How Oiselle Plans To Outrun Nike

As is the case with most innovators – the first friction point the CEO and founder of Oiselle Sally Bergesen was trying to solve for was her own.

After a decade spending her weekdays helping brands develop better marketing strategies and spending her weekends long distance running for fun, two things occurred to her while she was trying to buy new running shorts.

1. The vast majority of the shorts managed mostly to present her with a trifecta of branding fails: uncomfortable, unattractive and anything but inexpensive.
2. She could do this much, much better.

And while any number of us have had the thought that we could do something better than the pros, the vast majority of us don’t ever try.

But Sally Bergesen is not quite like everyone else.

“I love running and I love design, and oh my God everything here is so awful. It doesn’t have to be.””

And Bergesen is into winning converts – she thinks lots of people, women in particular, could learn to love running too. Which meant her step one was pretty easy – design something a runner might actually want to be seen in public wearing.

A business was born.

Sort of.

“So I’m standing in a department store, literally holding nylon in my hands and saying out loud to myself – ‘How can I fix you,’ And then it took me literally a year to answer that question.”

The “answer” came in the form of Oiselle’s first product – the Roga short. Roga is a portmanteau of “Running” and “Yoga” because the shorts are designed to have a flat waistband like a yoga pant’s. Her first product line – The Roga – paired with a few mono colored t-shirts with stenciled bird silhouettes (Oiselle is an extremely old French word for bird) sold out immediately at their debut a decade ago at the Seattle Marathon Expo.

A decade later – Oiselle is making a variety of their distinct flat-waisted, high cut running shorts, and the simple t-shirts are still on offer. But now the product line is bigger with with strappy sports bras, cropped tanks and yoga pants (and capris) all their own.

The Oiselle look is undeniably instantly recognizable – and that is a big part of the brand appeal – the runners join a community of athletes that functions a bit like family. And that family includes our topline runners Katie Grace who is competing in Rio in a few weeks, and the women who are running to fight breast cancer in their communities – or just running because they love to run.

It is still a pretty small family.

Oiselle did $10 million in revenue in 2015 – with hopes of targeting $15 million for 2016. By comparison, Lululemon does $2 billion and is profitable. Oiselle is … not so much – not yet profitable, anyway – but that is next on the agenda, according to the outspoken Bergesen.

“But then again – you get up to all those billions in revenue you can easily lose track of the customer – and I don’t think any of the team at Oiselle wants that. I mean, if you have to send your products back for a recall – and you’re a women’s fitness brand. I don’t know, I don’t think you say [as Lululemon’s CEO actually did] that the problem is women’s thighs rub together or whatever nonsense instead of just admitting your product needs work.”

Bergeson noted that in some sense the rules in retail don’t change no matter what is going out to market – and certainly the most important rule doesn’t:

The customer is always right. Period. If the customer’s thighs rub together, then use better fabric – don’t berate them. Or prepare for them to become Oiselle’s customer instead.

And of late, a lot of notable athletes are becoming Bergeson’s customer. Apart from Katie Grace, Oiselle’s has quietly over the last decade put together a rather elite team of female runners – professionals and non – which is surprising given its relatively small size.

“We like to think we punch well above our weight,” Bergeson noted. “One of the advantages of making a superior product.”

And now they are training much of that punching power on the biggest and baddest competitor in sport athletics apparel’s super-heavyweight class: Nike.

It has been a contentious summer for Oiselle and Nike, given Nike’s sponsorship of the USATF (US Track and Field) and the Olympic Games. Because when Oiselle runners run, their branding stays on the sidelines – though they are allowed to wear whatever they want so long as there is no brand identifying information on it (like a name or a logo). The only logo or branded material that can go out to the world is the Nike swoosh – the checkmark that we all know means “Just Do It.”

So what happens when Oiselle – after Katie Grace won her Olympic qualifying race – posts a picture and a congratulatory message?

The IOC tells them to take it down – now – because Rule 40 was created to “protect the financial and intellectual property assets of the Olympic Games and its sponsors by limiting what the athletes, and non-Olympic partners can do to leverage the games in advertising.”

Rule 40 specifically bans non-partner brands like Oiselle (who sponsor athletes but do not pay any money to the IOC) from offering congratulatory messages on social media that reference the Olympics in any way. Actually, the cease and desist letter was a bit more specific – it more or less banned Oiselle from mentioning the Olympics on social media at all – making references to outcomes, events or really anything that happens in Rio is pretty much off the table.

“The athletes may not thank their sponsors. And the sponsors may not acknowledge the athletes.”

And the consequences can be very real.

In 2012 Michael Phelps’ sponsor, Louis Vuitton, decided to flout the IOC rules and leak an ad campaign anyway because they could afford the fine. The IOC responded by threatening to either ban Michael Phelps from swimming any more in the game – or by taking away some of his medals.


That never happened, mostly because it became clear that Michael Phelps had no agency in the ad, but the worry is real for athletes and brands not quite as famous as the most successful Olympian in history or as deep pocketed as Louis Vuitton.

“Honestly, it will be very problematic for the IOC/USOC to punish an athlete for sponsor behavior, but I would never rule it out,” Bergesen noted.

But, Rule 40 to the side – and the fact that they are in a constant struggle with Nike – Sally Bergeson remains unruffled.

Because the race is long – and it isn’t won by starting position.  It’s won at the finish line – and Oiselle is designed to get there faster.



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