Using their heads: how Poc became a $65m phenomenon

Impacts are something Swedish brand Poc has made a business out of trying to prevent, but that hasn’t stopped it from making a dent on the cycling scene.  

Waving its safety credentials proudly aloft and making no apologies for its distinctive styling, Poc swept into pro racing in 2014, signing a three-year equipment deal with the Cannondale-Garmin Pro Cycling team. 

Nothing quite like its quirky, retro-influenced helmets had been seen before. There were comparisons made to Playmobil toys. Some cyclists were reluctant to ditch traditional cycle helmet styling and even today the kit still polarises opinion. 

Poc has had the last laugh. The brand was in October 2015 bought by Bahrain-based private equity company Investcorp for $65 million (£42 million) from previous owner Black Diamond. It is a deal between investment groups that indicates a graphic vote of confidence. 

For the people at Poc it could signal a new era of much needed investment: “Investcorp is one of those private equity firms that has been around for a long time and it seems to be super serious,” said Jonas Soderqvist, marketing director. “They are happily supporting our ideas and are happy to invest in our business. Now we can grow.” 

Poc is looking at the marketplace in a little bit of a different way”
— Jonas Soderqvist, marketing director, Poc

Poc was launched in 2004 by Stefan Ytterborn, who remains founder and chief executive. From the off, the brand’s mission was do the best possibly to save lives and minimise the consequences of accidents in what it calls “gravity sports.” But it was Poc’s unique branding and product design that stuck in people’s minds. 

“The company designers and engineers are always looking into ways of breaking the wall in terms of new products for the market place,” continued Jonas Soderqvist. “When the company started ten years ago in the alpine skiing scene the first helmet that came out was a bit different and people were like ‘oh this is something new, we have never seen that kind of design before.’ I think it was the same entering into the bike scene. It is a different concept, a different helmet. Poc is looking at the marketplace in a little bit of a different way.” 

As well as pushing the envelope in terms of safety, the Octal, the cycle helmet that really got Poc noticed in cycling, has a retro styling. This was intentional to an extent - none of the designers had ever owned a road bike, and at the conception stage they were given an old leather ‘sausage’ type helmet and a styrofoam example by Bell and left to their own devices. 

The offbeat approach appears to have worked: “We are trying to look at it with a scientific innovation but as well looking into it from a design perspective. We tend to understand that people want to look great in the mountains or on the bike as well,” said Mr Soderqvist. 
Say what you like about the styling, Poc is deadly serious about safety. It is working closely with Volvo on a project to prevent cars and cyclists “crashing into each other” through a vibrating helmet that wakes up when a car approaches. 

Poc plans to devote a lot more time to cycling, according to Mr Soderqvist, from safety to kit. The company will release its new Fondo line aimed at the growing army of weekend road cyclists in time for the 2016 season, and there are more initiatives in the pipeline, including commuter clothing. 

“The growth in the product line will mainly come for bikes in the next two to three years,” he said. “Today 65 per cent of the business is snow, 35 per cent bike. Within two to three years we will have a 50-50 split, and in five to seven years we are looking at 70 per cent bike and 30 per cent snow. So we are widening the bike range, both in MTB with two new helmets this spring and also a clothing line.” 

Everything might appear to have progressed well for Poc, like a well maintained bicycle, but there have been one or two potholes along the way: “I think we learned a lot from the eyewear launch four or five years ago. The eyewear biz is much different from the traditional sporting goods business, there are different buying patterns and different ways of looking at the supply chain. We learned from it, and when we launched the new collection we did it successfully.” 

Poc’s launches tend to eschew traditional advertising. The brand has for a long time chosen social media to get its message across, with remarkable effect. 

“There are two corner pillars of our marketing strategy - first is to collaborate with great athletes, and have ambassadors wearing our products in the right atmosphere. The second is to work with PR, editorials, to create storytelling about the brand. We believe it is a more trustful way of communicating our brand. The whole social media thing is becoming more and more important.” 

Poc certainly have a handle on publicity. They make it all sound very easy, a piece of cake even, which for years is what many believed Poc actually stood for. Apparently not. 

“Stefan, the founder and CEO who is driving this machine will say no, it has not been a piece of cake. It has been challenging, it has been a hell of a ride. But it doesn’t really stand for that - the symbol is taken from the crash symbol from the car industry which looks like a cake and looks like different pieces of a cake and then the Poc name came out from that but it doesn’t stand for ‘piece of cake.’ 

“The brand and the brand mission has to do with how we can make people’s lives safer out there.” 

While Poc might not stand for piece of cake after all, they do have the best interests of your loaf in mind. 

This article first appeared on www.thetimes.co.uk on October 29, 2015