An Awakening Giant Rossignol focuses its attention on the U.S. market

Pascal Joubert des Ouches, snowboard marketing manager for Rossignol, guns the rental car into the foothills of the Spanish Pyrénées at a smooth 140 kilometers per hour. It’s raining steadily and he’s not sure where he’s going. He’s also simultaneously answering my questions about Rossignol, its strengths, weaknesses, and position in the market.

He chooses his words carefully as he mentally translates his answers from his native French into English. It’s quite a display of concentration-especially when he pauses mid-answer to power through a crowded roundabout outside Pamplona, then picks up exactly where he left off.

But it’s what he’s saying that’s fascinating. I look down at my tape recorder for the tenth time, making sure the tiny wheels are still spinning.

“I think today the typical customer for Rossignol is not what we want to achieve,” he says. “To be honest, the typical Rossi customer today is someone who is either crossing over from skiing or a more mature snowboarder than the core target of the market.

“We attract the twenty- to 25-year-old rider instead of the rider between twelve and twenty. They are looking for reassurance in terms of technology, service, and efficiency-not image.

“Today, the Rossignol Snowboard image is a patchwork,” he continues as the road ducks into another tunnel. “It’s inconsistent worldwide, and to be honest it will be very easy to do much better. I know where the weaknesses are.”

He says he knows Rossignol Snowboard’s image in the United States needs to improve. He admits the product didn’t meet the needs of U.S. retailers a few years back and to succeed he must regain their confidence. Yes, he knows the graphics were wrong for the most important snowboard market in the world.

At the very least, it’s one hell of a surprising conversation.

But as he continues, it dawns on me that his frank answers are more a product of Rossignol’s strengths than weaknesses. The impression is that if Rossignol has been able to become one of the major brands in the United States despite these miscues, imagine what it will become now that it has its act together.

The Strategy

“We’re the third-largest brand globally,” says Marc Bujold, the U.S. snowboard division manager for Rossignol. “According to the SIA Retail Audit, we were the fifth brand in board units in specialty stores in the United States at the end of the ’97/98 season. It’s our plan to move into the top three within two years.”

Rossignol’s strategy seems simple: Fess up to past blunders and clearly explain solutions. Emphasize Rossignol’s unique product technologies and how they enhance performance and fun. Highlight the state-of-the-art factory in Spain where all Rossi snowboards will be constructed. Explain how product development comes directly from hardcore snowboarders and how the entire snowboard division is staffed with riders passionate about the sport.

Finally-and perhaps most importantly-show the brand is in touch with riders by combining all these elements in a clear, consistent marketing message that brings consumers to the shop predisposed to buy Rossignol products.

And this isn’t some low-stakes game here. “The ski market is shrinking,” says Joubert. “Some years ago, six-million pairs of skis were sold in the world. Now it’s dropped to 4.5-million. However, 1.5-million snowboards are now sold worldwide, so we’re still talking about six-million units of snow-surfing equipment.

“So there’s a transfer of consumption,” he continues, “and therefore we must strengthen our position in the snowboard market. That’s why we’re putting more resources behind snowboarding; it’s crucial for the company. In a few years, the overall number of snowboarders will equal skiers-it’s not foolish to say that.”

It’s also not foolish to say the overall health of the Rossignol brand rests with its success in snowboarding. For the first half of the year, sales of Rossignol wintersports equipment fell more than 25 percent to 752-million frances, while sales in the snowboard division rode 17.5 percent to more than 65-million francs. The company says it expects to maintain an annual growth rate of fifteen to twenty percent a year-due in large part to the low cost of production in Spain.

The Factory

I’m taking notes as fast as I can as Joan Duocastella, Rossignol’s director of production, literally leads me by the elbow through his 46,000-square-meter factory.

His eyes sparkle as he enthusiastically explains each step of the production process; his face alternating between beaming smile and earnest seriousness as he explains each whirring machine.

Located an hour northeast of Barcelona, Spain in the tiny town of Artes, the factory opened in 1972, employs 182 year-round workers, and serves as the town’s dominant employer.

Three years ago, all Rossignol snowboards were made in France, where under the company umbrella three facilities are located: two factories at the company headquarters in Voiron and the Dynastar facility near Chamonix.

For ’99/00, Rossignol snowboard production will be entirely in Spain and Original Sin will soon follow-moving production out of the Chamonix Dynastar factory to take advantage of Artes’ volume.

The factory operates in two shifts: 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., but since maintenance is done at night, the factory is rarely empty. This year, more than 120,000 snowboards and 333,000 skis will ship from this small Spanish town. The factory has the capacity to do 250,000 snowboards and the company expects to soon be at that level.

In the more than twenty years he’s worked here, Duocastella has supervised not only the construction of millions of skis and snowboards, but he’s been responsible for the design and implementation of most of the production line. The majority of welcome datacompthe machines are fabricated in-house in a separate 3,300-square-foot machine shop.

It’s been time well spent. The degree of automation within the factory, the utilization of technology along the entire production line, and the uniform cleanliness-coupled with the factory’s size and production volume-makes this the most impressive of the twenty snowboard factories I’ve visited.

The tour starts in the ski and snowboard core fabrication area and it’s a good introduction to the high-degree of automation and quality control found throughout the factory.

On the day of my visit this area was churning out ski woodcores. A block of wood approximately three feet long and shaped roughly like a four-by-four enters one side of the snaking, fully automated production line and fully milled, cambered, full-length woodcores came out the other side. Tolerances are measured in millimeters and one employee can make 1,400 ski woodcores in a shift.

Manufacture of the snowboard cores, which are offered in Microcell, wood, and THC (Microcell, wood, and Isocore) combinations, don’t have the same degree of automation, but Duocastella says this will be in place by next year.

A nearby room houses the new ultrasonic die-cutting machine. Vibrating more the 20,000 times a second, the computer-controlled blade quickly cuts the bulk roll of basesheet material into the needed board shapes and sizes. It also produces amazingly detailed die-cut bases-a feature sure to be prominent on the ’99/00 board line.

We make a shortcut outside and re-enter the factory in the press room, which houses twelve Alpine double presses, three Nordic double presses, and seven snowboard double presses. It’s here that each board is laid up by hand, before being placed in the computer-controlled steam press. Temperature, time, and pressure are monitored on both the top and bottom of the press, and this data can be monitored from Duocastella’s desk.

This year, the Artes factory is only producing sidewall-constructed boards (cap and Dualtec boards have been made in France), but the ’99/00 line features full-cap and half-cap models, Dualtec, and sidewall models.< /p>

After the boards come out of the presses, they head for a large automated finishing area. Once again, only a few employees are needed as a series of machines sand the board edges twice, rough belt sand the bases, mill the sidewalls, and belt polish the base. Then each board undergoes four passes of manual belt sanding-depending on the model-before a five-axis CAD/CAM machine does the final finishing.

Close to the finishing area is the four-color silk-screening department. According to Eric Bobrowicz, technical manager for Rossignol, silk-screening technology has improved greatly in the last four years.

“Back then it was very difficult to make something tech with silk-screening,” he says, “but that’s not the case now. We made lots of tests with sublimation and other technologies, but the benefits of silk-screening are very strong.”

After the boards are sanded and polished they are transported to another wing of the factory where they receive a coat of varnish, inserts are drilled and checked, and the boards are shrink-wrapped and bar-coded. This is also where the final quality control checks are made. With skis, each is checked for weight and flex after varnishing-a system that will also soon be in place for snowboards.

On-Snow Development

Of course, the most dazzling factory isn’t worth dip if the design of the product is wrong. That’s why Joubert and Bobrowicz go to great lengths to explain how the genesis of each board occurs on-snow.

“Four years ago, some people thought it was possible to design everything on the computer, but it’s impossible,” says Bobrowicz in his heavily accented English. “Computers are a big help, but the feeling comes from the snow. We can go onto the snow every day of the year. It’s something very important.”

As head snowboard designer, Bobrowicz first tests design ideas on the computer, then molds are made on Rossignol’s CNC machines in Voiron.

“Afterward, we send the mold to Artes to make the first prototype,” he says. Prototypes are sent back to the French Alps for testing. “For the snow test, I have three guys working with me testing the boards, then I make a lot of tests with the team riders.

“I really want to have a Rossi style on the snow,” he continues. “I don’t want to make a Burton board or a K2 board. For me, it’s something very important to keep our specification to our style. It’s one of the reasons we developed the THC.”

THC cores were introduced last year and use lengthwise strips of Microcell foam and wood. “THC gives you the feel of Microcell (which reduces vibration and makes the board stable), the snappy liveliness of Isocore, and the lightweight qualities of wood. The idea is to take the best from each material.”

According to Bujold, getting consumers familiar with THC will be one of the marketing cornerstones next year. Part of this push includes small, transparent die-cut view ports in the ’99/00 board topsheets. “If consumers are skeptical about our core technology, then it’s important for them to be able to see what makes our boards different,” says Bujold.

Joubert points out, however, that Rossignol’s task is to explain the benefits of this technology. “I want the consumer to know that our product is really technologically advanced,” he says, “but not just for technology’s sake. What we’re doing is producing boards that take the benefits of technology and increases the rider’s pleasure and comfort.”

A Consistent Message

So, the factory rocks and the board technology is first rate, but image is what drives the market, right?

Altering the image of a 70-year-old brand is like turning a super tanker, but improving Rossignol’s snowboard image is a task Joubert says he can tackle. “You have to consider Rossignol Snowboards a mainstream company,” he says. “Because of the name, the size of the company, and the resources we put into it, we have to go after a wide spectrum of customers-from the opinion leader to the 30- to 35-year-old beginner crossing over from skiing.”

But this is a benefit, not a disadvantage, adds Joubert. “I don’t imagine Rossignol snowboards as ever being a super image brand for the twelve- to eighteen-year-old customer. This is not our task, and being just an image brand is a dangerous position. In this segment, consumers change their mind very often and fashion trends are very important. They’ll drop a brand just as fast as they consider it. We can’t afford to do that.”

He says the brand’s distribution strategy is clear. “At the present time we have the biggest market share in the rental business,” he adds. “Where we are weak today is in retail, because the graphics were all wrong in the past years.

“Last year we had something that didn’t fit the U.S. market,” he continues, “and the retailer was stuck with boards that weren’t selling. We’ve got to regain their confidence and show them we understand the U.S. market and we developed the product just for them.”

Joubert’s main focus is to penetrate retail with a complete package-not just at pricepoint but at top price. “To regain retailer confidence, we’ve already produced a consumer catalog that appeared in SNOWboarding magazine. Our goal is to bring consumers to the shop wanting to buy Rossignol products. The task is to build a strong message so the consumer will realize the benefits of the brand-not only in product, but in terms of image. We need to show that we have the same culture, that we think like them.”

Joubert says retailer’s see some concrete benefits when they deal with Rossignol. “We’ve tried everything in terms of board technologies, in terms of topsheets, bases-whatever. We have a huge R&D department dedicated to all the winter activities. So when we build a snowboard, all these experiences add up, and the retailer and the consumer both benefit.

“We also have decades of experience servicing the retailer,” he continues. “When we launch a product, we make sure it’s something that’s been tested and something we can supply and service. We haven’t been doing that for just a few years, we’ve been doing that for close to 70 years.

“So, I would say experience, technology, reliability-and we’ve always offered exceptional specs-on-price ratio-which is a guarantee the consumer will have a really good product for a low price.”

But that’s a fine line. Although Rossignol has products that reach across the spectrum of prices, its critics call it nothing more than a pricepoint brand. Some competitors even assert Rossignol gouged prices to an unprofitable level in an effort to gain market share.

“We didn’t drop the overall price of our offering,” says Bujold. “We introduced a new price point 250 dollars to round out our offering and make it easy for people to get into snowboarding. You bet we’ll gain market share with those boards, but that wasn’t the reason we offered them.”

Joubert maintains Rossignol’s pricing structure is a benefit to the brand-and the industry: “If we can afford to do a good business for the company by offering good product at good prices for the consumers, hey come on, the consumer won’t be fooled for very long. One day they’ll stop buying only image product and they’ll recognize where the truth is.

“Sure, we have lack of image today-which we are trying to fix-but it’s also because our boards at low price and middle price are so good that it’s difficult to go further.

“All the experience we have in terms of technology gives us the ability to organize a production line that’s so efficient that we can afford to offer the boards at these prices,” he continues. “We’re not there to dump the price. That is not our goal, because it would play against us. But we’re also here to open up the sport to newcomers. You know, if the board is inexpensive and good, I think it’s a good service to the entire industry.”

An Awakening Giant

So, what are you left with?

The factory is incredible, and the entire testing and design process authentic and first rate.

The graphics for ’99/00 look signi
ficantly better than last year’s, and last year’s were three times better than the year before. It seems the company’s focus is on snowboarding, and it’s dedicating the resources the division needs to grow.

And yet the remaining task appears daunting. Rossignol hopes to appeal to the image makers while offering products for all wallet sizes and rider types. They want a stronger identity in specialty stores while acknowledging the market is heading toward multi-sport and chains. The dynamic between ‘core and mainstream-especially as it relates to image-isn’t easily mastered.

But try as I might to remain analytical, I couldn’t avoid being carried along by the enthusiasm people like Joubert, Bujold, Duocastella, and Bobrowicz have for the brand and where it’s going. The trick will be getting retailers to feel the same way. But if they do, the possibilities for growth appear substantial.

Bujold likes the analogy that Rossignol was a sleeping giant that’s starting to wake up. I’ll go one step further, the giant is awake-and he looks hungry.