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Rick Vosper: Why Levi's is no threat

Published March 14, 2012


By now you may have heard about the new (well, year-old, if you count back from the initial PR blast) line of Commuter brand cycling duds from Levi's. Even if you haven't, they've already been talked about by other folks in the blogosphere with far better credentials than mine for doing product reviews of cycling apparel...meaning they actually know something about a: product reviews and b: cycling apparel.

Here's a smattering of comments, with links to the reviews by people who know what they're talking about...and some who clearly don't. No points for guessing which is which.

  • Bike Shop GirlI do feel like some of the garments (jackets/hoodies) are too dark and not thought out enough, but it is a good place to start.
  • Cool Hunting:  Drawing on their workwear heritage, the new series incorporates cutting-edge technical functionality, puts "craftsmanship, quality and durability" at the forefront of outfitting today's worker, and integrates feedback from urban cyclists who already wear Levi's...
  • Commute By BikeWhen I managed to pull them on, I felt like I was wearing the dance tights of an 11-year-old girl — not that I know what that would feel like. They squeezed angrily at my man parts.
  • Cyclicio.usOh, it turns out Levi’s new line of 511 skinny “Commuter” jeans wasn’t an April Fools Joke after all.
  • Prolly Is Not Probably (good discussion of technical features): Let’s just say they covered all the bases and while denim might not be a traditional material for cycling-related apparel, these jackets are a huge improvement over riding in the standard jackets. 
  • Los Angeles TimesHigh-tech cycling clothes eliminate the need for a shower...
  • Bike CommutersThese jeans are packed with features. ... The execution of some of those features, however, have me scratching my head. 
And here's a recently released video showcasing the Commuter line in all its tragic inkstained hipsteresque glory:

But what I wanted to talk about isn't whether the Levi's products are any good. Or whether their commercials are any good. Or even how many zeroes there are tacked onto the end of their marketing budget. But about whether two years from now the Levi's folks are even going to be in the bike business at all. Because I'll put up $10 right now that says they ain't.

Here's why.

Our Underwhehelming Advantage

Two  reasons the bicycle business is the bicycle business and not just a minor subset of the outdoors or sporting goods business are that we're relatively small and relatively  unique.

Periodically some corporate giant with a checkbook the size of the our entire gross sales industry-wide decides to step in and show us rubes how it's done.  And a few years later they step back out again with their corporate tail between their corporate legs after receiving a stern talking-to from their own corporate Accounting department.

The classic case of corporate hubris in this regard came from Nike, a small company you may have heard of.  Old-timers will recall the Swooshters taking a run (heh) at the bike biz not once, not twice, but on three separate occasions between the late '80's and the mid 2000's. And how they failed each time.

The first time around they tried to do it with cutting-edge features like the first Velcro closures on cycling shoes. But they also located the buckle right on top of that big nerve that runs across the arch of your foot. Ouch. (It later took Dino Signore at Sidi to figure out how to do that one right.) So the Nike guys slinked (slunk?) back to Beaverton to lick their wounds and pretend the whole thing never happened.

The second time around in 1991 they brought a fresh line of shoes and some serious firepower in the form of cycling legend and then-world-champion John Tomac. The shoes were better, but even Johnny T— the only cyclist, by the way, to ever be National Champion in BMX, MTB and Road— couldn't help them, distribution-wise. Lather, rinse, repeat.

So the third time time around, no more Mister Nice Guy.

In the mid-2000s Nike comes to the table with Lance Freaking Armstrong at its side. Not to mention an award-winning multimillion dollar campaign of  Weiden Kennedy TV spots that run virtually nonstop during the Tour de France for a couple years and Trek—Trek!— to distribute its products. Oh yeah, and they had some Nike-branded shoes and stuff, too. And they still not only can't make a satisfactory dent in the North American bike market, but they're getting their butts kicked by companies they could buy outright without rating a line-item in the annual Nike Corporate Report to Shareholders.

If you can't win with that kind of firepower, maybe it's time to just go home. So they did.

Now let us pause, Gentle Reader, to consider the sheer mind-bending magnitude of what Nike had managed to accomplish here. Or not accomplish, as the case may be. Remember that old saying about not bringing a knife to a gunfight? Well, this is like bringing a gun to a knife fight. Or maybe an entire tactical nuclear arsenal. And losing anyway.

If you can't win a fight with weapons like that,  maybe the problem isn't with you, or the weapons, but with the nature of the fight.

Which is all by way of saying that despite all appearances, the chances of the Levi's Commuter line having any measurable impact on the bike biz are approximately zero.

And finally, this just in from the Ministry of  Happy Endings: After firing Nike as their shoe brand, the folks at Trek spent a couple years developing their own stuff under their Bontrager label. And from what I hear, it's both technically better and commercially more successful than the Nike stuff ever was.

Special thanks to my friend David Cabanban for showing me the Levi's TV spot that put this whole chain of thoughts into action.

Editor's note: Rick Vosper's quarter century in the cycling business includes executive stints as Director of Airborne Bicycles, Director of Global Marketing for Specialized Bicycles, and VP of Marketing & Product for Veltec Sports. Outside the cycling industry, he's worked as an award-winning copywriter and creative director for advertising, collateral, web, and multimedia agencies. 


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