"Don't hit on the witch."
It's not a line one might expect to hear at a new bike launch. Then again, this wasn't your average product presentation. This was the debut of the Strega, Juliana Bicycles' new flagship model, a 170-millimeter-travel brawler named after the Italian word for witch, and debuted in Triora, a quaint, cobblestone Italian village known for its centuries-deep connections to witchcraft.
The words of advice were given, at least partly in jest, by Santa Cruz Bicycles' marketing director, Will Ockelton, to Santa Cruz ambassador and perpetual source of entertainment Cédric Gracia, just before we left dinner to meet the witch who'd flown in from Glasgow, Scotland, to teach us how to walk across red-hot embers. The coal-walking was to take place in the middle of Triora's piazza, as part of a ritual designed to help humans conquer the mental blocks that often keep them from moving on in life. Then for the finishing act: lighting a 20-foot-tall, fuel-soaked paper sculpture that sent pieces of ash fluttering through the breeze of the cool night as it burned.
It may seem a little out there, but Santa Cruz (parent company of Juliana) doesn't care. The company dropped its biggest film budget to date to produce the video that accompanies the Strega's debut, and for the press camp to introduce the bike, flying two waves of international journalists to the French and Italian Alps, to see and ride the Strega (it was shown alongside the new Nomad, which shares a frame).
Why? It's not about making money. Five model years in, Juliana is still financially propped up by Santa Cruz, and the Strega, a niche bike for a niche market, isn't likely to change that. And that's not the point, Ockelton says.
"The amount of money we've put into that launch doesn't make sense for the revenue of the bike, but we were just like, 'What a way of putting the brand on the map, saying this is where we stand,'" Ockelton says. "We like that it's sticking an arm in the ant's nest. People are going to say, 'What the hell? It's not a business driver.' … Who cares if we get lambasted. The people who get it will get it."
With the Strega, Santa Cruz is reaffirming its commitment to Juliana, a brand whose 2013 debut marked the culmination of years of internal discussions at Santa Cruz about how to enter the women's market in a meaningful way. Juli Furtado—the legendary racer and namesake of the original 1999 Santa Cruz Juliana women's single-pivot bike—had long pushed the idea of branching Juliana into its own brand and briefly led it in its early days in 2013. Getting Juliana off the ground was one Ockelton's primary objectives when he took the head marketing role at Santa Cruz five years ago. He firmly believed then, and firmly believes now, that to succeed in selling women's bikes, Santa Cruz needed a brand with its own identity.
"Some people have said, 'Couldn't you do all this stuff under the Santa Cruz brand?' It would be so hard for a leopard to change its spots or however you want to phrase it. To always have this thing and to suddenly steer it and be like, oh by the way, we really like you guys too. We wanted to do it properly from the beginning. Then there's no stigma, there's no heritage, it's just straight out of the gate."
While Juliana has been criticized by some for being all marketing, no product development—its four bikes share frames with Santa Cruz models, but get their own paint and spec—it's an approach that other brands have started to follow as the industry realizes that what women and men want from a bike isn't all that different.
With a minimal budget and staff—Juliana has just one full-time employee, brand manager Katie Zaffke—and by using its paid pro team and a handful of unpaid team riders and ambassadors, Juliana has cultivated an image that speaks to women who crave soul-filling adventures and big-mountain rides.
Although the revenue hasn't caught up with the marketing spend yet, Ockelton is pleased with where Juliana is at on the growth chart. This year, he hopes to hire a second brand manager, to focus solely on marketing Juliana in Europe, and is preparing to embark on a refresh of the brand's visual identity, starting with some experimentation of the logo (look closely at the Strega).
Now for the real reason you've read this far: the witch. As she instructed, we took off our shoes and socks and lined up behind a 20-foot-long hot-coal carpet, switched off the part of our brains that warns against purposely stepping onto burning wood chips, and stepped forward.
Everyone emerged onto the other side unscathed, foot soles surprisingly intact. The real mystery is whether Gracia heeded Ockelton's warning.