Rethinking the Brand

Posted by Jerry Chabot on

The world of bike wheels has changed quite a lot in the last 5 years. In 2015, disc wheels were just hitting prime time and, come cyclocross season, the demand had outstripped capacity as the OEMs were barely able to get wheel stock for their bikes, leaving little left for the aftermarket. The Asian "factory wheel" business model was already in full swing for rim brake wheels at that time, and there was an absolute glut of small brands importing wheels built overseas and private labeled for anyone with a couple grand in their pocket. Quality was pretty low and prices were even lower. 

Fast forward to today. The internet has made access to carbon products easier. The pace of rim development has been pretty stunning and you can't even find a rim brake carbon wheel offered for sale. There has been a culling of brands that simply imported containers of generic rim brake wheels from China and slapped a sticker on them. Rims have also gotten wider and deeper and shallower and then deeper again. 

Quality, however, never goes out of style. Industry is cyclical, and a newer, cheaper thing often comes around and floods the market and then there is an inflection when the consumer comes to the realization that you still get what you pay for, and maybe you do want a little more, but maybe not that much more, and an equilibrium is re-established.

And so here we are.  

With that context, I took a look at my brand and my value proposition and realized that the primary differentiator for NEXT was "Jerry", and also that a wheel is much more than the sum of its parts.

Feedback from customers (validated by the product reviews) revealed that the wheel buying process often needs to involve a significant amount of interaction, consultation, and guidance with a subject matter expert, and that is a particular strength of mine, and that has value. 

Many cyclists when evaluating a product focus on comparing specs and weights and dimensions and profiles and wind tunnel data and technical buzzwords. That is all often just "benchtop racing", disappearing out on the road in real life

Most molded carbon products are of pretty good quality at this point, and you have to go out of your way to buy garbage. The shapes continue to evolve year to year to work better with new tire and frame design trends, so there is value in getting the latest evolution you can, but it is getting hard to find a disc brake carbon rim that will really disappoint. This was not always the case, as recently as a few years ago, but I believe it to be the case today. 

So then, if rims are all pretty good (or at least easy to find), and Chris King and DT Swiss and others make great hubs, and Sapim CX Ray spokes are top shelf, is there really any difference? Isn't it all the same and you can simply compare parts specs?

The vast majority of my customers and industry reviewers have said that my wheels do feel different - when you ride them! 

Here's why:

I am an engineer, not a marketeer. I have a healthy dose of skepticism of marketing claims and I acknowledge confirmation biases. I do listen to rider feedback and I would like to believe that my wheels are, in fact, better. What tangible evidence do I have to validate this, though? What data do I have to back that up? Can I really lean into this with authenticity and honesty? While I know from checking wheels I build after several seasons of use that they remain remarkably true and round and evenly tensioned, "ride feel" remains subjective. 

While I believe that what differentiates my wheels is the build quality, I did want to take the time to try to better understand it. This is the essence of engineering - understanding the how and why of things, and using that deeper understanding to design and build better products. A scientist wants to analyze and understand things. An engineer wants to apply knowledge in the real world to achieve a tangible result, to build better things.

There are measurable Quality metrics in a wheel such as lateral and vertical runout, spoke tension, tension variance, both at time-of-build and one, two, five years of hard use later. These are easy to measure, though not so easy to achieve in practice. While likely contributing factors, they do not directly represent the subjective "feel". Is "feel" simply confirmation bias that comes from buying something positioned as a high end product? Does a consumer simply want to be validated? Even if true, does that mean that it is only bias and not actual confirmation of the product Quality?

I looked at products both inside and outside the cycling industry for evidence to validate that the subjective "feeling" is legitimate: you can feel Quality, you can recognize it when you find it, and the lack of it when you don't. At the end of the day I am even more confident in attesting that the Quality of a product is built in, not bought in.

Woodworking is a good example of this. A well crafted item made of an expensive wood will feel tangibly good to the hand, and will still do so decades later. A lesser made piece using the same expensive material, upon closer inspection, will have joint gaps or uneven edges, will not feel the same to the hand, and will deteriorate over time and use. The builder has to read the material - the moisture, the grain, and use their craftsmanship to turn that raw material into a finished product.

With a Richard Sachs or Firefly frame, a Chris King hub, a Herman Miller chair, or a pair of Redwing boots, you can feel the Quality. Quality was enabled by the use of excellent materials, but it was achieved by what they do with those materials.

Similarly, excellent carbon rims and spokes and hubs are a readily available component. However, a Quality wheel is not ensured only by their use.

That was a lot of words to explain my two very succinct findings:

1. Every NEXT wheel is, in fact, ordered from Jerry, based upon a selection made after consulting with Jerry, and then Built By Jerry. 
2. Rethink what delivers a Quality wheel. The whole is more than the sum of the parts and the Quality is built in, not bought in.

    When I recognized those two things, the new branding came into focus. Onward.   

    #BuiltByJerry #RethinkWheels