Being a serious runner has its privileges. Brands often throw themselves at us, offering free merchandise in exchange for our tweets, ‘grams, and a place on our bodies at races. In their beginning, Oiselle was no different in this way than many brands. Through it’s brand ambassadorship program, the Volée, Oiselle offered loyal, socially connected runners a race kit and discounts on apparel.
But things changed in 2014, when Oiselle introduced the Flock. Responding to a surge in interest in its Volée team after scoring partnerships with superstars Lauren Fleshman and Kara Goucher, Oiselle sought to expand its brand ambassadorship program. To do so, though, it could not offer free stuff and huge discounts to everyone who wanted to be a part of it, so Oiselle created a third tier group to add to its Haute Volée (elite runners) and Volée (classic brand ambassadors) teams. This third tier group was initially called the Flock. For the members of the Flock, Oiselle scaled back the discounts offered to the old Volée members and charged them $100. In 2015, the brand merged its Volée with the Flock. Now all non-elite members are part of the Volée team and all must pay $100 to be a part of it.
With so many runners flocking to pay to be a brand ambassador for Oiselle and, of course, the chorus from the corresponding haters, I was curious enough to investigate, from the average runner’s perspective, whether joining the Flock was worth the $100 and the energy and time investment in promoting the brand.
Since it hatched in 2014, the Volée has evolved to include thousands of women runners. The benefits of the Volée to Oiselle are many. Of course, like Amazon prime subscribers who need to purchase sundries online, when a member of their Flock wants running apparel, theoretically, she’s going to head to Oiselle first. Thousands of Volée members means thousands of loyal customers, customers who are bound to wear their gear to boot!
But more importantly, the Volée members are working as marketers for the company and executing its marketing strategy. They advertise for the company at races and all over social media. They promote the elite athletes that the company sponsors. There’s no denying there is some aspect of paying to do Oiselle’s marketing work for them when one joins the Volée.
Even so, the litany of benefits the company offers its Volée members might make it be worth it to you. Oiselle offers:
- The Volée Kit (iconic racing singlet plus spike bag), free shipping on all domestic orders through oiselle.com, early access to new and limited edition Oiselle product, $20 off one pair of Oiselle bottoms (we’re known for great fitting shorts!)
- $25 of your membership directly goes to our Emerging Elite Athlete Fund that supports our Haute Volée athletes making the leap to national level competition. These non-professional athletes are working to make the jump to pro status, and your contribution directly funds their dream.
- We invite you to Volée; all paces and walks of life are encouraged to join us. If you are interested in helping build our run community, we welcome you.
Some of these benefits are pretty unambiguous: it’s easy for team members to discern whether or not they are getting their money’s worth. If you already buy a ton of running apparel each year, you might get your $100 worth in the free shipping and discounts alone on usually high quality, flattering stuff to boot. But for the average runner who buys a few pieces here and there, there probably needs to be more than that to be worth $100.
Oiselle seemingly knows this and that’s why it also guarantees the Volée more than cheaper expensive cute clothes. Volée members also are promised the feeling of being part of a team, support from fellow “Birds” in the “sisterhood,” and an opportunity to support and associate with elite runners. These offerings are very unique to Oiselle’s ambassadorship program, which are generally about trading deeply discounted or free products if the ambassador uses her social media and in-person social network to market for the company. Can Oiselle deliver these unique intangibles? Are Volée members part of a pro-woman, supportive sisterhood, or are those benefits more talk than action?
Is it a team?
Members of the Francophiliac flock have varied opinions as to whether they feel like they’re part of a team. Oiselle is well known for their use of social media in marketing, and as expected, many members of the Flock are shrewd social media users. Just type in #flystyle or #oisellevolee or even #headupwingsout into any social media search engine and you’re likely to find a slough of Oiselleans in Oiselle gear, flashing race times on their GPS watches or posing in an artistic-but-athletic manner. This is one way Oiselle helps to build the team aspect of the Volée: members connect with each other and communicate via each other’s social media pages. Of course, this creates a team atmosphere while doing double duty as a guerilla marketing campaign. Behind the scenes, Oiselle also uses the Ning social network to keep Volée members in touch, fostering conversations and meet-ups.
I spoke to one Flock member, who we’ll call Lark. She didn’t want to be named, but was eager to share her input. Lark told me, “there is a lot of outreach from locally designated leaders and from central leadership through email and social media … I think that speaks a lot to how much Oiselle really does value the [Flock] concept.”
Despite this, some Volée members say that they don’t feel like part of a team at all. Another member of the team who asked to remain anonymous – we’ll call her Cardinal – described the evolution of the Flock as moving from “a group of semi-compensated brand ambassadors to a paying fan club.” Another member – we’ll call her Chickadee – said that she only started feeling like a part of a team when they were able to attend Oiselle’s group getaway, Bird Camp, which members have to apply (and pay) to attend. Cardinal, having been with Oiselle since 2012, feels the size of the Flock has taken away from the team feeling. She elaborated: “as much as I’m happy to see them grow, I’m sad that the small team experience is gone.”
Is it a sisterhood?
Through their team, Oiselle seeks to “to create a sisterhood of support at a variety of levels from beginners to professionals, from the roads to the trails to the track.” Do they deliver? Chickadee says they do. She feels that the Volée offers her a community linked by a shared common interest in running. She cited a recent Salty article about run-shaming, and said that she feels comfortable talking about running experiences with other Volée members in a way that she can’t in her non-running life. Lark, agreed. “The value of the Volée, like many other groups, depends on what you put into it,” she said. “There are many opportunities for group runs and meet ups, unique forum discussions, but members have to be proactive to get involved in these activities.”
Of course, there are those who feel differently. Cardinal feels that the rapid growth took away from the feeling of a sisterhood. For her, the group has gotten too big too quickly to establish any personal connections. She said, “I feel like the community experience I want just isn’t there any more, and I’m not in a place where I want to expend the energy to make it work.”
Another former Volée member and blogger, Allie Burdick, said she initially felt community support from the other Volée members and from Oiselle’s internal social media pages. But, she says, when the structure of the program changed with the introduction of the Flock, so did the level of support and communication from the company itself, specifically its interest in races and results from team members. On the positive side, Allie said, “I feel like the communication on social media is growing, and the community of the Flock can be very supportive.”
Is it a way to connect with elites?
Finally, Oiselle promises that Volée members will support, and therefore be associated with, elite runners. Twenty-five percent of the income generated from Volée membership dues goes directly to supporting Oiselle’s Haute Volée, specifically runners who have qualified for Olympic Trials or have comparable athletic accomplishments. Per the company website, the fund specifically helps with race entries, gear, coaching, and travel. Oiselle tells the Flock they should be “happy to be a small part” of the training of up and coming elite runners, implying a moral obligation to support their faster running peers. Besides warm fuzzies, do the Volée members get anything out of this aspect of the deal?
The Volée members I spoke to shrugged off any affiliation with the Haute Volée and with the Emerging Athlete Fund. They received exclusive emails from Kara Goucher and online pep talks from Lauren Fleshman that are only available to them, but beyond that, they didn’t feel connected to Oiselle’s elites much, if at all. Some of the four Bird Camps across the country offered guest appearances by usually lower-level Haute Volée members, but none of the Volée members I spoke to had opportunities to meet them. Some had not attended Bird Camp, and some had attended Bird Camps that did not have interaction with elites.
The Bottom Line
Oiselle provides high-end, flattering and functional running apparel and has sought to differentiate themselves from other similar brands like Lululemon and Athleta by promising its brand ambassadors a team, a sisterhood of support, and an affiliation with up-and-coming elite runners. If you feel compelled to financially support faster runners, or simply plan to buy a ton of their stuff, then a membership in Oiselle’s Volée is definitely worth the costs of brand-exclusivity, a little social media pimping, and the $100.
Are you a current or former member of Oiselle’s Volée? What have your experience been like? If not, would you want to be a part of it? Why or why not?