We ride with the Swiss challenger of the cycling industry, Swiss Side, and spoke with their CEO and co-founder, Jean-Paul Ballard.
Racing to the front
In a saturated market like that of cycling it’s easy to disappear into the crowd. All the more impressive then that such a young brand as Swiss Side have risen so rapidly, revolutionising the cycling industry in the process. Since being founded in 2011 by Formula One engineer Jean-Paul Ballard, Swiss Side have built a reputation for quality and precision on the back of the team’s unmatched aerodynamic and engineering knowhow. So, just how have they pushed to the front of the peloton so quickly?
Filling a vacuum
“The cycling industry has been focused on weight for years, but the truth is that it’s not a big contributor to performance“, Ballard told us. The level of technical development in cycling aerodynamics, however, he saw was extremely low in comparison to F1 – partly due to its costliness, partly the difficult-to-master technology. By focussing on aerodynamics and stressing the team’s 50 years of experience working with it in F1, Swiss Side positioned themselves at the forefront of a technology vital to cycling performance (even if its importance was initially heralded mainly by themselves). They created a vacuum – and filled it. In the words of Mr Ballard: “You have to have a unique selling point. Ours is aerodynamics. And you need credibility behind it – with numbers.”
Credibility through transparency
To build credibility, Swiss Side focussed on providing proof, through numbers and transparency. Early on they did lots of aerodynamic computer and wind-tunnel testing against other products on the market. They then shared this data openly for all to see. This data sharing generated attention in the cycling community – on forums, etc. – and, when they put their money where their mouth was by asking German publication Tour Magazine to test their wheels at the company’s own cost, it eventually helped attract media attention too. Ballard personally dislikes the Apple approach to marketing, all secrecy and concealment, and he spoke to us with a genuine honesty true to his ethos of openness. But he also sees that, in a cycling community where advanced technology is often announced and rarely attested, consumers value transparency and proof almost as much as he does – saying, “people in the cycling industry are hungry for data.”
Spawning a second arm
A second arm of Swiss Side – consultancy – came about very organically. It grew from the exposure from their initial online testing data and became a means to help fund the product in its early stages. Much of it has been with DT Swiss, one of the biggest cycling brands in Europe. Swiss Side may be sharing know-how and aiding competition, but in return they get the all-important credibility and reputation boost that comes with being closely associated with such a revered brand. Consulting hadn’t been part of the plan, but soon became a great opportunity to widen reach, drive sales, and has now become an integral part of the company, shaping their plans for the future.
Ballard felt it important to emphasise the Swiss-ness of the brand. Not just because he and much of the team are Swiss, but also because, in his words, Swiss engineering is “associated with precision, high quality and high tech”. Further reinforcing this association, their brand design has a sleek, fittingly aerodynamic feel (their logo, which is inspired by an hairpin turns of the Swiss alps), but also a very technical tone. Their website (80% of their sales are online) could easily be that of an F1 or engineering brand. Similarly with their wheels, the design, stamped with bold fonts and colours, sharp angles and clean lines, doesn’t shy away from this association with the scientific and technical side of things.
Breaking away from the pack
Swiss Side have built a reputation on the back of technology and credibility-focussed branding. The next step is converting this reputation into big sales of their wheels, before moving more fully into cycling with a comprehensive product-range. Fairly conventional so far. Their dreams for the long term, however, are less so. With their brand anchored around aerodynamics Ballard says they have the potential to expand into “just about anything where you’re going more than 15mph” – skiing, bob-sledding, sailing, wind-surfing. Eventually, he even has his eyes set on expanding beyond sport altogether – to combine aerodynamic knowledge with another passion of his: green/environmental projects and technology, such as wind-turbines.
Swiss Side’s transparent approach has served them well, and will continue to do so in all of the fields into which they might expand. There is a long race to ride before that, however, and the most interesting thing to watch for the time-being will be whether they can become leaders in the cycling industry in terms of sales as well as technological development. For, upon this success depends all the potential expansions of the future – all the races they might ride.
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Image credit: © Swiss Side