Not just a good show

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Not Just a Good Show

Veteran British motorcycle journalist Kevin Ash recently published an op-ed in which he criticized the mainstream manufacturers for wasting energy and money on motorcycle racing. His line of reasoning went that in these economically depressed times where even the mighty Japanese factories have seen crushing losses in sales in most western markets, the continued emphasis on MotoGP racing and sport oriented consumer bikes is a commercial dead end, and did not reflect the on-the- ground reality of the common western consumer. The facts may be right, but the conclusion is completely wrong. 

Those precious resources, he argues, could be better spent promoting the motorcycle as a reasonable, even responsible alternative form of transport. Mr. Ash went on to single out several salient facts illustrating the many advantages that motorizing millions of single occupants on versatile two-wheelers has in our increasingly congested urban civilization. On that point Mr. Ash mirrors my view and the undeniable data from around the world that has proven beyond any shadow of a doubt that the powered two wheeler, be it a scooter, moped or superbike, has an increasingly large and important role to play in the future of the modern world.

However, Mr. Ashʼs observations mislead him to believe that the continued focus on racing and high performance by the big four Japanese brands is blind sighted, or “stupid” to quote him directly. This assertion demonstrates again (frustratingly) the incredibly myopic view that the western motorcycle industry and media continue to have about what is actually going on in the world around us. I hope to demonstrate some facts that ought about the current state of the industry which provide a global context to those who continue to think that the universe of motorcycling revolves around Europe and America. The irrevocable conclusion will be that promoting racing is by far the most reasonable thing any motorcycle manufacturer ought to be doing.

Those who do not know historyʼs mistakes are doomed to repeat them.

How arrogant and complacent we are, in the rich west. For as long as most HFL readers can remember, the world bent to our demands and companies from every foreign land fought tooth and nail to win our business. Since the end of the second world war, the US motorcycle market was consistently the most profitable, which meant that even though it was Britain that manufactured the greatest volume of bikes in the world between 1950-60, it was the US where they aggressively marketed them, often to the dismay of the domestic British public who were treated as second class customers. In his seminal book “Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry?” former Norton Engineer and later NVT Triumph executive Bert Hopwood explains how throughout most of the sixties and seventies, the increasingly pressured British motorcycle brands did everything possible to increase exports to the US, often depriving other markets of new machines and even spares. This was consistent with every other brand in the world, from Honda to Horex because simply put, the US market was willing to pay more and buy more of everything than anywhere else. Even small players like Laverda and MV Agusta developed their motorcycle lines, even changed their brand images to try and impress American bikers. The Japanese, of course, did this better and devoured the market by listening very well to the needs and wants of the public, sometimes pioneering entire genres of motorcycle in the race for sales.

Throughout all of this, racing was a key component of marketing. In fact, it could be argued that it has been the keystone of motorcycle marketing since the motorcycleʼs invention. Not long after the first motorcycles were introduced to the American public, racing was being used for promotion. The very iconic names that we hold dear today, from fabled legends like Flying Merkel and Crocker to the then giants of Indian and Harley-Davidson all prided themselves by racing with boasts of trophies won, and guarantees of performance. In Britain brands like Brough made it the principal pillars of their marketing that each motorcycle was tested at 100mph, sometimes without hands on the ʻbars. Norton owes its entire existence to the brandʼs ability to win TT cups and grand prix. Of course, those were all premium brands that attracted a wealthier clientelle, but the fact is that every brand, from the great to the forgotten participated in motorcycle racing, sometimes with machines from other manufacturers rebadged for the purpose, in an effort to persuade the public that their motorcycles were reliable and desirable.

Yamahaʼs first motorcycle was the YA-1, a poor copy of the German DKW RT 125. The companyʼs first public promotion of a motor product was to race it up Mount Fuji to prove the newcomerʼs robust construction and to win prestige. Similarly, when Harley- Davidson wanted to increase sales among young baby boomers in the late sixties, they acquired Italian brand Aermacchi, which constructed mostly commuter bikes from 175-350cc. Of course, no one today remembers the pedestrian Aermacchi Chimera or Ala Verde, only the gorgeous grand prix 250s and 350s adorned in orange and black. The Japanese brands total domination of the US and European markets for the past forty years are due to two factors: cost/quality proposition and the desirability that comes from literally hundreds of world and regional racing championships. Ask any baby boomer who was into motorcycles in the seventies, and they will tell you: without the likes of Phil Read on a Honda, Kenny Roberts on a Yamaha, or Barry Sheen on a Suzuki tearing up the tracks in the black and white pages of The Motorcycle and Cycle World, there would have been very little credibility to a DT200 or GT250 as street bikes. They were, after all, motorcycles with serious chassis deficiencies from foreign brands that had no heritage.

In modern times, the towering heights of global importance reached by a once insignificant motocross brand like KTM, to the unparalleled renaissance of Ducati owe as much to racing success as they do to engineering or the production of motorcycles for public consumption. Could KTM have ever been taken seriously in the 1990ʼs if they had not come out brashly with the “ready to race” mantra impressed on everything orange? Or if they hadnʼt taken their lumps with years of losses in Paris-Dakar and national motocross championships? And would Ducati have ever become the must- have sports bike brand without the track domination of improbable personality Carl Fogarty in the World Superbike championships of the mid 90ʼs? Unlikely. Of course, the KTM Duke and Ducati Monster and 916 were beautiful and lust worthy motorcycles, but they were also outrageously overpriced and notoriously unreliable at a time when vastly superior products were available for far less money. No, those brands grew into profitable global brands by going toe to toe with the giants of industry on the track, and beating them. No amount of print ads promoting the virtues of the XC250 or 900SS as good value, or reasonable alternatives would have done anything remotely similar.

The Orient Express.

Unless you have been living in a cave for the past ten years, or get your industry information from US and British populist sources only, you will know that the balance of power in the world is shifting rapidly eastwards. To use an American euphemism, money talks. And the money isnʼt here anymore. It is in India, China, and for the motorcycle industry increasingly in places like Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. Yes, those distant nations in south-east Asia that have lived in our western consciousness as nothing more than holiday destinations or sites of proxy wars between superpowers are themselves becoming booming economic hubs. Indonesia, a country most Americans had never heard of until Barack Obama told us he lived there as a kid, is actually a motorcycle market superpower, buying 7.9 million new motorcycles in 2011. Let me put that into perspective. Indonesians bought more bikes last month than Americans bought in the best ever sales year. And the numbers are rising at a rate of 7% per year, meaning that at current rates the market will double in less than a decade. Who are the sales leaders? Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki, in that order, taking 85% of the market share. Suddenly those strange stickers on the belly pans of Casey Stonerʼs Honda RCV212 and Jorge Lorenzoʼs M1 that say “satu hati” and the phrase “semakin di depan” make more sense. In Indonesian, they mean “One Heart” and “In the Front”, the marketing slogans of Honda and Yamaha respectively.

The point that Mr. Ash fails to see, and that sadly most of the US and Anglo-centric motorcycle media ignore, is that we donʼt matter quite so much any more. It hurts to be on the downward slide of the motorcycle pyramid, but seeing reality for what it is is healthy and constructive so long as we are willing to do something about it. The world is buying increasing numbers of motorcycles of all sorts every year, just not around here, and that is why the major manufacturers are focusing their efforts in places like Indonesia and India. In those regions, the vast majority of motorcycle consumers contend with low wages and poor road conditions so making a purchasing decision about a motorcycle is a serious business. In a modern market flooded by low cost Chinese bikes with questionable reliability, they look to racing for the seal of quality and and prestige, Just as we did in our countries after the second world war.

The US market is at best worth 3% of global motorcycle sales, and while it is still also worth about 20% of global revenue (because lets face it, you get a lot more money for a 1000cc sport bike or 1700cc cruiser than for a Honda CB175F), the long term prognosis is just not looking that good. Our market is shrinking, and while some recovery will occur, it cannot match the proven existing sales and colossal potential of south east Asia, who together with Japan account for 90% of global motorcycle sales an production. Money talks, and the language it is using these days is not English. This is why every brand, including Harley-Davidson, KTM (through majority owner Bajaj), Ducati, Triumph, BMW and everyone else is clamoring to Asia, building factories, establishing joint ventures or seeking takeover partners. Todayʼs teenager in Jakarta is tomorrowʼs baby boomer in Jakarta, and we all know how lucrative that demographic is.

Image is still everything.

Racing is the best marketing tool in the motor vehicle manufacturerʼs basket. Spending vast sums of money to tell fairy stories conjured up by ad men is proven to be a really poor value marketing investment, compared to the real life drama of motor sport participation. According to Neilsen, a leading market research consultancy, consumer trust is twice as strong for brands that advertise through racing sponsorship than via print ads. Occasionally an amazing ad campaign strikes precisely the right tone and boosts sales for a few quarters, but in the end it all just so much shooting in the dark. For advertising to really hit home, it must be built on the basic premise that the product featured is simply better than all the others.

The surest way to do this is to actually make a better product, something that with a few exceptions, North Americans have forgotten how to do. The other is to prove it in a public test against the competition, which for motor vehicles means racing. The value proposition for the manufacturer is tremendous: the series are already organized and paid for with tremendous quantities of public exposure. All you need to do is produce a competitive product and winning message. Doing so results in brand building that establishes credibility through third party reporting (which is as much as three times more trusted than print ads) while creating brand mythology that can be leveraged by fans into word of mouth momentum. Ducati had no centralized advertising before 1996, the motorcycle press did that job for them, for free, every time they reviewed one of their street offerings and mentioned their superbike championship wins.

On the flip side, the costs of developing a competitive racing motorcycle are not trivial, with individual front line racing bikes costing anywhere from $50,000 to over $1 million. As astronomically expensive as a factory racing program is, it is nothing compared to the R&D budget required to make world beating production motorcycles. And to disseminate the message that a brand makes the most desirable motorcycles requires a marketing budget many times more again. To boost an entire brand into the winners circle in the eyes of consumers, the brand must reflect the winning qualities of value and quality. The former is a matter of industrial management, the latter a nebulous perception propagated by emotional and error prone human reporting. Your neighborʼs anecdotal evidence that his bike is better than yours is hardly scientific evidence of superiority, but seeing that brand fight at the highest levels of performance in a race against other brands is.

There is the luck factor and the negative possibility of spending money only to finish poorly, weekend after weekend, behind key competitors. This risk is significant and can lead to tremendous collateral damage to a brand, as we have seen with Kawasaki and Aprilia in MotoGP, and Toyota and Jaguar in Formula One. However the point to be made is that racing and telling a compelling story together not only mitigates a large part of this risk, but can actually enhance brand strength.

Consider Ferrari, a small car manufacturer who went more than 21 years without winning a championship between 1979 and 2000. During that time the brand reputation soared despite this, because of the association with auto racingʼs top championship class. Losing didnʼt hurt because they fought hard against automotive giants like Honda and Renault with vast budgets many times their own. In effect, Ferrari turned racing for second or third place into a marketing win because they fashioned an image as the small, passionate underdogs, attracting people of similar minds. Without ever spending one penny on advertising they garnered tremendous excitement from fans and pushed the brandʼs perceived value skywards, and have sold every car they make for decades.

Bread and Circuses.

Racing is not only great entertainment, it is good business. While for manufacturers is it represents a cost item on the budget sheet, the benefit of having a well planned and presented racing program offers many times that in reward. If it were not so, then Honda, Yamaha and the others would have halted racing a long time ago, especially in light of the recent economic meltdown. But they didnʼt. Yamaha in fact stepped up its spending on racing, choosing to self fund their own MotoGP squad despite posting the greatest loss for any motorcycle company in history in 2009, and the closure of many factories since. There may be nothing to connect Jorge Lorenzoʼs M1 and the New Jupiter MX selling down the road in Indonesia other than the sticker on the tank, but to most people that association is compelling. The rationale for this is the same as ever it has been: race on Sunday and you do indeed sell on Monday, because no matter what you sell, people love a winner.

Michael Uhlarik is a veteran motorcycle industry consultant and award winning designer of motorcycles for brands like Yamaha, Aprilia, Bombardier, and many others. He is the founder of Amarok Consultants, and the chief designer of the Amarok P1 electric racing experiment. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

  • Mark D [EX500]

    Great counterpoint, Mr. Uhlarik. I can see the influence racing has had on the buying power of Asian countries here in Vietnam. While there are obviously still thousands upon thousands of cute little cubs, nearly every young man rides a “modern” scoot; water-cooled, fuel injected, but most importantly, racing styled. I’ve been tooling around town on a Yamaha Nouvo, whose headlight and style looks very much like an R6. Its a bit hilarious to see random 135cc bikes with racing stickers (or, most improbably, Honda Waves done up in Repsol livery), but the fact of the matter is that racing matters to these people. Maybe not the racers themselves, but the IDEA of racing. Most young guys here (and Vietnam has one of the youngest, and most skewed male, populations in the world) wouldn’t be caught dead on their fathers semi-auto Honda, or a Chinese knockoff.

    Of course, if you’re fashionable young girl, nothing is hipper than a Vespa. Some things never change.

  • JT Nesbitt

    Yes, and YES! Which makes your defense of a certain shit-bag American motorcycle company all the more baffling!
    We all know that you are a smart guy, now take this accurate analysis and sentiment and apply it to American motorcycle manufacturers.
    I want you to make an argument for why Victory and Harley Davidson should try harder.
    I would also like you to acknowledge the human factor…Racing is fun, and sometimes people should do stuff that may at first blush, seem to be frivolous and risky, but represents long term strategy rather than a tactical marketing scheme. Couch the argument in any rationale that you will, the result is the same. Rising to Quixotic challenges nurtures the better angels of our natures.
    I just finished Bob Lutz’s book “Car Guys vs. Bean Counters” and thought that you should write something similar, how about “Motorcycle Guys vs. Madison Avenue” — JT

    • 80-watt Hamster

      Victory in MotoGP… That would probably end up like Cadillac in Le Mans, but I’d still love to see it. Meaning I’d actually watch.

    • michael uhlarik

      I briefly thought of writing a book entitled “Amateur Hour is Over” detailing the transformation of the legacy brands into modern companies during the 1990s, but then I lost interest. The only people who would read that are MBA majors, and no group of people in the world bore me more.

      As for the argument about why Polaris and HD should try harder: for the former, I think they are and the latter, well, they aren’t interested. Harley-Davidson is in the entertainment business, not the motorcycle business.


      • tpnewsk

        Kill ‘em with concise

      • Racetrack Style

        Victory/Polaris has demonstrated their ability to manufacture performance (see their snow sleds), yet there’s just 2 types of motorcycles from them in 15+ years. Neither type are performance-driven in any way.

      • rvfrules

        @Michael: I’ve had a number of BMW and Japanese sport-tourers and tourers among the 40-plus bikes I’ve owned. Great bikes but none were as comfortable and enjoyable as my 2009 Road King when it came to long-distance two-up touring or as easy to do an Ironbutt on. Harleys might not be your cup of tea, but sweeping generalizations like this only serve to make you sound like a pratt.

        • michael uhlarik

          @rvfrules: I didn’t say that there was anything wrong with Harley-Davidson products. I only pointed out that as a business, they are interested more in selling lifestyle accessories and marketing trademark licenses than they are on design and production of motorcycles. My above article and commentary is a treatise on the state of the motorcycle business, not on the motorcycles themselves.

          Any sweeping generalizations were made entirely by yourself. I am glad you enjoy your Road King. Happy, safe motorcycling.

          • Racetrack Style

            In what way do you see Victory trying harder?

            They seem to adhere to HD’s product strategy: numerous cruisers with subtle differences within the same genre.

            Ironically, it can be argued that Victory is not trying harder because they have engineering talent at the parent company that are building a variety of machines, some of which are performance-based.

            See “Lightest. Strongest. Most Flickable.”

            • michael uhlarik

              Polaris is trying harder by making modern motorcycles (even if you dislike them, the Victory line is designed more like a Japanese cruiser than a Harley — that is a compliment), and they are broadening their product portfolio to include things like Indian (and whatever plans that may entail) and investing in Brammo. They also make very good ATVs and snowmobiles that genuinely improve the breed.

              All while making profits on manufactured goods, not financial services, or requiring federal government bailout money. I call that trying harder than H-D. Admittedly that is not exactly a high bar, but in these parts right now, that is as blue-chip as we get.

              • Racetrack Style

                Aside from the Brammo investment*, your reply is highly subjective and talks in circles to some degree. E.g. Citing Indian as a plus while at the same time citing Victory being ‘better’ because they are closer to a Japanese cruiser. Indian is on the HD side of the cruiser spectrum, far from even the Japanese copycat HD cruisers, even further from the Honda/Kawi/Suzuki cruisers. The Indian cruisers are likely to be priced too high for any reasonable & renewed Indian/HD rivalry. Btw..I never said I didn’t like Victory’s product. It can be inferred that I don’t like their business model which copies HD into infinite cruiserdom.

                The very nature of a ‘better’ cruiser is completely subjective. There is absolutely no quantitative analysis for cruisers. What one may find as a fault, another will find as a necessary character trait. Neither is wrong.

                “They also make very good ATVs and snowmobiles that genuinely improve the breed.”.

                What? That’s precisely their failure. There is zero engineering or brand carry over from those competitive, light, agile sleds into their Moto line up. That didn’t come through clearly in my above comments?

                Check HD financials. Aren’t they making profits on manufactured goods? And, didn’t they get denied the bailout?

                *Brammo would do much better if their aesthetic had more desirability like the Mission and less 90s styling

  • Roman

    How popular is motorcycle racing in places like Indonesia and India?

    • Scott-jay

      You mean monetized racing show-business?

      People naturally like to race, in our global genes.

      Michael U’s post’s easy winner.

      • Roman

        I posted a longer question, but the HFL servers ate it. Basically in the western world racing popularity spans from “top 3 sport” in places like Italy and Spain, to so marginal that we only see taped delays between NASCAR races and NASCAR analysis and NASCAR lifestyle shows on an obscure cable channel (i.e. US). So just wondering where on that scale do places like Indonesia and India fall.

        Loved Michael’s analysis though, the kind of big picture thinking we rarely see in motorcycle publications (internet or print). Huge asset for HFL, well done.

    • JTB

      I know on one of my trips to Taiwan I had a weekend trip to the coast and along the way my driver I saw these young guys fully kitted, racing what ever they owned around the track that was an empty parking lot with tires used to mark corners. From scooters to little 125 stroke bikes the were dragging and scraping everything in an effort to beat their friends. We stopped and talked and all were very aware of who the key GP riders were at the time and very enthusiastic about wanting to ride better bikes and improve their skills. Racing has relevance in so many ways we do not see since we do not have everyone else perspective in our minds usually.

  • Beewill

    Yeah, what he said!

    Michael helped to close my mental loop that I was trying to complete after reading Mr. Ash’s piece last week. I knew I didn’t agree with what Mr. Ash way saying, it just took someone much smarter than I to help me get there.

    Thanks Michael.

  • Jesse

    This makes my monthly subscription dollars very happy. Thank you for this eye opening reminder.

  • Xenophya

    Whilst I do agree that racing still has a hugely important place in the world of motorcycling and moreover in the hearts of the people that are the industry (I for one work in this industry because I spent every weekend as a kid at Brands Hatch watching racing) having actually worked in India within the Indian motorcycle market I can say that, in my experience, they are entirely indifferent about motorcycle racing. Of course this is a huge generalisation for a population of 1.21bn souls but whenever I have started talking about motogp with my colleges and friends in the sub-continent their eyes have clouded over (although I do seem to have that effect on people whenever talking about bikes or motorcycle racing). Hero/halo products are key; R1′s sell R15′s in India as do the reprinted articles of western Journo’s like Mr Ash that appear in magazines like Overdrive and Bike India.

    I should also add that arguably the most successful of all the British brands, Triumph Motorcycles, have never officially gone racing. Neither Edward Turner in the 50′s and 60′s or John Bloor today have supported racing. There have of course been racing Triumphs and on occasion with some factory backing but the policy at Triumph has always been that racing is a drain on cash-flow.

    Whilst Michael is right Norton and racing are inextricably linked in his book “Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry?” Bert Hopwood also narrates how in the 50′s and 60′s Norton, the most successful of racing brands, spent all of their cash flow with Joe Craig and the racing department, neglecting new product development, which ultimately led to the brands decline.

    • michael uhlarik

      Regarding Norton,

      You are right, the Norton example was perhaps not the best to cite in that case. The point I was trying to make was that the brand’s reputation was built exclusively on racing success (which it was). However the result of bad management and allocation of resources meant that Norton wasn’t a going concern as a result. The way I wrote that paragraph suggests that Norton enjoyed success as a result of racing, which isn’t literally true. I stand corrected.

      Triumph, then and now, was/is successful due to laser focus on making good products (the best way to sell anything). When they stopped doing that in the 70′s they died. It is the right strategy for a medium sized, premium manufacturer. For evidence of the way not to do just look at Benelli’s and Bimota’s miserable attempts at WSBK in the early 2000′s.


  • Gene

    I gotta say that scooter behind Lorenzo looks pretty ripping. Is it just me?

    • Mr.Paynter

      No it really is, I’ve ridden very similar on surf-trips to Indonesia and they are so fun and capable.

      I wish we’d get them here in South Africa, ideal non-highway commuters!

  • Cro

    “Harley-Davidson is in the entertainment business, not the motorcycle business.”

    Nailed it.

  • Charlie

    No doubt history is replete with examples of how a racing heritage made a big difference. But, prospectively, does it matter as much? What has been successful of late? First, to use your example, I would say HD illustrates how entertainment value trumps racing performance by a mile. The Japanese may have been winning races but they have to skip model years to save $. Or take BMW, who’s sales have been great of late. They are selling quality – which is exactly how Ducati got back on the map. The image of racing can indeed be powerful, but it’s increasingly lost in a world driven by utility, value – and most of all vanity. I didn’t buy a Brutale 675 for MV’s racing heritage. It was aesthetics, street performance and relative value. I don’t give a shit about electric bikes winning races. I want a BRD because it looks great, and I would look great on it – while meeting a threshold performance level. Vespa’s are everywhere because they make sense. Finally, take the automobile industry – similarly, the tale is about quality, relative performance, value – and curb appeal. Yes, dew rags and pseudo culture can carry a brand, but utility rules our global culture more than anything. I’m not so sure I would spend ten of millions racing motorcycles to even sell in the East. The hegemony of the West is indeed over, but I suspect affordability will be even more valuable to moving the hardware in Asia. Overall my take is the piece was great, the history lesson poignant – but wistful is hopeful – motorcycling is a rotten business that could benefit from more conventional marketing. The future is not so romantic

    • TilJ

      Interesting example you chose. For the folks that follow it, HD is associated with racing (dirt track, drag racing, Buell, the failed VR experiment, etc) though that’s not the main focus of the lifestyle-oriented brand. In some ways, it’s support for massive rallies is the entertainment business equivalent of supporting racing. That said, HD has occasionally skipped model decades so clearly their strategy hasn’t resulted in faster state-of-the-industry development. That’s fine, that’s not what their goal was, but the wording of your example struck me as odd as it seemed to suggest that supporting racing diverted money from R&D.

    • michael uhlarik

      Your perception about what is selling in America is just that: perception. Yes, BMW and Ducati have had some great sales numbers in the past 14 months and gotten lots of press for it around here. Big deal for them, not so much for the market.

      If you look at the market share growth they have experienced, you will notice it is identical to the vacuum left by the retreating Japanese. Yes they ditched model years in the US, but not because of competition in the US from legacy brands. They pulled back from here to concentrate in the markets that matter in Asia. If you are correct about BMW and Ducati selling because of quality, then they are doomed. They will never match Japanese value/quality proposition because of economy of scale. The moment you underestimate Japanese industry is the moment you guarantee market suicide in the future. When the big four refocus on the US, they will crush the legacies like wormy apples.

      You can quote me on that.

      BMW and Ducati are footnotes in the market, achieving low single digit percentages of the US market share, and much smaller fractions globally. Whenever they make great hay about “record month” or “skyrocketing sales” I often think of old time Communist propaganda posters claiming “production up again for twentieth year!”. Not strictly incorrect, but also relatively unimportant.

      When your claiming a 10% increase on 100,000 bikes worldwide, and your competitor is claiming 10% increases on 10 million, its like getting all excited about a fart in a windstorm.

      I am truly glad you love your MV and the BRD. Its the small brands that make biking interesting. Having said that, the Japanese own this industry and as Xenophya said (they know of what they speak), when the Indians choose their moment they will squeeze out the legacies a lot more than the Japanese.

      • Charlie

        Hyperbolic calling Ducati and BMW footnotes. Surely you can’t doubt the recent success of Ducati – cultivating a brand but delivering far better products. And the fact is that they don’t need to match the Japanese quality because people are excited about their bikes. I’m guilty of being a BMW fan, but they’ve carved out an impressive niche. HD doesn’t even need a competitive bike because of their cult status. I’m not saying that racing is irrelevant – but at best necessary but not sufficient. It doesn’t matter who wins if the product sucks. Utility and design can be a winning formula. Your design doesn’t even need to be original. Hyundai unapologetically copies Mercedes but throw in some quality and value and you have a winning recipe. I can’t be as passionate as JT, but the racing formula is so unimaginative. How about some real excitement about the motorcycle itself. If you put me in charge of marketing I’m just saying that I’m not so sure I would spend tens of millions to race. I know for sure I would hire some good designers first. If the Japanese own this industry I will drive a car. Life is too short for dull and ugly

        • Kevin

          Value brands open up the market to those who are priced out of it. Are V-Stroms stealing GS sales? Are Shadows stealing sales from Victory and H-D?

          I think you are spot on when you say that brands like Ducati and BMW inspire emulation and imitation among the value brands, which is a good thing. Ducati and BMW make an impact on the market that goes far beyond their sales figures.

          • Charlie

            And the question at hand is whether racing is a good marketing strategy for a scale brand – say in the East. Kevin’s piece was provocative by taking on the sacred cow. I don’t think it’s necessarily OECD centric. I would prefer to wax poetic but maybe the nostalgic days of Rollie Free hanging off a Vincent are over. I ride my T100c and think I’m Steve McQueen, but I’m entitled to be stuck in the 70′s as an irrelevant 50 year-old. Now you can buy a 200hp bike for $15k. Cheap, reliable and attractive transportation = globalization. A lot of people care about racing, but it’s fair to reconsider the emphasis and $ spent. I think the major manufacturers could be better served by considering revolutionizing their marketing or approach. I recently saw that soon you will be able to rent BMW’s by the hour. The ultimate zip car. Betting on racing may be continuing to build the railroad and failing to see the airplane overhead

            • BMW11GS

              At the same time, we may be able to argue that a 200 hp bike for 15K shows that all that racing and development has made the truly exotic somewhat mundane? Interesting to say the least.

  • Xenophya

    Charlie your right and wrong about utility. Yes bikes have to be practical and affordable in the far east, but these are becoming givens just as they are in the West. Value, quality and reliability are expected. I think of it like hygiene, good hygiene alone has never won a girls heart but bad hygiene alone can make her run a mile. The Indian market is now all about desirability, added value and image; the same as it is anywhere else. That comes in many forms but I am sure that racing and the image that comes with it will be one of them.

    Racing will continue to be relevant and I predict will see a resurgence as soon as Bajaj, Hero and TVS decide to take on the world.

    If the Japanese big four, or any brand for that matter want to make racing relevant over night they should put an Indian national on one of their bikes. look at the success of the IPL cricket league in India it is huge and motogp has the potential to do the same. At the moment, from what I seen personally, I would say that the average Indian is not really interested in or even aware of motorcycle racing but that was also true for F1 before force India.

    There is without doubt an Indian racer waiting to be discovered, as soon as they are born they are on a petrol tank and I have seen lads curving through Chennai traffic with real reactions, spacial awareness, close quarters riding skills, bike control and guts. India needs a Californian Superbike School and a Red Bull rookies series. Do that and MotoGP grids would be full of the sponsorship and backing needed.

  • Wes Siler

    I love our comments section. Thank you so much to all the (way smarter than me) people that make it so interesting. I learn more here than virtually the entire rest of the Internet combined.

    • Ed Bisdee

      Cheers for inviting interesting people to post about interesting and different topics, rather than the “this one goes really fast” obsession that seems to fill most of the mainstream bike media.

  • KR Tong

    I dont disagree with the logic Uhlarik follows, and I can see why he’s a consultant. He understands the buying habits of the motorcyclist today. We make purchasing decisions based on absurd superficial marketing in magazines, on TV, and at the race track. What is a “stockcar” but a race car wrapped in a billboard for a completely different car? We see the car painted on the shell of a stock car, we make an emotional connection to that car because it happens to be in a dramatic setting, and then we want to buy that car. The same goes for all racing, but Nascar is the most literal.

    We basically have to assume that motorcyclists, like everyone else, are absurd and irrational people who watch too much TV, and place too much trust in appearances and advertisements to follow Uhalrik’s, and the motorcycle industry’s, line of thought.

    And “Harley-Davidson is in the entertainment business, not the motorcycle business.” You just finished saying that the motorcycle business is an entertainment business, so why are you singling out Harley Davidson? You explained why Harley Davidson has the best marketing strategy of them all. The point of racing/advertising/entertainment is to generate an irrational/emotional relationship between consumers and products. It’s the medium a brand uses to sell their bikes (IE: television, the internet, magazines, etc.) that’s important to sales. Whether they do product placement in a race or in a movie makes absolutely no difference.

    • KR Tong

      I wanted to add a line to the bottom of this. I just wanted to say that if consumers are “informed” through races, movies, advertising, etc, then really all that should matter to a company is finding the cheapest heart-strings they can pluck. If a product placement in a movie is cheaper than developing a racebike, it doesn’t make sense for a company to pursue racing.

      Harley has a great plan of embracing blue collar builders who make amazing bikes and feature them in their own videos. Why pay a few professionals to build a motorcycle, when a “community” of amateurs will build them for free? This democratization of branding or “Harley culture,” makes more sense. It is, after all, the goal of any company to create a culture around their brand that not just buys their products put socially pressures everyone else to do the same.

      Oh, and one more thing I was thinking about when I read this: What advantage does racing give a brand over another?

      It’s my understanding that racing historically started because one company made a claim that their product was faster, so everyone decided to buy that product. Another company wanted to challenge that product under fair and agreeable terms so they sanctioned a race. This made good sense for both companies because, compared to the companies that weren’t racing, these guys looked like they were selling better products. But nowadays everybody’s racing, so there isn’t any advantage. In fact, now they’re all just competing for the same narrow market: selling a friggen race bike.

  • AHA

    Kevin Ash may have failed to convince you all about the sales value of racing & he’s ignored the Asian perspective but I think he’s absolutely right about the risible failure of the industry to get their marketing right here in the first world. He’s 100% right to point to the complete lack of understanding of who the potential new customers are or their needs. The car industry both innovates & diversifies over here and also sells masses in Asia. Why is the m/c industry content only do the latter?

    • michael uhlarik

      “The car industry both innovates & diversifies over here and also sells masses in Asia. Why is the m/c industry content only do the latter?”

      Because the industry here is myopic and resistant to change. I am 100% behind Kevin Ash’s idea of rebranding the motorcycle experience here in the OECD countries. That is why I have written passionately on the subject here and in other media outlets. North Americans need to think of motorcycles as more than luxury goods, fringe lifestyle elements or tools for the insane.

      My point, and the focus of the article above, is that racing is the best form of marketing for the industry a large, which is in Asia. For right here right now, there need to be a lot more 250, 350, 500cc and electric offerings that are easy to use, painless to own and affordable *as well as cool*. Racing is a good way to develop that.

      Consider Honda Canada. They pioneered the importation of the CBR125 to North America, and wrapped up the deal by creating a one make national racing series (now the CBR250 Cup) to legitimize the little bike. Hands down the best selling sport bike in Canada, the little 125 was sold with a complete helmet, jacket, advanced rider course package to lure people into biking. A win-win for the whole industry.

      My point is : racing is cost effective marketing, period. That doesn’t mean we all need superbikes or that performance is the only stream to follow.

      • KR Tong

        “That doesn’t mean we all need superbikes or that performance is the only stream to follow.”

        Don’t we? Isn’t it? Isn’t that how economies of scale work: In order for companies to sell superbikes at a competitive price then everyone has to buy one. The consumer may think they have a load of options but not really—It doesnt matter how awesome a bike is, if a company doesnt sell enough of em they’re gonna disappear. It would be very interesting to see why the 125 sold so well in Canada, or numbers-wise what that even means compared to the American market.

        I think we should all just invest in the future of 3D printers. Soon as manufacturing is democratized, the same way Bill Gates democratized computing with the PC, then we can all have the bikes we want.

        • michael uhlarik

          My point is that the economies of scale you are talking about *have nothing to do* with high cc motorcycles sold in developed countries, period. Sure, Honda, Yamaha, etc do not manufacture loss leaders as a rule. It is simply not the Japanese way.

          The purchasing power of a Yamaha when it comes to, say, brake systems from a supplier like Tokiko is tremendous because they make millions of cheap little bikes. Those monoblock calipers on the R6 came in at an unbeatable price because of the 10 million sets of calipers they bought for Asian market commuters last year, not because they sold X number of R6′s.

          As an aside, I agree totally about the 3D printers. I recently wrote my column about that in Cycle Canada Magazine, it you should be interested.

        • Xenophya

          KR Tong, it is intellectual property that sells.

          3D Printers are now cheap as chips (11k compared to the 250K they were a few years ago) and 5 axis CNC machines are common place. There are lots of small prototyping businesses offer prototyping services. Google CNC machining and you’re bound to find a little engineering shop with one just around the corner.

          If you want to do it pick up an affordable CAD package like Rhino or Solidworks and get started. Alternatively do a sketch, make a physical pattern and get it scanned or make a mould. Look forward to seeing the results!

  • CG

    There is a slight analogy to this argument in the car business. GM is in hot water for investing $600m in advertising with ManU, indeed it got the guy fired. If you look at it from a US/GB/Euro perspective, it looks absurd. But, ManU is the biggest soccer brand in the world, especially in Asia. If Asia is your new profitable market, then investing in ManU is not such a bad idea. Walk into a Ferrari store (one of their clothing outlets), the clientele is virtually all Asian. Money walks, money talks, and if MotoGP sells boatloads of 175cc scooters, who cares if no one in the US cares?

  • gaudette

    I probably wouldn’t be lusting after an RSV4 right now if it didn’t do well in SBK.

    That transferred into positive media coverage, and spawned some awesome “winning” clips on youtube.

  • rohorn

    Probably too late to comment – but – another reason companies race is to maintain/raise their internal morale. Don’t underestimate the value of that.

    The exception to that seems to be Harley – there are lots of stories of high ranking idiots interfering with the VR1000 program simply because, well, “We don’t do that here”. Maybe that’s why Indian/Victory (Indictory?) don’t race – from following a little too closely.

    PS – I would pay very good money for a good book on the inside failure of the VR1000 program – it would be an excellent “How NOT to lead effectively” book. Steve? Mat?

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