Everyone likes to have choices when buying a new motorcycle. Most consumers have very little idea of what they want before setting off to make that exciting decision. Their choice of dealership, the inventory on the showroom floor and random advice from friends and magazines end up having the most influence. This is why motorcycle manufacturers try so hard to fill every corner of the market with their products. And when they can’t, they sometimes badge-engineer someone else’s.
The concept of deploying multiple nearly identical products under different overlapping brands was most famously developed by General Motors nearly a century ago. While the actual mechanical differences between a Chevrolet, Buick, Pontiac and Oldsmobile might be limited, their distinct outward appearance combined with clever advertising campaigns to create the aura of choice.
A customer now had a delightful variety of models, styles, functions and prices to select from, all under one corporate umbrella. As GM’s founding CEO famously said “A car for every purse and purpose.”
The car buying public is obliquely aware of this practice, but continues to buy into this deception even today. Every Audi has a cheaper VW counterpart, but that has done nothing to slow down sales of either. In those instances, the cars are substantially differentiated, while in most others they are superficial. It takes a real gearhead to notice if they were looking at a Subaru BR-Z or a Scion FR-S.
This practice, often derisively called badge-engineering, is not limited to motor vehicles. In consumer electronics, fast fashion, and even fast food, there is often scant difference between the basic products and the so-called “premium” items at higher price points. It happens everywhere because, generally speaking, it works. It’s happening in today’s motorcycle market too, though most people are probably unaware of it.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Badge engineering is a very real phenomenon. It happens when a company needs a product in a market niche they don’t occupy, so adapts one from another line or from another company to fill it. With motorcycle brands, it has typically been used as a low-cost way to stuff a catalogue with products, usually at the low end of the market register, without actually having to develop them.
As has been detailed in excruciating detail in The Insider before, heritage brands are often the worst offenders. When Laverda, Indian, Benelli, or other struggling small brands needed to boost volume, they imported random Asian commodity motorcycles and sold them as their own. All this did was cheapen their reputation, reduce prestige and ultimately leave a few thousand customers deeply disappointed.
In recent times, the leading champion of badge engineering is the Piaggio Group. Within the conglomerate live several once proud brands: Moto Guzzi, Gilera, Aprilia and Derbi. Each comes with dozens of international world championships and a collective three centuries of incredible motorcycle heritage. As of right now, Guzzi aside, you can purchase the same sad scooters under four different brand names. What is the point of buying an Aprilia Sportcity if the Piaggio NRG and Derbi Rambla are the exact same thing, sold in the same store for almost the same price? The MBA endowed marketing people have spreadsheets that say it makes sense. The official European government vehicle registration tables say otherwise.
Higher up the market, all manner of motorcycle OEM incest can be found. During their very brief and ill-fated ownership of Husqvarna, BMW sold warmed over and largely uninspiring variations of the ancient F-650 and unloved G450X. Neither found traction in the marketplace, which forced BMW to sell Husqvarna a few years later at a loss.
The Four Card Shuffle
Speaking of BMW, that very same F-650 was originally designed in Italy by Aprilia, who sold a much more attractive variant named the Pegaso for years. Aprilia also engineered BMW’s X-City and X-Country 650cc urban line. As for Aprilia, well they leached Suzuki for small displacment 2-stroke motors to power their RS line of sport bikes, and Yamaha and Rotax to power the four strokes.
Suzuki is easily the industry’s prostitute, having had relations with just about every brand under the sun. They have sold their motors to Cagiva, Laverda, Hyosung, Aprilia and others, but more shocking still is the deal they cut with Kawasaki in 2002 to market the Suzuki V-Strom 1000 as the KLV 1000. Unlike other badge engineering attempts elsewhere, this one was destined to fail because it was so naked, and served no customer’s best interests.
The KLV 1000 was literally a bone stock Suzuki V-Strom with Kawasaki stickers and $500 added on to the price. The reps did their best to level differences to the journalists who tested them, but it didn’t matter. The KLV-Strom did not sell in any significant number, so the bike vanished quickly.
Kawasaki currently sells Kymco scooters under it’s brand name in Canada, which may or may not be working for them. In this country where Kymco has virtually no brand recognition, this crossover may actually make some sense, adding dollars to Kymco’s bottom line (a sale is a sale, even if it doesn’t have your name on it), while also introducing some scooter consumers to the Kawasaki brand for potential motorcycle purchases later. Only Kawasaki knows for sure.
Engineering Consumer Desire
MBK is almost unknown to North Americans. It is a century old French brand that once boasted some of the best selling mopeds in Europe, alongside Vespa and the Honda Cub. In 1984 the company went bankrupt and was acquired by Yamaha, who used the French factory as a means of manufacturing their Japanese products in Europe thus circumventing import tarrifs. It worked, and to Yamaha’s surprise, products sold under the French MBK brand were more successful in southern Europe than their Yamaha-branded cousins.
Sometimes selling the same motorcycle under different brand names does make sense. Europe (and it must be said, Canada and the US too) in the 1980’s and 1990’s could be hostile towards Japanese brands. The nationalistic idea of “buying local” has a strong influence on some consumers. That those same consumers often can’t tell what is made locally and what is “foreign” is another matter.
During the 1980’s, the iconic car executive Lee Iacocca trumpeted the success of his Chrysler corporation’s American engineering know-how. Meanwhile, many of the most successful cars his company sold, including the V-6 engine inside their legendary minivan, were all bought from Mitsubishi in Japan. Harley-Davidson would like all of it’s fanatical followers to know that nothing on two wheels is more American than its motorcycles, and yet the V-Rod was engineered by Porsche and manufactured in a joint venture with the German company.
Peaks and Valleys; Gutters and Strikes
What is a brand but a collection of messages? Companies today share development costs whenever they can because in the race to win consumer dollars, the one on the top is often the one with the widest possible reach. In some cases, a multi-brand strategy like the one employed by Yamaha in Europe with the nominally French MBK brand works. In other cases, such as Piaggio’s schizophrenic menagerie of multi-branded clones, it does not.
When brands try to fool motorcyclists there is more danger than when car or electronics brands do so. The biker is a rare consumer that likes to belong to a brand tribe almost as much as they want a specific ride. As such, they tend to read more, listen more and actively chose brands before wandering into a dealership to make a purchase. If they see something they later discover is fake, or consider deceitful, it may turn them off that brand forever, which is not really the case with cars, DVD players, or other commodity products.
Badge engineering is not likely to go away, but with the cost of limited production manufacturing dropping fast thanks to new technologies like 3D printing, companies will be able to adapt or modify existing products to make them more niche in ways that even most experts will find challenging to discern.
In the end, if the final outcome satisfies the user, will it matter?
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ About the author Michael Uhlarik is an international award-winning motorcycle designer with over 16 years of experience creating bikes for Yamaha, Aprilia, Piaggio, Derbi and many others. He is a veteran motorcycle industry analyst and part-time industrial design lecturer. He is based in Nova Scotia.