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Carving Out a Niche

For years, the founders of Chorus snowboards played backup singers to male hotshots. Now these female athletes are belting out a powerful solo brand — a snowboard company built for women, by women who are hell-bent on respect.

Roberta Rodger is a fiery 24-year-old with a penchant for mad half pipes and backcountry powder. She’s also a calculating businesswoman, plotting ambitious sales forecasts and innovative marketing ploys. But, most notably, Rodger is a woman scorned — and she’s vowed never to be disregarded again.

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During the first five years of her career as a professional snowboarder, Rodger competed on the Canadian National Halfpipe team, in Sims World Snowboarding Championships, and on the pro team for Burton Snowboards. She advanced rapidly and collected accolades, but Rodger says that at every stop, she was the token female — the solitary woman riding through an avalanche of swagger and strut.

At Burton, she couldn’t win. The women’s board she signed on to promote was too pliable and lightweight to withstand her technical tricks and daredevil jumps. So Rodger commandeered a stiffer man’s board, scraped off the graphics, and pasted on Burton’s girlie decals. She was neither one of the guys nor your average female rider. And she felt dissed.

“Snowboarding is a male-dominated sport — on the slopes, in the magazines, and in the management of every snowboard company,” says Rodger, a native of North Vancouver, Canada. “There were plenty of women promoting the sport, but no one was giving us the attention that we felt we deserved. Women products were an afterthought that got no time, money, or marketing.”

That was until August 2000, when fellow snowboarder Leslee Olson, 23, called Rodger with a business idea: a snowboard company built for women, by women who wanted to infuse the sport with equality and innovation. Within two months, Olson had enticed Rodger, along with fellow snowboarding professionals Cara Beth Burnside, Janna Meyen, and Tomo Yamakoshi, to launch an entrepreneurial venture with no predecessors, no competitors, and no proven market.

Today, Chorus Snowboards is making its debut in 150 retail outlets around the world. Within the first three months of its first season, Chorus had sold more than 5,000 snowboards to skeptical retailers who had never stocked products geared entirely toward women. Though it’s too early to call this season an economic success, the women of Chorus are smiling.

“We’ve created a voice for women in this industry,” Rodger says. “That’s just cool, you know?”

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Snow Job

Shortly after assembling her team of cofounders last year, Leslee Olson scheduled a meeting with Junki Yoshida, the Portland, Oregon-based owner of Millenium Three and MLY snowboard brands. An angel investor of sorts for the extreme-sports community, Yoshida saw promise in Olson’s amateur business pitch, so he phoned a local marketer, Georell Bracelin, to gauge her interest.

“Yoshida called me and said, ‘If you’re interested in this idea, investigate the market, put together some numbers, write a business plan, and tell me whether it’s feasible. And if it is feasible, are you interested in a job?’ ” says Bracelin, former director of marketing for Morrow snowboards. “I said yes.”

Bracelin encountered problems immediately. A hunt for the demographics and psychographics of Chorus’s potential market turned up a startling fact: There were none. A Board-Trac Snowboarding report assembled by the Ponzi Group suggested that 30% of the nation’s 4.5 million snowboarders were women, but no retailers or snowboard producers could tell Bracelin how many women were riding men’s boards that didn’t fit or perform correctly. No one charted sales according to gender. And no one could say how many women would try snowboarding if it weren’t such an intimidating, male-dominated sport.

“Our potential market was split between underserved women and ostracized women,” says Bracelin, now brand manager for Chorus. “Either they weren’t riding a board made for their needs, or they weren’t riding at all because they felt they couldn’t.”

A few women’s snowboards existed, but they were all lighter, weaker, or pinker than Chorus’s proposed product. Lacking reliable women’s snowboarding data, Bracelin turned to the surf and skate industries, which attract a less feminine, more daredevil female consumer. She contacted brands like Girl skateboards and Roxy surf wear to learn about their market share, branding techniques, and sales numbers. She was delighted to find that the Chorus consumer did exist — and she was ready for a revolution.

On October 9, 2000, Yoshida signed off on Bracelin’s business plan, budget, and marketing strategy. That green light opened the door to production facilities, designers, and international distribution. Rodger, Olson, Burnside, Meyen, and Yamakoshi officially resigned their existing sponsorship deals and brainstormed a brand name that communicated solidarity and allied strength. Chorus Snowboards was born.

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Board of Directors

The Chorus brand launched in September with five unique products: 142 cm, 146 cm, 150 cm, 153 cm, and 157 cm boards. Each board, shaped slightly differently for optimum control, speed, and carve, was designed and named by one of Chorus’s founding members. The second smallest, designed by Rodger, bears a small illustration of a kung-fu woman and the definition of respect. The others offer definitions for strength, determination, confidence, and grace.

These simple, powerful graphics are a drastic departure from the atomic explosions, maniacal clowns, and military motifs of many men’s boards. They also step away from the flowery, bubbly graphics found on most other women’s snowboards.

“When they are riding, the Chorus women consider themselves athletes enjoying the sport, not models making some fashion statement,” Bracelin says. “They want women snowboarders to be taken seriously and to identify with the message of this brand: pride in female athletics.”

The durable, progressive construction of the Chorus boards — built at Yoshida’s production facility in Bend, Oregon — demonstrates this message as well. “Other boards for women are soft, which allows you to carve but makes it hard to jump,” Rodger says. “Chorus boards have varying flex — soft in the middle, stiff at the tip and tail — so that when you ollie, you get good pop.” In layman’s terms, the board lets a woman rider test her ability to jump and maneuver.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Chorus product line is that each founding member signs off on every tweak, graphic, and style decision. Next season, Chorus plans to introduce eight new women’s snowboards, two boards for girls aged 6 to 10, and a line of soft goods including sweatshirts, mittens, and bags. “Every time we move a patch or change a graphic, we post the product online for all five girls to look at and approve,” Bracelin says. So far, no cat fights or breakups — Chorus is outperforming the Spice Girls by a mile.

A Catchy Tune

One look at TransWorld Snowboarding magazine, and it’s clear that at least one industry is not suffering from an advertising slump this holiday season. Weighing in with more than 180 pages of ads, the December issue of this devotees’ publication suggests that teen consumers are continuing to spend, despite the downturn. It also suggests that Chorus risks fading into a backdrop of glossy action shots if it doesn’t explore unique marketing ideas.

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“We don’t have to follow any formula,” Bracelin says. “We can have a different creative approach to our ads. We can advertise outside that narrow scope of snowboarding magazines. We can even cross-promote Chorus in other industries and not fear a consumer backlash. A young girl doesn’t get turned off by seeing a snowboard in a fashion magazine. A boy would cringe at that because it would violate his sense that snowboarding is cool and underground.”

Currently, Chorus appeals to hard-core and novice snowboarders with advertisements that pair action photos of the five founders with personal snapshots, doodles, and fun factoids about their favorite CDs, foods, and snow parks. Bracelin says that such personality marketing presents a “fuller picture of Chorus and what it’s all about.” Each Chorus woman posts regular diary entries on the Web site and personally answers every email sent by a fan.

“Chorus is more than a product; it’s a vibe,” says Meyen, who won the U.S. Open of snowboarding at age 14. “I hope the people who are riding our boards realize that they are supporting a rad thing.”

You Go, Girls!

So far, retail results are mixed. Bracelin concedes that early sales have been light. Many retail outlets placed conservative initial orders so that they could gauge the purchasing power of female snowboarders.

“Because we are a new brand in a new niche, we saw small orders during our early trade shows,” Bracelin says. “A lot of stores have leftover boards because of past seasons’ light snow, but we are beginning to see higher-than-average reorders. That’s a good sign but hardly a guarantee.”

Prospects will likely brighten for Chorus after kids begin playing Microsoft’s Amped — a new snowboarding video game for the Xbox console that features Meyen as its only female competitor. A heap of snow wouldn’t hurt either.

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In the meantime, the women behind Chorus say they’re not frightened of inspiring competitive brands or sharing market space with other women-built companies next season. In fact, the founders of Chorus think competition is a good thing — on and off the slopes.

“You rarely see a group of women snowboarding as a unit,” Meyen says. “And that’s too bad, because when I ride with Chorus, we all push each other to try new things and really excel. Hopefully, we can inspire more women not to just ride but to ride together.”

Anni Layne Rodgers (arodgers@fastcompany.com) is the Fast Company senior Web editor. Learn more about Chorus Snowboards on the Web. Contact Roberta Rodger (roberta.rodger@chorussnowboards.com) and Janna Meyen (janna.meyen@chorussnowboards.com) via email.