THREE MEN AND A BABY BMW
Many years ago I attended a meeting set up by a Yamaha product planner in Amsterdam to examine a new motorcycle from BMW. The bike promised to revolutionize the industry, because it was a motorcycle targeted specifically at women.
It was 2001, I was a junior motorcycle designer, and the planner sounded terribly excited. Many of my Japanese colleagues however, found it just annoying. To them women were a motorcycle accessory, passengers and hangers-on, not a target audience. Some of my European colleagues felt the same. That kind of thinking was deeply frowned upon in progressive Holland, but they could openly communicate that inside the offices of a motorcycle manufacturer. Very few women were in positions of authority at motorcycle companies back then.
The bike was the F650 Scarver (F650CS in North America). A highly modified version of the latest F650GS, at the time BMW’s best selling bike ever, the Scarver featured lots of semi-transparent plastic, soft contoured bodywork, a maintenance-free belt drive and a palette including a colour my then girlfriend christened “cosmetics counter blue”. It was heavier and slower than its GS cousin, and a lot more expensive.
“BMW is going to dominate the women’s market” exclaimed the planner who called the meeting. The rest of us paced around, occasionally touching it. The men were uncomfortable. Like some alien artifact we were having trouble judging if it was friendly or not. The fuel supply was in a tank under the seat, with the traditional tank space used as a shallow storage bin, framed by transparent luggage rails.
“What goes here?” asked my boss, pointing to the storage bin. “A purse?”
There was some laughter, a few guffaws. Then the planner pocketed the keys and the meeting moved to a conference room where we looked at BMW’s marketing campaign for the Scarver. The media presented young, confident looking professional women with the motorcycle, all in lifestyle magazines that had nothing to do with motorcycles.
The Scarver was a sales flop and quietly disappeared as soon as the first production run was finished. The lesson Yamaha planners and conservative voices took away from the episode was that there was no specific women’s market. But the amazing result of this experiment, if looked at through the lens of later facts, is illuminating.
MEN ARE FROM MARS, WOMEN ARE FROM WHERE WE TELL THEM
Since the invention of the motorcycle 120 years ago, women have been used primarily as tools to sell bikes to men, little more than wallpaper in a testosterone-soaked industry. Women were long considered physically and mentally incapable of operating motorcycles. After the second world war the message changed to suggest that motorcycles were beneath them, too dirty for the ideal 1950’s modern woman homemaker.
Occasionally, manufacturers suggested that a motorcycle could be a practical and stylish place for a woman to be seen. Piaggio and Honda made serious efforts to market the Vespa and C50 Cub to everyone, targeting women specifically. But these were not real motorcycles, and the message said: scooters were so easy to use, even a woman could operate them.
The mainstream marketing position in recent decades has been that women are sexual props on motorcycles, there to titillate male consumers. This has its roots in a poster campaign undertaken by NVT (the dying amalgamation of Norton, Villers and Triumph) in the 1970’s, when the desperate company scraped the bottom of the marketing barrel to try and stop flagging sales. Unsurprisingly, the pin-up girls didn’t save the company, but not before searing the image of a helpless bimbo into the collective aegis of the motorcycle marketing industry as the best way to promote bike brands.
MARKETING PROVIDES SUPPORT, INSTEAD OF ILLUMINATION
With few exceptions, woman motorcyclists are considered a counter-culture anathema, slightly awkward misfits rather than heroic rebel-loners like their male counterparts. Even in progressive societies like the northern nations of Europe, Canada and the US, women account for a scant few percent of motorcycle sales, while in much more chauvinistic countries like Italy, Spain, Brazil, India and China, where motorcycles and scooters are sold in their millions to a wide variety of consumers, they make up around 20%.
Are women so reluctant to buy and use motorcycles? The common industry wisdom says so, that women aren’t attracted to motorcycles like men are, therefore there is no market worth pursuing. The sales statistics bear that out. But we have heard this lame explanation before only ten years ago, when the industry claimed that there was no market for modern, exciting, small displacement motorcycles.
After the unexpected introduction of the Honda CBR125R in 2004, sales shot through the roof. The tiny Honda became the overall best seller in Britain, of all places, a testosterone soaked, boys-club motorcycle culture where power and speed are king. Today the same product planners and marketing experts who said there was no potential for great small motorcycles loudly boost the hot new 300cc class.
For years, there were few choices, and none of them were good. As recently as 2010 if you wanted a bike that was small, light, affordable, and with forgiving handling you were forced onto an old, ill-handling and ugly old nail like the Suzuki GS500, Kawasaki EX250 or a Suzuki Savage. As a result sales of small bikes were terrible, leading to the misconception that no one wanted small bikes.
When it comes to women on motorcycles, the situation is roughly parallel. If you you go by the sales statistics, women are buying only small, under-powered, and cheap motorcycles. Very few buy big or powerful machines, and the trend has been thus forever.
But the conclusion here shouldn’t be that there is no viable women specific premium market, but that women don’t like what’s currently available. The question to ask is “why not?” What do they want?
WHAT WOMEN WANT
Women love motorcycles too, and here is the unsurprising part: they love them in the same way men do. Every women motorcyclist polled by the companies I worked with over fifteen years responded to marketing and product planning questions precisely the same way as the men in the same group. They loved the freedom, the feeling of leaning into corners, the power, the speed.
The single issue that continued to separate the sexes was physical size, by which I mean seat height and center of gravity. Like any short person, riding a bike that is too tall and has a mass three times your body weight is a recipe for discomfort and anxiety.
This is not a new problem, because men come in small sizes too. One of my best friends has been riding for twenty years, owned dozens of bikes, been a track day regular on a 250 grand prix replica and toured cross continent. But he’s 5’5”. Since the beginning he’s struggled to find quality motorcycle clothing that fits, or high performance motorcycles that he can ride for more than two or three hours without suffering joint pain. This is 90% of the problem women motorcyclists face, except that unlike them, no dealer or manufacturer would deign to point my male friend to a lame “beginner” bike like a Savage as a viable option because of its low seat.
When men are anxious about riding a bike that is too big, society expects them to buck up. When a woman walks into a showroom, inevitably she is expected to settle for what is available. My friend has decades of skill and knows what he wants: the same awesome, attractive, exciting machinery the rest of us do. Unsurprisingly, ditto most women attracted to motorcycles.
The motorcycle industry narrative condescends to tell women what their relationship to motorcycles should be rather than let them choose for themselves. The marketing departments of OEMs follow the path of least resistance, particularly in North America, because it’s felt that the reward is not worth the risk of pushing for something better. As with small motorcycles before, the facts don’t reflect that conclusion.
FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY
The motorcycle industry needs to stop selling women on motorcycles and start selling motorcycles to women, because the demographic data is spelling out the future pretty clearly. In all modern economies, women are outpacing men in higher education, while female graduates outnumber men in key high value professions like medicine and law. Across the spectrum, the millennial generation presents a growing tide of affluent, sophisticated and aggressive female consumers that will finally close the gender gap in economics and political power.
Women already outspend their male counterparts and exert greater influence on household spending and product trends. Ignoring this market segment to pander to men is not only counter productive but will almost certainly weaken the viability of the motorcycle as a mainstream product. As the developing world gets richer the core motorcycle buying population aspires to car ownership, just as it did here in the post war years. In China and India, the two largest motorcycle markets in the world, this is already happening. The pool of consumers is shrinking, so ignoring 50% of the population is leaving 50% of potential sales on the table.
Given those facts, manufacturers would do well to design desirable, high power, high technology motorcycles that are physically accessible to shorter, lighter customers, and make an effort to market them using real women. Not another 300cc jewel, but bikes that are big on power and presence with proportions that make them accessible to everyone. Perhaps it would be worth adding the proviso that they leave the pink tribal stickers out of it.