The Digital Canyon Experience: Human After All
Here at Soigneur, we follow Canyon closely. We got in touch with the user-centered design specialist Laurens Boex, who is the owner of Rodesk, a UX bureau in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Laurens is fascinated by Canyon’s brand and online approach. We sent him off to learn more about the German bike maker.
How does a brand manage to make a cyclist such as myself become a fan before he’s even ridden one of its bikes? Is it something to do with the machines themselves, or is it the way they are presented? With these questions in mind, we headed to Koblenz, where Canyon’s Experience Centre is located.
As we enter the building, we are immediately confronted with the tagline: Pure Cycling. “Pure Cycling isn’t a marketing slogan; it’s an attitude. These words aren’t advertising; they are the philosophy at the heart of the company,” Canyon’s founder and owner, Roman Arnold, tells us over lunch on a sunny terrace. He’s exactly as we pictured him, with his cap and Nikes, his razor-sharp gaze and carefully-chosen words. He was once an obsessive racer himself, having ridden for the Rheinland-Pfalz team, but he never managed to make it to the top. His drive remained after his racing career though, and now he’s trying to make it to the highest level of the sport with his own bikes. Canyon’s slogan represents what his team is working towards on a daily basis, he says. It’s about promoting cycling and sharing a passion for bikes.
The company’s culture seems open and transparent. I feel as if I’m on an Apple or Google campus, although the collective goal here is to make the very best bikes. Like Jobs and Wozniak in Cupertino, Roman founded Canyon in the home he grew up in. Together with his brother, he tinkered with bikes in the garage after school and sold parts and accessories. That lead to an international company that has one, ultimate ambition: to make the best bikes at the best possible price. Everyone at Canyon is working meticulously to achieve that end.
Roman tells us a story about a time-trial bar they’ve been developing in continuous collaboration with top racers that has garnered eight watts in power savings. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s obvious that this sort of improvement is extremely important to Canyon. It takes its partnerships with teams and sponsored athletes very seriously. The professional squads force Canyon to make its products better and better. Critical input from the pros ensures that the company is always pushing the envelope, otherwise the athletes it works with couldn’t compete with the best. That’s why Roman travels regularly with Movistar and Katusha to get direct feedback.
Roman’s determination to improve runs right through Canyon’s culture. A winner’s mentality is a must, he says. Things can always be better, and then be made better again. With a calm but convincing voice, he explains that cycling revolves, purely and simply, around performance.
It was a lucky coincidence that we came across Roman at lunch. And yet, he gave us an hour of his time when he heard that we were from Soigneur, which he knew well. Our conversation wasn’t a preplanned marketing pitch then, but a sort of spontaneous meeting. Roman’s attitude speaks volumes about his company and gives what seems to me to be a very inspiring look into the soul of the marque.
Canyon, the brand
After lunch, Sebastian Ohrmann, the director of international sales and marketing, gives us a thorough tour. He’s been working for Canyon for about five years now, although it seems much longer to him. He tells us about the company’s history enthusiastically and seems genuinely passionate about the brand, the bikes, and the progress they’ve made over the years. “In the early 2000s, Canyon was still a cheap internet brand. At least, that was the image that consumers had.” At that time, there was little consistency in how the brand was presented. That is easy to see, when you look at the old bikes in the Experience Centre and the many different logos they bear. The prestigious branding bureau KMS from Munich changed all of that in 2008. The strategy, brand identity, and digital presentation were renewed in close collaboration with Roman and his leadership team. They made Canyon a high-quality, premium brand, as you can see in the unity of all its present output. Take typography. A unique typeface is used over and over, even in the smallest details of the bikes and the website. The company’s design principles are printed in large letter on the walls of the Experience Centre: simple, precise, and dynamic.
By defining such principles, the essence of the brand is summarised in words. It’s a simple exercise, but a difficult one to pull off. The important matter is whether those principles are manifested in the products. It seems to me that they are, as Canyon’s distinct typeface shows. It’s very memorable and stands out from those used by other cycling companies.
Product Design vs Brand Design
Frank Aldorf is a member of Canyon’s leadership team. Since 2015, he’s been the Chief Brand Officer. Frank is your typical spirited brand guy, with his hip clothing, well-looked-after hair, and shiny sun glasses. After one glance, I can tell he’s the kind of person who would motivate a branding team.
Having the founder for a leader is very inspiring; it makes for a tighter culture than you would find in a traditional corporate company, Frank says. “In terms of quality, the products are comparable to other brands such as Specialized or Trek, but everyone forgets that Canyon is a tenth of the size of the competition.” That means that you have to be smarter and use your resources more efficiently. “The challenge with the products is different from the challenges we face as a brand. For me, it’s important to have a solid, high-quality product, because that’s something you can build a brand on. This commitment to quality is so much a part of Canyon’s DNA.”
The development of the marque and the growing awareness it’s generated comes from a shift in the company’s focus, Frank says. Canyon went from being a brand that was mostly focused on improving its bikes to one that was focused on clients. “We definitely have a strong product, but we can become an even stronger brand.” Canyon generated awareness by organising cycling events, collaborating with teams such as the Canyon/SRAM women’s squad, and of course playing a role in the World Tour.
Canyon has one main channel, its website, to build its brand and has no dealer network. That might seem like a disadvantage, but it isn’t. It costs a lot of time to ensure that the dealers and rest of the chain leading to customers tell the same story. A coherent brand is much easier for Canyon to maintain on its own website. “There is only one way to get a true Canyon product and that’s through our website. There is only on canyon.com. Other brands are struggling with this.”
I know what he means. Even in Europe, you’ll come across a marque in many different contexts. If you want to buy a Bianchi in the Netherlands, your in-store buying experience will be much different from what it would be in Italy. And that’s just in the physical world. Online, the difference is just as big, with all of the different web shops that sell the same brands. Compared to other, more-traditional bike makers, Canyon doesn’t have to worry about a rich history either. Think of them like Uber or Airbnb, brands that have already won the trust of many customers in a short time. Delivering what you’ve promised and being authentic, that’s what it all comes down to.
Matt Heitmann, the Chief Sales and Marketing Officer who’s been working for the company since 2014, is also a member of the leadership team. He’s aware that the competition is standing in the starting blocks, ready to copy Canyon’s strategy, even though it has a head start at the moment. For Canyon, online is in the end just a means.
Matt is the marketeer on the leadership team, which is immediately obvious. He’s more of a businessman, more reserved and more focused on results and numbers. That might seem a bit boring, but he gets quite worked up when he tells us about the big steps that the brand has made online since his arrival. Canyon continues to reinvent itself to maintain its head start, he says competitively. The coming partnership with the online training programme Zwift is an example of how the brand is generating awareness in other online worlds. The website is constantly under development too, with a focus on creating a bond with people instead of straight-up selling.
“We could have a website that looks like Amazon or Zalando, but that’s not going to work for our customers. It would probably drive more sales and higher conversion, but it would come at the expense of the brand.” This is a discussion I know well. Conversion, which is oriented towards sales, and identity, which is driven by emotions, are often at odds with each other online, and I get the impression that the two sides of the argument are often fought at Canyon, resulting in a complete, high-quality online experience, without no damage done to the ease of buying a bike.
The Cycling Dutchman
Besides the delegation in Koblenz, we also spoke to Billy van de Ende, who was hired five years ago to be the Market Manager for the Netherlands, a function which has since been renamed Country Manager. “Market Manager puts too much emphasis on the market and marketing, and suggests a focus on traditional media, comparison websites etc. As a Country Manager, I lead a team of eight that is really focused on executing our company philosophy and brand values.”
Billy’s service centre in Eindhoven was built to offer the trailblazers willing to buy bikes online the best possible service. Canyon’s early adopters in the Netherlands get plenty of questions from their cycling mates on Sundays. Why did you decide to buy online? What if your bike needs servicing? This vanguard, who are often extra critical themselves, want confirmation that they made the right choice. They want arguments to parry the questions posed by their buddies. It’s simple. Buying online just works well and is trustworthy. Canyon’s service demonstrates the quality they’re committed to. All of the Canyon mechanics in the Netherlands were trained at the company’s headquarters in Koblenz. When you get your bike back after a tune-up, you’ll have two new bottles in your cages. Every moment of contact should end with a feeling of wow, you were helped well and got more than you asked for. “At Canyon, we’re still small and have a really small market share in the Netherlands. That’s a nice challenge for me.”
Billy maintains good relations with his colleagues at the head office. He sees the dynamic between Frank and Matt as a valuable addition to the company. Together, they give the marque balance, the perfect combination of brand experience and conversion in Billy’s estimation. “We aren’t a straightforward web shop, like Competitive Cyclist, Chain Reaction, or Wiggle, but a brand that wants to turn visitors into fans.” This focus on fans instead of customers is key, according to Billy. It’s not about selling bikes, but about building a long-term relationship with people. Roman’s vision shines through his words. “The only reason that I can do this work is that I trust the product 100% and believe in Roman’s philosophy of building the best possible bike at the best price and delivering it direct to customers.”
Fandom doesn’t come from nowhere is the only conclusion I can come to. In everything it does, Canyon seems to be on a mission, which is evident in its branding and online presence. Canyon has created a nice balance between an attractive identity and successful internet sales. And because the brand is authentic online, it doesn’t feel distant to customers. It feels personal.
All photos by Tino Pohlmann and Jeroen Halverstad.