Originally published in Slipstream magazine, February 2018.
It’s been another year of launches, announcements and behind-the-scenes news from the global Motorcycle Industry. Some of it is business as usual, still more represents continuing trends, but beneath it all lies evidence of growing bewilderment and panic amongst the world’s top manufacturers that evidences itself in almost everything that they say and do. No-one will admit it, but biking is headed for either a cataclysmic shift or a dead stop.
There’s plenty of evidence to support this theory, and every now and again a journalist will catch a spokesperson by surprise and get an honest answer. But what sealed the deal for me was the four bike shows I attended in the closing months of 2017. The Classic Bike Show in Peterborough, the National Motorcycle Museum open day, EICMA in Milan and of course our own Motorcycle Live! in Birmingham. Two very different kinds of event, but both rather telling in what they showed, as well as who showed up.
A full analysis of the state of the industry identifies problems in three key areas: marketing, sales, and product. This will conveniently make for three separate pieces, and so this month we’re going to discuss the first: marketing. We’ll cover sales and product in the next two issues of Slipstream, so check back next month for more!
What is Marketing?
When most people think of marketing, they’re actually thinking of advertising. When they think of advertising, they think of short TV ads interrupting their favourite show, or perhaps images on billboards at the side of the road. But advertising itself is more complex than that, and is actually just one facet of an overall marketing strategy.
Simply put, marketing is the process of identifying and targeting the people most likely to be persuaded to purchase a product or service, and then convincing them to do so. Advertising is the part we see, a tool used to raise the target market’s awareness of some incredible new washing powder or tasty beverage, and then utilise a variety of techniques to persuade them that their life is incomplete without said product.
Sometimes you can attempt this all in one go, as per the traditional washing detergent TV advertisement; show the product doing amazing things in some fictional scenario that the audience can relate to, solving some problem that might also affect their lives. Other times it can be a slower, more subtle and ongoing process, such as that favoured by premium car manufacturers.
Think of an aspirational car brand and chances are that Audi, Mercedes-Benz and BMW are all going to pop into your head. This isn’t just because you saw one single advert that one time; it’s because those manufacturers and their marketing agencies work hard to make sure that their brand and their products are seen as often as possible in cool films, driven by handsome or beautiful people, doing amazing things.
Even their customers are used to help perpetuate this; The cheapest BMW is still an expensive proposition, ensuring that only well-off people are ever seen driving their cars. This, in turn, means that anyone seeing their neighbour park up in a new BMW will know that they must’ve got that big promotion they were hoping for, and will continue to associate the brand with success and prosperity. It’s a feedback loop that helps keep a brand’s premium or prestige status, and why brands like Lexus exist. Nobody would spend £60,000 on a Toyota, because it’s not an aspirational brand. Create a premium brand, associate the badge with value, and people will pay an extra 10% just for your logo on the grille.
The reason we see washing detergent advertised during daytime TV is because the marketing team has correctly identified that the person in a household most likely to be making the detergent-buying decisions is also most likely to be watching television at this time. TV spots are extremely expensive, so they choose their time slots carefully to maximise effectiveness. No-one ever tried to advertise alco-pops during an episode of Star Trek; there may be opportunities to convince science fiction enthusiasts to embark on a life of drunken excess, but there are certainly far easier targets elsewhere.
Things are no different when a motorcycle manufacturer employs a marketing firm to help them sell their bikes. They need to identify who their potential customers are, figure out how to communicate with those individuals, and then deliver a targeted message designed to convince them to buy their particular flavour of two-wheeled excellence, preferably today. And this is where things get tricky.
Who are ‘potential motorcyclists’? How do you reach them? And what do you need to tell these people to persuade them to take up two wheels, or swap their existing ride for a newer model from your particular brand? There’s no easy answer, and finding one would be very time-consuming and expensive, and so in my experience…manufacturers simply don’t bother.
When was the last time you saw an advertisement for a motorcycle? I’m willing to bet it wasn’t on a billboard at the side of the road or during an episode of Game of Thrones. No, I’ll bet it was between the pages of a motorcycle magazine – something likely seen only people who are already so fascinated by bikes that they deliberately spent money to buy – and time to read – a publication dedicated to detailing how awesome the newest, greatest two-wheeled creations are.
These are people who are already, in a sense, shopping for their next bike; otherwise, they wouldn’t be bothering to read about the latest models in the first place. That indicates both the intent and capability, both financial and from a licensing perspective, to purchase a new, expensive, impractical, thirsty, difficult-to-use and extremely complex machine, probably purely for recreational use. As a marketing firm, the hard part is already done – no persuasion necessary here!
And so, the adverts between the pages of such magazines only need to convince us to focus on specific brands or models of bikes. And yet this isn’t done by showing or telling us about the features or benefits of prospective choices – we probably already know all about them, as a result of reading the aforementioned magazine. We’ve probably already narrowed down our choices to a few particular models in our chosen style or genre. So what’s stopping us from running out and buying one right now?
The answer lies in the advertisements themselves. Each and every one of them focuses almost exclusively on telling us for how little a month we could ‘own’ our dream bike. Alternatives include offers on accessories or time-limited discounts. You can set your calendar by Suzuki’s 0% finance offers, which arrive around the same time every single year. The only reason I haven’t rushed out to buy a new Triumph Tiger 800 is apparently because I wasn’t aware just how cheaply I could get one. And look! Free panniers! But only until the end of the month!
This is a really effective way to spend a limited marketing budget; you’re guaranteed that every person who sees your ad will be a member of your target market, thereby delivering you the maximum return on investment. But it’s also an unfortunately perfect way of ensuring that the motorcycle market can only get smaller. Suzuki might edge out Yamaha, who in turn steal some customers from Honda, who are nibbling at the edges of BMW’s customer base. Everyone is fighting over the same pie, the same pool of licensed, bike-friendly people with the means to finance a new motorcycle. No matter how you slice it, that’s a pretty small pie…and it’s shrinking.
The fact is, none of us rides forever. Sometimes we quit because we have other financial or family commitments and can no longer justify an expensive, risky toy. Others belatedly realise that their eyesight and reflexes simply aren’t what they used to be and that their muscles can no longer hold their pride and joy up at a stop light. Maybe they have a scare in traffic, or worse still, an accident that finally puts them off biking for good. These people are now no longer potential customers, and there’s little being done to reach those who might replace them. Ex-riders are no longer buying magazines, and they’re no longer tempted by your 3.9% APR.
We all have different reasons for originally embarking on the long, complex, difficult and expensive path towards getting our license and purchasing our first motorcycle. It’s doubtful those reasons include spending years seeing cool people riding cool bikes on TV, or that our neighbours turned up with the latest Ducati and made us want one out of jealousy. There are no billboards at the side of the road or TV spots detailing the amazing adventures we could have on two wheels, if only we were prepared to put in the time and effort.
And as motorcyclists become fewer in number, even fewer people are growing up with their friends or family showing up at home on a motorcycle and leaving a lasting, positive impression. With so many easier, cheaper ways to entertain themselves, people need some serious convincing that wrapping up in layers of waterproof textiles and climbing aboard a motorcycle is worth the time and money to get there. And the industry isn’t even trying.
Harley-Davidson is the only brand that I’ve ever seen make an effort to reach out to non-bikers. Decades of continuous work to insert their cruisers into TV & films, and in the US advertisements targeted at a broader audience have together resulted in a 50% share of the North American motorcycle market. They marketed the brand, the image, an idea that appealed even to those who might otherwise never have considered a bike.
And yet, Harley’s sales figures are in rapid decline, even at home. Just last month the Milwaukie manufacturer announced they were closing one of their American factories, shedding hundreds of jobs, all in response to years of declining sales. HD need to find new customers, and fast – but when you’ve spent forever selling your bikes on the idea of big, tough guys cruising the highways in half-helmets and shades, what do you do when people aren’t actually interested in that image anymore? You take a look at your product, at your sales, and you panic.
BMW boast record bike sales each and every year, selling more R1200 GS’s each year than I can imagine Starbucks have parking spaces for. But what these numbers don’t show is that an awful lot of these are simply their existing customers renewing their three-yearly PCP plans. That’s not new bikers jumping straight in at the Bavarian end – that’s well-off middle-aged men sticking with the same brand they’ve had since the 80’s.
BMW know this, and they’re not sure what to do about it. The biggest sales boost in their history came off the back of The Long Way Round, which was a television show about travel that occasionally featured some bikes. I bet they couldn’t believe their luck when that series aired and hordes of people showed up at their doors – people who might never even have considered a bike because no-one had ever shown them what you could do with one. They weren’t interested in pretending to be a Hell’s Angel, but convincing themselves and others that they might head off on an epic adventure any minute? That resonated.
Biking has an image problem, something that needs a concerted effort to address. Brands need to stop competing by trying to steal each other’s customers and work together to figure out how to show the rest of the world what they could do on a motorcycle. Telling people “it’s cool” or “FREEDOM!” won’t work anymore. We need to talk about how much fun it is, how there’s no better way to explore the world – even your own little corner – than from the saddle of a motorcycle.
And then we need to make it easy to say “yes” to biking; acknowledge the downsides and talk about how to mitigate them. Talk about how it’s worth the effort, and how riding a motorcycle is no guarantee of immediate, grisly death, but is always a guarantee of an immediate, and lasting grin. We all have limitless reasons to keep riding motorcycles; the marketing firms need to do their jobs and communicate a few of them to the rest of the public.
I suspect there are an awful lot of people who – like myself at 21 – had never spared a single thought to motorcycling until someone else really took the time to tell me about it.
Come back next month to read the next instalment!