistical attributes, this was a no brainer for me. I've got a wife who rides 2.5 - 3.5 hours every single day, never misses a day, I have 3 daughters who are runners and cyclists - so they spend a fair bit of time on the bike. Before they went off to university they went to an all girls school and I served for a good number of years on the board, and for four years as chairman. Living in a household of all women has definitely opened my eyes and my brain to the issues, broadly speaking, in society that women have to deal with differently to men.
So when I got to ASSOS, I said 'look, women are just as important to us as male cyclists are, and we want to depict them in the same way we depict men - as athletes. And we want to develop products for them in just as thoughtful way as we develop products for men.' I didn’t have any resistance to that at all. We’ve got a pretty good number of strong female riders working for Assos.
What were your first steps?
One of the things I did was take a sub set of the female riders at ASSOS, and asked the five of them to come up with a strategy and suggestions. They came from all over the business- marketing, production, finance - what they had in common was not only where they female riders, they were strong female riders.
I asked them to figure out what segments we need to make contact with, and how best to connect with them - how to send messages that are consistent with their culture and ours. I told them to imagine we were creating a brand new start up company, but using all the resource ASSOS has. Not surprisingly the five of them embraced that challenge with open arms. We’re still in the relatively early stages of putting that thought process into implementation.
What typically happens in athletic apparel companies when people say ‘the women’s side is growing’ – on the product side the product gets sized down and coloured in pink… and then in terms of messaging, it generally comes out with a softer, less competitive look and feel. So I said to my group ‘forget about what typically happens, you guys are all riders – how do you want the company to connect to you?’
We can see the marketing has made a huge about turn – can we expect to see the product range grow?
If you look at our women’s products, the shortcoming is that compared to the men’s side, it’s a lot smaller. It doesn’t cover as many different fits and as many different price points. It certainly covers the four climate levels. But in terms of technical development it’s fully equal to the men’s side. We are working on growing the range to really fill in so we have the same breadth and range.
What’s in the future for ASSOS?
We’re not ever going to be a mass market brand. We’re going to stay a premium brand, from a quality and pricing standpoint. We’re an authentic brand – a group of hardcore cyclists making really innovative apparel, for other passionate avid cyclists. That to me is the definition of an authentic brand. Staying a premium brand, that’s technically driven, we think that there’s opportunity for us to grow as much as 5 times whilst staying the same sandbox.
Below are just a few of the new ASSOS images now gracing screens, catalogues and magazine adverts - and you can see more on their Facebook page.
Of course, we've no doubt many of you still have questions - in which case ASSOS are inviting you to ask them at their event at LookMumNoHands! on July 20 . To register your interest for the LMNH event, please email email@example.com.