Motorcycles get made by following a linear series of steps, each of which has a clear set of objectives. As we have seen in The Making of Motorcycles, designing a production motorcycle requires making assumptions, leaps of faith, and bridging opposing needs.
Marketing motorcycles to the public is no different. Only it’s entirely different. Sometimes.
The marketing of motorcycles is usually done by individuals and companies that are not part of the internal product development team, which means that the trust and experiences shared by the core group are not easily accessible. As a result, motorcycle marketing usually lives inside an isolated bubble that has very little authentic connection to the product, and that can make things interesting.
Traditionally, manufacturers hire large ad agencies and specialized firms to push new product into the marketplace, usually pretty close to the end of the R&D cycle. Designers and engineers rarely get to download information about a new motorcycle to marketers, beyond an email outline of the project. Marketers prefer to do their own research and invent their own stories about the products they’re hired to promote, which typically gives rise to the bubble.
As pre-production work gets under way, the marketing people make their final pitch to the manufacturer’s executive, and the reality distortion field begins to expand. The manufacturer’s management are by this point in the process driven by fear. Having spent untold millions on R&D, they desperately need to see overwhelming return on that investment, so the selling of the motorcycle takes on a crusade-like fervor.
Marketing firms know and exploit this fact, so like expensively dressed sharks circling a mighty whale trapped in shallow water, they begin to push for expanded ad buy, using as much research as possible to prove that the additional money spent will equal more market penetration and improved sales.
(above : a commercial so embarrassing, so astonishingly terrible that one has to wonder if it's real, or just some art-house film student project that convinced Yamaha to fund it.
The tactic often works on the manufacturer, but rarely gets the results in the market. Motorcycles are not soap, vacuum cleaners or mid-sized SUVs. Catchy musical numbers, comedy, animal metaphors, co-branding partnerships and movie product placements have historically has minimal effect on motorcycle sales, because motorcycle are not commodities, and the feeling they arouse in consumers are strong.
Act One : The Power of Dreams
In the late 1980’s I was a senior in high school with a serious desire for a street motorcycle. Like most teens aspiring to bikes, I studied magazines to learn and to decide what I wanted.
At the time budget standards and small cruisers like the Yamaha Radian and Honda Rebel were considered desirable all-round beginner bikes. The ads for those machines featured clean-cut men with brown leather jackets, standing confidently on a sunset background.
I bought into that message, thinking that fat rear tires and square headlights were cool, until Danny Lalomia and his Yamaha FZR600 rolled into the school parking lot.
Danny was the biker character from a teen movie. A football and wrestling star, tall, dark, and with quiet outward demeanor, he rode his bike like a psycho at every opportunity, smoked, and was dating the captain of the girl’s swim team.
His FZR was 1980’s non plus ultra, with pink wheels, turquoise splash graphics, and labels on the chassis proclaiming virtuous technologies like “Deltabox” and “EXUP”, neither of which meant anything to me. The fairings were shagged from multiple crashes, a mirror was cracked and one footpeg was ground to a stub. “No Fear” and “Oakley” stickers covered some of the more serious battle damage, which only made it cooler.
I heard Danny rev the FZR mercilessly one afternoon, so I went to the second floor library window to watch. I looked just in time to see his girlfriend hop in the back as he lit the rear wheel and tore into traffic. The Yamaha wailed long into the distance, a sound I can still imagine with clarity.
The Yamaha FZR ads of the day were all studio shots with copy that explained Deltabox and EXUP in great detail, but I never noticed them. Watching Danny and his FZR convinced me that I needed one of my own. I didn’t want the bike because it had five valves per cylinder or because it “…leads the competition in handling” like the ads claimed. I wanted it because I had seen what it did to one of my peers. A real person.
Looking at sport bike ads afterwards, I decided that Suzuki’s FZR rival was for old guys (to 17-year-old me, that meant 30 somethings) based purely on the soft sunset lighting and blow-dried hair, and that the Honda Hurricane was just not serious. I didn’t discover the meaning of Deltabox or EXUP until I was a member of the Yamaha R&D staff ten years later. Such, I suppose, is the power of conventional motorcycle advertising.
Selling Champions, not Cheese.
Motorcycle marketing is the final cut, the last adjustment of a new product before it goes boldly out the factory door. It’s not a physical change, but the public perception of a particular bike or brand are irrevocably changed by the tug and pull of the corporate communications department.
The greatest ever motorcycle ad is the 1963 “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” campaign by Grey Advertising, a curious example in an otherwise unimaginative industry. The print and later television ads featured ordinary people enjoying themselves on a variety of underwhelming Honda motorcycles. The ads made no attempt to invoke other-worldly qualities that promised the user a life-altering experience, and they were mercifully devoid of techno-talk.
The ads helped Honda overcome the twin challenges of creating awareness and communicating desirability for an unknown product by linking attractive values to people the audience could relate to. The series’ message put the spotlight on the user, not the machine, and suggested that the average person, with the same deep-seated anxieties everyone has about their own limitations, could not only use a Honda motorcycle but have a great time doing so in a growing and welcoming community.
Honda sales exploded after the campaign was launched, in part because the American public was exposed to the then little-known Japanese brand, but largely because they become convinced that the bikes were attractive accessories to their modern, jet-age, suburban lifestyle. Meanwhile, sales of rival imports like Piaggio’s Vespa never reached those heights in the US, despite the enduring image of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck aboard one in Roman Holiday. Vespa was a dream, an aspiration requiring special conditions to appreciate fully. The Honda was attainable, satisfying every day fun.
Advertising consultants consistently misread the motorcycle consumer. They focus a lot on creating dream worlds, and use imagery and language to try and conjure up aspirational scenarios and link them to the bikes they’re promoting. This is the Roman Holiday approach. The trouble with that is motorcycles inspire fear in everyone, especially motorcyclists. Fear of injury, yes, but more critically fear of unworthiness. Can a person really live up to the exaltation promised in the ads? To the performance?
What will your peers think if you don’t? What will you think of yourself?
Act Two : You are One of Us
In 1995, a private equity firm no one ever heard of acquired an Italian motorcycle company. The Texas Pacific Group bought Ducati from the Castiglioni family with the plan of making an obscure, tiny manufacturer of boutique sport bikes into an Italian Harley-Davidson. They pumped a lot of money into media, buying up advertising in lifestyle magazines like GQ and Rolling Stone, but then did something different. They photographed real people that worked for Ducati, raced for Ducati, and ordinary Ducati enthusiasts, in and around the factory astride their bikes. The ads said nothing about the technology and refrained from the usual flowery descriptive prose.
The campaign was called “Ducati/People”, and by 1998 it made sure that every consumer of premium products in America was aware of the brand. A huge success, it helped make the late 1990’s Monster 600 the best-selling Ducati in modern history, and pushed the company into a successful IPO on the New York stock exchange shortly after. Ducati had gone from selling fewer than 15,000 bikes to nearly 30,000 in less than ten years.
Ducati/People promised nothing. It said nothing. What it did do was present the manufacturer as a the ultimate accessory for the urbane, upwardly mobile. The ads were beautiful, full-page fashion ads because they were selling Ducati as fashion. The people in the ads were authentic looking because they were not models. Sure, the bikes were gorgeous, but not intimidating. Throughout the whole series, not once was a bike shown being ridden. They were being worn.
This is Not Fantasy Island
Ducati was making a transition, as Harley-Davidson did so spectacularly a decade earlier, from a hardware manufacturing company into a lifestyle company. The key to the Harley phenomenon was in the realization that to most potential customers, riding a prestige motorcycle was fun only if the secret, deep-seated anxiety most people have addressed. Harley did this by casting mellow cruising as cool. It’s advertising emphasized relaxation, not danger.
Similarly, Ducati reframed sport bike ownership as a style exercise. Like Harley, a new Ducati owner could feel cool just by riding normally, if loudly, down a busy boulevard and didn’t have to worry about not being fast. Ducati/People downplayed the brand’s racing success in favour of being chic.
The marketing reality distortion field took over after TPG left the Ducati business in 2003. The new owners spent big on movie placements in high-profile summer blockbusters like Matrix: Reloaded, and later TRON Legacy. Meanwhile, they started selling the Ducati licence to anyone who came knocking. By 2011, consumers could buy Ducati shoes, Ducati hair dryers and Ducati underwear from companies that had absolutely nothing to do with Ducati. Unit sales remained stubbornly flat. Trinity jumping a Ducati 916 in a black leather cat-suit may have sold well in the boardroom and among 15-year-old movie goers, but it had no appreciable effect on the middle-aged motorcycle enthusiasts that Ducati desperately needed to reach to sell more bikes.
The image all that expensive marketing created did not match the reality of the motorcycles in customer’s hands. The dedicated enthusiasts could overlook the tackiness of a Ducati flip phone, but an affluent mainstream customer who bought a Ducati motorcycle based on poetic musings of Jeff Bridges’ character in TRON Legacy could not. Marketing had oversold the brand.
Act Three : Star Power
In a large, darkened club in the centre of Milan, several hundred guests and staff were drinking and milling around. The room was huge, with long open bars on two ends and tall black and red plinths scattered around the other edges, each supporting a Yamaha motorcycle. Above the sound of clinking glasses and the latest Ibiza chill out mix, voices in English, Japanese and Italian shouted to each other excitedly in anticipation of the big event: the 2002 Yamaha R1 press presentation.
Yamaha was on a roll, cresting a wave that would later be remembered as one of the company’s high water marks for design and product innovation. Now, with anticipation at fever pitch, the lights dimmed, the stage lit up red, and a video began to play on a theatre-sized screen.
Filmed completely black and white, a movie told a fictional story of a young man coming home to see his family in a traditional Italian village. The man hugs people, telling them about his amazing new love. The characters are all hideous clichés, cultural stereotypes of Italian people as imagined by someone who’s only reference came from watching Bob Hope movies. There was parochial imagery, childish innuendo and lots of comically raised eyebrows. There was no motorcycle.
It went on for perhaps fifteen excruciating minutes, during which time the club was stunned into silence save for some uncomfortable feet shuffling. The dialogue continued in clipped Italian, forcing the mostly foreign audience to read subtitles or just drink quietly and wait for the introduction of the new R1.
“La giaponesa! La giaponesa!” Cried an old man from a wrought iron balcony. The screen faded to black signalling that the art-house film was at last over, leaving only the Yamaha tuning fork logo and a new slogan : “Touching Your Heart”
I nearly choked on my beer. Next to me, the chief engineer of the MT03 stood with his mouth hanging open. “Touching your heart? What the fuck?” I said to him in disgust. “Are we a greeting card company?!?” He added.
Finally, the bike was in view. Four time grand prix world champion Max Biaggi rode the 2002 R1 onto the stage, but no one was paying attention. The crowd had dwindled to a few hangers on, leaving mostly Yamaha and catering staff to sop up the remaining food and drink.
“Words fail me.” said the marketing manager for Yamaha UK. He took a very long pull of his drink, tossed his empty cup away and made a comment, the gist of which characterized the marketing team responsible as broadly incapable of finding elements of their own anatomy.
This Really Shouldn’t be Hard
Marketing objects as emotionally compelling as motorcycles is not hard, which is what makes the overwhelming failure rate of motorcycle marketing so baffling. The 2002 Yamaha R1 was the apogee of the genus, the most awarded, most refined, best looking and best handling super bike in the world that year. Yet somehow the marketing team made the eager, captive audience collectively vomit in their mouths at its presentation.
I wish it could be called an isolated incident, but it was not. In the world of motorcycle marketing, “inoffensive” is usually considered a win. For most of their history selling bikes in the western world, the big four Japanese brands have marketed their bikes on their technical merits, resulting in thousands of utterly forgettable ads.
Open any motorcycle magazine from any period between 1970 and the present and you will be confronted with one of two types of Japanese brand motorcycle ad : the action shot of a user riding on picturesque road; or a studio shot of a bike in a brick warehouse with an inexplicably wet floor. An offshoot of the second theme is a super close up of some detail, with a smaller secondary side view on a plain background.
In nearly all cases the copy will emphasize facts and figures, while making a tepid attempt to amuse or excite by suggesting that the bike will help users overcome some kind of insecurity. They are terrible, generic things that might as well have belched out of a random Google advertisement generator algorithm. Without much effort, most could be modified to suit any product, simply by substituting the motorcycle and references to it with something else.
Once in a while some great ones come along, ads that capture the feeling that a certain bike and its brand actually convey on their own. Of course, those cases make it easy, because it is the product and brands themselves that are doing the heavy lifting. The ad merely acknowledges this into a concentrated message that can be communicated quickly to an audience. Doing that well is incredibly difficult, but in all deference to Marshall McLuhan, it is not the communication medium that is doing the selling, it is the subject.
The medium at the 2002 R1 launch was slick, a multi-channel, high production-value communications project that was meant to take Yamaha away from the boring facts and figures of machinery and tell a compelling human story about a man and his passion for a Yamaha motorcycle. “La giaponesa” was so deep, so full of socio-historic allegory and pop culture nuance that it totally disconnected itself from the basic reality of what makes motorcycles into objects of desire.
Suggesting that the emotions felt while riding a lethal superbike “touches your heart” is stating the obvious in an almost comically underwhelming way. It’s like describing a sexual orgy among nymphomaniacs as an act that “touches your groin”. The 2002 R1 was a success despite the total failure of the marketing. In the end it didn’t need any marketing at all because one year after sales began, Valentino Rossi joined Yamaha in MotoGP which did more to sell R1’s than any amount of ad buy in the world.
Ads don’t sell motorcycles. Motorcycles sell motorcycles.
In the end, marketing serves only as an invitation for customers to taste a motorcycle. Unlike gum and vacuum cleaners and family sedans, motorcycles are almost always irrational purchases made by a small portion of the consumer public with a particular penchant for visceral risk and thrills. Motorcycles are not sold because of good ads, but good ads and careful brand crafting have helped introduce brands to new customers.
A smart ad campaign for deodorant may cause a noticeable spike in sales, but no amount of advertising will sell motorcycles if the product is not good to begin with. The performance difference between most consumer goods, including high-end electronic devices like mobile phones, is so slight that persuasion can sway millions. But on two wheels, the voices of hard and soft sell only go so far before the reptilian brain kicks in.
The small cadre of Ducatisti that buy Ducati motorcycles do so because the machine speaks to them, not the ads. The hundreds of millions that have enjoyed the Honda Cub were won over by the little motorcycle’s incredible qualities, not the strength of the marketing. Motorcycles, even ones as ubiquitous as the Honda Cub (the most manufactured motor vehicle in history) are not commodities like soap or Toyota Corollas. There may be a fan club for Palmolive or the Corolla somewhere, but they have nowhere near the level of cult status as the Honda Cub, to say nothing of a Ducati.
Factories turn out motorcycles by the million every day, and all over the world the marketing departments are desperate to make them stand out. Discounts, special editions, and flowery prose accompany them as they ship to dealerships in the farthest reaches of a crowded marketplace, with as many diverse brand messages as there are models.
After more than 120 years in existence, motorcycle marketing is unlikely to change much. The motorcycle is one of the last unregulated forms of risky consumer self-indulgence. If it did not exist today and someone invented an unstable, two-wheeled motor vehicle with no safety or weather protection it would certainly be outlawed.
Marketing motorcycles is crazy, because while they instill a deep physical and emotional thrill, they can also easily rob you of your life. You might as well try and sell tickets to a real life Hunger Games tournament, because the death-wish crowd is a pretty small target audience.
Marketing the stories of people, or what they do and how they see themselves aboard motorcycles is sublime salesmanship, and the only way that has ever worked. Honda did it best with those famous Cub ads, Ducati hit the target in the early TPG years, and that 2002 Yamaha R1 launch missed the target badly, only to be saved by becoming married to the real-world personality of Valentino Rossi, a motorcycling legend. In all cases where motorcycle advertising has worked, it worked because it sold motorcyclists, not motorcycles.
The Making of Motorcycles
Yamaha was right, even if their messaging was off. Motorcycles do touch our hearts, making us feel things in ways that few other man-made goods do. They are magic carpets that, no matter what you ride, lead adults to experiences that they hadn’t enjoyed since childhood, and let us escape the confines of regular life and the tedious tasks that fill the day.
Creating motorcycles is no different. As a professional in the motorcycle R&D universe, the process itself has transported me to distant imaginary places, every time I shut the outside world out, to concentrate on sketching, modelling or presenting a motorcycle concept. The friends, colleagues, clients and bikers that I have connected with all these years report the same transformation.
Motorcycles are amazing because motorcyclists allow themselves to be amazed. And that is why we make motorcycles.
That’s it for the Making of Motorcycles series. If you’d like to see them all again, simply go to the Making of Motorcycles homepage here.