Oh how bubbles burst. We North Americans are used to the popping sound that accompanies the sudden destruction of a previously cherished truth. We understand the consequences of calling bullshit when we see it, like Bostonians did in 1776 when some perky English tax collector tried to justify his work; or when Coca-Cola finally admitted that New Coke was not the revolution it promised, despite what Bill Cosby said. Oh how I remember that day. Sitting around the old Zenith television with my after school friends, each of us blinking stupidly at the smiling face telling us that yes, old Coke, or Coca-Cola Classic as they then spun it, was coming back because of popular demand. I looked over to my older brother whose smug face betrayed our collective feeling. “We told you so.”
Could motorcycle marketing and advertising be experiencing its own New Coke moment?
Motorcycling in summer is one of the greatest things mankind has ever wrought. Riding a bike -any bike- in the falling light of a August afternoon cannot be matched as a sustained high that doesn't involve narcotics. Every year since I was 16, I have searched for and occasionally found that elusive ride; the perfect moment. If you ride -and since you are reading Hell For Leather I know that you do- you understand the feeling that I am trying to describe. The best word I can think of that encompasses all of the sensations, both physical and emotional, is flow. The air: hot jets from the motor beneath, mixing with the cooling stream of the outside air. The noises: rising and falling rhythms made by the symphony of mechanical parts playing in unison. The motion of you and the machine interacting in an endless series of active body movements... These elements flow or else its just operating a motorcycle. Just driving a motor vehicle.
That is the feeling I chase each summer, and that I am occasionally rewarded with. Right now I type this in my kitchen. The windows are open and a cold beer rests on the table beside me. Several motorcycles lay dormant in the garage in various states of readiness, all hinting at the promise of perfect motorcycle moments to come. But for me, that bubble has burst a little. In fact, it blew up almost completely, thanks in large part to my career in the motorcycle industry. This is bad business of late and since the big bubble burst -and by that I mean the mortgage financing one that leveraged the hell out of everyone and everything- the motorcycle industry in North America has left a bad taste in my mouth. A bit like New Coke.
“...smoother, uh, uh, rounder yet, uh, yet bolder...”
In 1985, when Coke lost its way and then CEO muttered the incoherent phrase above, the motorcycle industry landscape was pretty easy to define. There were four Japanese brands that unleashed hundreds of amazing new technology motorcycle models each year, and then a handful of European brands that made a dwindling handful of over-priced, old technology motorcycles. Harley-Davidson was then just background noise at western bars and trailer parks. No one outside of Little Italy had ever heard of a Ducati, and that BMW made motorcycles came as a genuine shock to the newly minted yuppies shopping for a replacement 325i at their suburban dealers.
As JT Nesbitt said, to those of us growing up during the eighties the tastes of the new generation were decidedly plastic, neon and digital. Any motorcycle with lots of X's, R's or Z's (preferably all of them) and a pink splash graphic was the was the way to go. We didn't lust for these machines because we read advertising copy in glossy boutique magazines with pretentious names. We wanted them because some kid in our high school (inevitably an enforcer from either the hockey or football team who smoked) owned one and caned it without mercy before our eyes. We didn't have images of ourselves as metro-sexual urbanites searching for the added sophistication of parking a pristine Italian motorcycle inside a cheerless white loft. We aspired to those machines because they were lusty at work. They howled, incorporated dangerous combinations of pastel colours and evil handling in ways that made users' eyes water, and passers by either swoon or shake fists. The sport motorcycles of the pre-internet era were all these things, not because they were better or even designed that way, but because the images we had of them had to be fabricated by each of us individually, inside our own heads. The images came from real experiences.
Marketing to a Japanese motorcycle company until the late 1990's was an anathema. Pick up an old copy of Cycle World, flip through it and you'll get my point. The ads stunk. They lacked emotional appeal of any sort, and often even basic narrative cohesion. When I began my career with Yamaha, I was sickened by the output of the marketing department, and what it thought was cool. There were two types of motorcycle ad: generic outdoor shots of a motorcycle riding on a twisty road, or (my favourite) a side view studio shot on a white background. Now that is emotional. They always included lots of technical information, such as horsepower or service intervals, and were liberally peppered with a litany of Japanese technical acronyms. Deltabox. Genesis. SRAD. VTEC. ABCDXYZ. Whatever.
In a time before Facebook, Twitter and Hell For Leather Magazine, the only image the public could get of what motorcycling could be was generated by actual interactions with motorcycles, and the fantasies we created inside our imaginations as a result. Sure, my biker buddies and I read the American magazines occasionally, but back then those magazines were written by journalists who actually conducted genuine tests and could stitch together an article that bore at least a passing resemblance to adult writing. Back then, if you wanted to taste motorcycle culture you had to be near actual motorcyclists. The early forays into cross-branding and multi-media marketing such as Kawasaki's product placement in Top Gun were quite innocent by today's standards. I don't recall any shameless beauty shots of the GpZ900 with an obviously enlarged Kawasaki logo in centre. Or a painfully jingoistic plug uttered by a movie character the way Jeff Bridges and Garrett Hedlund push Ducati in TRON 2. The consumer was alone with his or her concoction of motorcycle bliss, motorcycle fantasy, motorcycle what-ifs. And although there have been some fucking brilliant ad campaigns since 1995, the public dumbing down of what the joy of riding a motorcycle really is; really can be, has in my opinion hurt the business.
Today's marketing portrays motorcycling as a kind of Disneyland. A pre-packaged, easily digested fantasy that removes as much risk as possible and lays out the themes and details of your adventure for you. Step this way folks, and check you imagination at the door. If you want to be an adventurous modern day nomad, or to advertise (literally) your passion for a particular brand of motorcycle, or to impress friends with our style sense and outre lifestyle, then there is a motorcycle brand for you, complete with all-inclusive cross-branded apparel, media and even fully contrived character templates that make the prospect of inventing your own narrative unnecessary. Check the box next to the life you want, hand over the cheque and sign here. At last, the bike industry has caught up to where automobile industry marketing has been since the fifties, and with luck it will punch out the last embers of authentic experience just as effectively.
Of course, this strategy has worked great guns, bringing in thousands of new customers to Harley-Davidson, KTM, Ducati and BMW over the past decade, and fattened bottom lines. Strong sales are good for business, and as anyone who has been involved in this industry for more than a decade will tell you, the reasons are pretty solid. Growth, the mantra of 20th century business, meant that the old ways of depending on the shaky and unpredictable whims of the traditional motorcycle market were not good enough. Let's face it: you and me, the die-hards who ride in bad weather and extoll the virtues of perfectly synchronized bank of Mikunis are not a reliable foundation for industrial scale investment. If you plot the sales of motorcycles in the Unites States from 1900, you see a roller coaster of epic proportions. Ups are wild, inviting dozens of new brands to set up shop and take a chance. Downs are catastrophic, leaving carnage and a handful of brands left standing. The recently popped Bush-era bubble was the latest in a long and depressing series of unsustainable motorcycle sales booms that over inflated expectations and exposure, ending with predictable results. But there is a difference this time. Looking at what's happening in our market it's hard to see the next uptick coming around here.
“I Liked the motorcycle so much, I bought the hot pants.”
Insiders from the foreign motorcycle industry are smiling. The world market for bikes is booming, and money is being made. Just not here. Global brands are expanding, Asian brands most Americans never heard of are feeling predatory, and the European legacy brands are posting big sales. Sales will rebound in North America and volume will return, just not in the same areas. What may be gone for a good long time is the myth that for over a century was the staple attraction to motorcycling: the promise of the ecstasy that comes from conquering fear and danger.
Few young Americans, as has been pointed out by numerous pundits, are showing much interest in the motorcycle. It is my view that a portion of the blame falls on the over marketing of narrow market niches, and beating consumers over the head with contrived user experiences. These have completely sterilized the image of motorcycling to new or returning consumers in North America, overshadowing a good part of the justification of owning and using a motorcycle.
In the old model, North Americans saw the motorcycle as either a commodity vehicle like a scooter or GS500, something that was easily justified as low cost, practical transportation with a fun side; or as an aphrodisiac or expletive for life, like a Norton Commando or FZR 600, that justified itself with grins and quivering nerves. No one told you these things, they were obvious. In today's model, every motorcycle is sold exclusively as the latter, even though a large majority of North Americans actually want the former. In poll after poll and in every customer clinic, the true, deep seeded need of most bikers in our land is for a two wheeled vehicle that is fun and manageable (both physically and financially), not a toy that happens to be a vehicle. But marketing has led us headlong into this premium market dead-end which has sacrificed sustained sales across the range tomorrow for some fat high end margins today. When the sales flag in the downturns, as they inevitably do, they argue that the solution is more marketing to pump up the desirability of the few high end sales left to be had. The result is the transformation of motorcycle companies (or at least their North American subsidiaries) into media companies.
Ducati, in all its corporate incarnations of the past fifteen years have lead this charge, something which I find extremely ironic. In 1995, when the Bolognese brand was first sold to American TPG, it was the very exclusive and obscure nature of the Ducati brand itself that was the key asset. It was the flawed by-product of real humans who lived in a different kind of bubble, one which ignored fashion and trend and simply produced a few thousand unique and occasionally brilliant motorcycles. Ducati's strength was it's isolation bubble, one that actually protected the brand's legends and authenticity from a sea of vastly superior but somewhat heartless Japanese machinery, a fact that became the cornerstone of TPG's marketing efforts. It worked, but only to a point. At that point, all of the advertising, the toy licencing, the movie tie-ins and relentless idolizing of the Ducati motorcycle as a fetish object had completely stripped the brand of the exclusivity of experience that riding one once suggested. How exotic to see that $3 disfigured plastic Monster model from Wallmart on the desk of that loudmouth in the cubicle in your office. I bet he has some great Ducati facts to share as you carpool home with him tonight in his Malibu. He gets the brand magazine mailed to him every month.
How much has this improved the company's prospects? Well, even at current record sales levels, they sell fewer bikes than Triumph, a brand with a soft marketing strategy (and that, even more ironically, have chosen to focus on making technically superior motorcycles rather than just lean on the gossamer thin veil of heritage), and have managed to be bought and sold three times in fifteen years, mostly with staggering losses. Sure, every teenager and cubicle warrior on earth lusts for a Ducati, but they don't appear to be opening their wallets to get them. Triumph meanwhile, delivers consistently better products year after year and more smiles inside helmets, winning the hearts of more real customers steadily. Dull stuff compared to another slick Hollywood product placement, but so much more rewarding to both the market and the corporate bottom line.
On another end of the spectrum, Honda, a brand that has about as much soul as the lawn equipment they also produce, is introducing thousands of people to modern motorcycling with unpretentious good products like the CBR250, and Kawasaki continues to lead US sales of liquid cooled, modern motorcycles with the fabulous Ninja 250. Their marketing is awful, no celebrity endorses them and to be frank, they are pretty vanilla. But to the teens racing them in the Honda Canada Cup and that fat guy I see on the little Ninja every morning on the school run, they are magic carpets. Those people are riding. And they will undoubtedly go on to buy more motorcycles, not toys and branded junk. Honda and Kawasaki may not be the lode star of the trendy, but they make money selling good products without too much bullshit. I appreciate that.
I have by and large spent my career being the optimist in the room, extolling the lights rather than pointing out the shadows of this industry. But as this brilliant maritime summer rolls to its close, I find that it is increasingly difficult for me to get behind the business that has kept me fed for so long. Everywhere I go I hear nothing but talk of fast gains and maximizing growth. It seems that so many brands are going all out to be all things to all people and that most of the senior management I meet are outsiders from the vacuum cleaner industry charged with delivering rapid growth. Good luck.
I like money and growth, but I guess I have become a student of Japanese or German industrial thinking, where steady wins the race, 20 consecutive quarters of modest growth is preferable to puffing up and expanding into a giant as quickly as possible, and engineers are venerated as the backbone of product development. Perhaps I am being influenced by traditional Canadian values that shy away from over-reaching ambitions, something that I have been prone to until now. Or maybe listening to JT Nesbitt rage about the need to fuck planning and get doing has touched some nerve (I still think he's wrong, but it gives me pause). Whatever it is, after too many seasons of being a motorcycle industry consultant I am going to take a breather this fall and become a motorcyclist again. I’m going out to ride my bikes, at least until Halloween is over.
At the highest levels of this industry, especially in North America, executives could do a lot worse than get out there on their bikes and ride with real bikers for a couple of weeks. Until EICMA in November and the 2013 production ramp up there really isn't anything more important to do anyway. Maybe they could get back and decide to cut back on T-shirt sales and marketing consultants and put the investment back into manufacturing great motorcycles. It is nothing less than what North America deserves.
Happy, safe motorcycling. And watch out for the wet leaves.
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.