Words by Hannah Reynolds
ASSOS, known for their premium cycling apparel, were once described as a "poster child for objectification", but since the arrival of new CEO Phil Duff, there have been many changes.
In February 2016 the subject of ASSOS’ marketing was discussed at a women's debate night hosted by LookMumNoHands! ASSOS historically had a reputation for marketing material that was both sexist and inappropriate.
Duff made it very clear speaking at the Assos London launch night in June at The Design Museum London that women’s cycling was high on his agenda saying it is “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." In September 2016 ASSOS themselves hosted a debate night, also at Look Mum No Hands!, to highlight the change in direction for the brand.
There were lots of promising signs that ASSOS had really listened, a change was very much on the agenda. A year on we headed out to the brand's research and development lab and re-visited some of our earlier questions to Duff to find out how much progress has been made.
TWC: How have the first 18 months been working with ASSOS?
I figured it out, even before we closed the transaction that I couldn’t have joined a more welcoming and dedicated team of people. The two passions of the place are obviously number one cycling and number two textiles. It is the combination of the two which really makes the company.
I had two goals for the company when I joined, one was to develop a strategy for the company that was a fit and really get it growing, not just in size but in scope and complexity, because if a business is not growing it is dead. My other immediate goal was to get the right people in the right jobs. I joined a group of people who were considerably more capable than I was expecting from the outside, but there were some skill sets that were missing, no one had any real e-commerce experience for example. We needed to bring in some new people to build the capabilities of the team.
TWC: ASSOS has been a family run business from the start. It began with former pro-rider Toni Maier-Moussa in 1976 with both his daughter Desirée and son Roche joining the family business. As an outsider, coming in as CEO, what challenges have you faced?
It’s been interesting building a relationship with Roche Maier, he took over from his father at a pretty young age. Roche was wearing two hats, he was both head of the business and the singular product development person. When I first approached Roche I had no intentions of working in the business. As with the other outdoor clothing brands I own, I thought my role would be more as a lead advisor and director but not involved in the day-to-day. But it was Roche who said ‘why don’t you run the company so I can go back to doing what I am best at which is designing and developing the product.’ In my opinion, he has some legitimate genius in product development! It’s right the combination between the two of us, we have pretty complimentary skills.
TWC: In your previous interview you praised product development but had concerns about marketing - has this changed?
We are still very much a product driven company. We don’t go out and do focus groups or try and second guess what will be the fashionable colour next fall. Roche says we make cycling apparel the way we believe it ought to be. There are strengths to that. You have a better chance of making something that is truly innovative but occasionally you produce something where you create a great product but there is no real market for it.
The real change has come on the customer-facing side of the business, the marketing and sales. ASSOS had always worked on the basis that if you build a great product then people will come. In today’s world that doesn’t work, it wasn’t enough.
TWC: One of the big promises made by you as CEO was that ASSOS would change their approach to female cyclists. What progress has been made?
With virtually everything else at the company, I have tried to make things grow organically with creative input from everyone who works there. However, the only thing I have dictated and mandated is that we are not going to depict women and treat women the way company had historically. That wasn’t a commercial decision, it just didn’t seem right to me, it didn’t reflect how I saw myself as a person.
TWC: ASSOS is a European company, with certain cultural influences, how hard was it to change the attitude toward female product design?
The mindset for the kit design was all about getting the male rider to perform better on the bike and maintain a consistent normal body temperature. However, the mindset for the women’s kit was more to make them look good! Women’s products always came out a year or two later, it was an afterthought and more fashion orientated. Often products were unisex.
We have a fair number of really strong female riders in the company working across all areas from accounts, textiles, design and marketing so I got the group of them together. I gave them the charge of working out what the opportunities were for ASSOS in women’s cycling and asked how we should go about it. They developed the thinking and strategy. The change came from within the company, from our existing female staff. One of the first conclusions drawn was that we don’t have any unisex customers!
We have made more progress already than I thought would be possible. I thought it would take a long time to change the mindset of our potential female customers. Sales of women’s products have already increased. Of our total aggregate sales around the world, 25% of our sales is women’s products.
TWC: Now you are seeing a commercial result from the work done on improving your brand image with female consumers will you be sponsoring any female professional teams?
We would be sponsoring a women’s pro team now if we had more capacity, not just financial but also human resource. Historically there has always been a relationship with Swiss cycling but now we are also working with BMC and USA Cycling and sponsoring riders in the ABSA Cape Epic, Tour de Suisse and Amgen Tour of California. We have always wanted to do things that are good for the development of cycling, we are sponsoring a Swiss under-23 mountain bike team. We are also now partnered with Global Cycling Network. We have had discussions with a handful of women’s teams but none of those have gone forward as of yet. You will see that happen in the future.
Rather than spend money on a pro team we have added female ambassadors and been involved in women’s events. It’s not just about exposure but a real user experience. We decided not to use models in our promotional material anymore but real riders, ASSOS ambassadors and people who work at Assos every day. I think women are less influenced in their purchasing by a women’s pro-tour team.
Marketing has been one of the weakest attributes of the company and we have a lot to do to improve how we connect with individuals. We need to feel more at one with the community. However, there is a core cult following with ASSOS around the world, people who will bear every single thing in the range in every colour way. One person came into a store and spent $40,000 on ASSOS apparel in one transaction! We even had a long time customer who had in his will that he wanted to buried in a full Assos outfit - and he was!
TWC: We can see how the marketing has developed but what about the product ranges?
Already the range is expanding and we are working towards a female range that is equal to the men’s range in a number of garments and choices. Garments that were previously unisex such as the Bonka winter jacket are now available in a female-specific form. Marketing was one of the most immediate changes we made, R&D takes time.
ASSOS are making all the right noises and there have already been some clear and visible changes in their approach.
Duff has already made good his promises on the new ASSOS approach to marketing and we saw some items ahead of their release later this month and the new additions to the women’s range look fantastic, we look forward to seeing this progress continue.