Tuesday, August 17, 2010

An open letter to Shimano

I’ll get right to the point, Shimano: despite making better products, you’re getting your lunch eaten by SRAM. Dura Ace and XTR have their devotees, but as any first year MBA student can tell you, Harley Davidson doesn’t need to market to the people with the company’s logo tattooed on their arms*. It’s the uncommitted consumers, the swing if you will, that need to be convinced to buy your product, especially when SRAM is lighter and less expensive.

*Used to be that Harley Davidson claimed they were the only company whose customers got their logo tattooed on their bodies, but a recent issue of VeloNews featured a photo of a Phil Wood tattoo, and my brother spotted a guy at church with a Titleist tattoo. We both thought one was cool and the other dorky, can you guess which was which?

In the same post in which I mentioned that Specialized was the real winner of this year’s Tour de France, I also mentioned that you, Shimano, are the loser of this year’s tour. This has nothing to do with the fact that Contador and Schleck were both on bikes equipped with SRAM Red. You sponsor riders and roll the dice with results. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. Your money was on the winner seven times in a row, though he has now jumped ship for SRAM. And that right there is the real problem—SRAM has the momentum, and you seem uninterested in contesting the battle.

The problem can be summarized thusly: SRAM has generated more buzz with Mara Abbott winning the Tour of the Gila on Red than you have managed to garner from Mark Cavendish winning 15 stages in Le Tour on Dura Ace.

It’s not about who sponsors better racers—that’s a tossup. Sure, SRAM has Contador and Schleck, but you’ve got Cavendish, Farrar, and Zabriskie. And in the US market especially, that should be even odds. SRAM just uses the riders they sponsor much more effectively. They do TV ads featuring their racers. They do full-layout glossies showing their component groups and who won which race while riding on them.

What does Shimano do? You run what is frankly a pretty weak ad for XTR in a predominately road publication. The ad features Adam Craig (though it doesn’t tell you that), a fine racer, but one who has missed most of the season with injury. An ad, any ad, featuring Mark Cavendish, even one as lame as this, would be better than what you’ve got:


I recently switched from a SRAM Red crank to a Dura Ace crank. I made this decision for one simple reason: the Dura Ace crank just performs better. Way better. Sure, Red is the lightest group you can get. So what? Pros are adding weights to their bikes to get them up to the UCI minimum. And 85 fewer grams (the difference between the actual weights of the two complete gruppos) won’t help you if you’re stopped at the side of the road putting your chain back on.


Of course, looking on the bright side, Shimano, you're yet to lose market share to SRAM in the fixed gear market. This is primarily because SRAM doesn’t offer any products for track bikes. Though the track bike market is tiny, this market is growing. At least until all the people wearing wool caps and skinny jeans held up with the seat belts of old Buicks decide that fixies aren’t cool anymore, and they’d rather ride Razor scooters or longboards.


And while it’s easy for me to jest, I’m sure it’s getting harder and harder to explain why fewer and fewer high-end bikes are being spec’d with Dura Ace. Especially when just a few years ago, you had nearly 100%* of the OE US market.

*Campy had some share, just as they do now, but it’s tiny. Even though Campy doesn’t even slightly care about the US market, there are a handful of people who consider being unable to receive neutral wheel support in a race or having to own or have access to a $300 tool just to put on a new chain a worthwhile sacrifice to have a gruppo that goes to 11.

If SRAM were truly producing a better product, this loss of market share would be one thing. But Di2 is hands-down the most amazing thing I have ever ridden. It’s so much better than anything else that there’s nothing to compare it with. And while Di2 is expensive to the point of being unobtainable for most people, including me, there aren’t nearly enough demo centers. Because Di2 is so good that if people actually rode it, there’s a meaningful number who’d be willing to spend the money, but who today have no idea what they are missing.

Even when we’re just comparing the mechanical gruppos, you get a good idea of how poorly you’ve promoted Shimano technology when the best marketing I’ve seen for a Dura Ace component wasn’t even produced by Shimano.

It's just a front derailleur -- what can be so amusing? It's this: When Shimano's arch-nemesis SRAM unveiled their much-ballyhooed Red component group in fall 2007, one of its most-hyped attributes was the fact that the left Red Doubletap lever (in contrast to SRAM Force and Rival) allows for front derailleur trimming. It has a micro-shift to it, which allows you to cross chain in gears like a 53x21 and eliminate noisy front derailleur/chain rub. And this was a fine enhancement, so long as you didn't dig too deep into the details (e.g. Red doesn't allow for trimming when you're in the small chainring -- so you're SOL if you're in a 39x13. Cross-chaining in the small ring is noisy as hell. Another fact, of course, is that Shimano has offered front derailleur trim in the STI lever since, like, forever.)

What's funny (or at least interesting) is this: The great innovation with the Dura Ace FD-7900 is that Shimano has eliminated the need for front derailleur trimming. SRAM hasn't yet figured out how to provide it, and suddenly Shimano has made the need (in a Dura Ace drivetrain, anyway) obsolete. Thanks to the fresh design of both its cage profile and the linkage, you can cross-chain to your heart's content. You won't get chain rub, so you won't need to micro-shift the noise away. Sure, 53x25 and 39x11, etc. are usually unwise gears to be in -- they put excessive wear on your drivetrain, and they have loads of mechanical drag. But, then again, at crunch time on race day, your pain-addled, oxygen-starved brain isn't optimally situated for thoughtful shifting decisions.

Really, Shimano, this is not a conversation we should be having. You’ve got great product, and you sponsor exciting racers. Creating a lot of buzz about both of those should be a piece of cake. I mean, Red has only been around since 2007. 2007! But I fear, like the US auto industry a generation ago, that you are a sleeping giant. You’ve enjoyed tremendous market share for years, which you’ve been able to maintain by focusing on making good products and letting them sell themselves.

Suddenly you need to market those products in order to be able to sell them. This is a little different than engineering, but really compared to how hard it must be to build equipment this good, this part should be easy.

You’ve spent the money to sponsor great riders—now start featuring them in your ads. Even if it feels unseemly at first, make a big deal of it when people win on your stuff.

You’ve spent the money to sponsor this week’s Tour of Utah—now take advantage of more than just a chance to put your logo on some signage and drive around in branded wheel cars. Set up a mind-blowing Di2 demo center. Recruit sales people and brand ambassadors to attend the race expo with some neat show-and-tell, and have them tell the story (I’d be happy to work a booth in exchange for product, hint, hint).

SRAM has positioned their stuff in a way people understand: cheaper and lighter. Don’t let that be the end of the discussion. 85 grams in a complete group isn’t going to make a difference. There are lots of good reasons to buy Shimano (durability so good I've ridden the same XT drivetrain on my mountain bike for more than five years being one of them), you just need to talk about the reasons in a language consumers will understand.


  1. I agree with a lot of your points. Shimano is a bizarre company. There is no rushing Shimano and it does seem like they are playing catch-up to Sram in some areas. Case in point is Sram's embracing of 2x10 mtb drive-trains with XX for 2010 and down to the X-7 level for 2011. Shimano - just XTR so far for 2011. Dumb. They are going 3x10 in lower groups and will eventually offer doubles in lower levels, but while they wait people will buy Sram.

    I have heard amazing things about Di2. What I don't get is why we don't see electronic Ultegra/105 groups. Yeah, it would be more expensive but more people would buy it. Also, why no electronic XTR? People are cobbling together their own, why not sell one?

  2. JZ: I get why they don't do electronic Ultegra/105. Makes sense from a cost as well as positioning standpoint. Electronic Ultegra would cost more than mechanical Dura Ace, plus you want the electronic to be a super-premium product. But not producing a double crank for XT and SLX is just plain stupid. Especially since Shimano cranks shift so much better than SRAM/Truvativ.

  3. Good observations. Shimano's lack of strong marketing is like leaving money on the table.

  4. StupidBike: when it's down from 99%, that's a problem.

  5. yeah, they only brought in 187 billion in 2008.

    but what i really hate is the arms race mentality that the component companies are in the middle of, driving costs up for very, very, very minimal improvement.

  6. 2008 was 235B
    2009 was 187

    end times.

  7. Costs have gotten out of hand, but the upside is the trickle down effect. Today's XT is like yesterday's XTR. If you don't have to have the top-end group, there's some silver lining.

  8. Don't get me wrong, Shimano is still tops in my book for a number of reasons - they make their high-end cranks in 180mm, their cassette/chains last longer in my experience, its quieter, and you can buy Shimano stuff from the UK or Europe for less than cost for most U.S. shops. And of course Shimano is not hurting for money.

  9. They are busy making fishing reels.