Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The vanilla challenge part 2

The Big Four Japanese motorcycle OEMs are in a unique and unenviable position. They make darn good products, but no one knows their names. That is, there is nothing wrong with their motorcycles, but the average buyer can't tell the difference between them other than their color. They're just too similar. They use the same equipment vendors, they announce the same new features every year, their products are even extremely close dimensionally and in performance specs. You can't blame a potential buyer for going in to look at a Honda and riding out on a Yamaha. There's just not a lot of distinction there.
Actually, the Big Four suffer from a far more serious problem. Though they make hundreds of times as many motorcycles as the American and Euro brands, no one seems to notice. In this era in which riders are increasingly demanding more of their motorcycles; when in this increasingly hectic world passion is largely replacing practicality when it comes to motorcycles, the Big Four's offerings, as technically excellent as they are, just taste too, well, vanilla. Superb, top-selling products, yet with no identity; no flavor; and next to no emotional context. No customer engagement. So much so that a recent and unprecedented Consumer Reports poll revealed that powersports buyers actually report preferring bikes having more mechanical problems yet character, to those with fewer issues yet offering a blander riding experience. They'll put up with more problems, to get bikes that connect with their emotions better. This is an astounding report that is sending shock waves throughout the Japanese side of the industry. The numbers-oriented Japanese are at a loss. They simply don't know what to make of it.
But they are well aware that this problem exists. The problem is actually rooted in how the Big Four differ from the other companies. Japanese powersports companies are successful because they are preeminent manufacturers. That's their strength. But unfortunately this means when it comes to the powersports culture, that touchy-feely thing that we now know drives brand loyalty, they're relatively clueless. Manufacturing is almost all they know. Their U.S. distributers are no better prepared, being merely pipelines for the manufacturer and little else. No passion. No sense that motorcycles are a lifestyle with these companies, because frankly they're not. The niche brands by contrast are defined by the culture first. They get it. They communicate that they are enthusiasts who just happen to be manufacturers. Even Polaris is in tune with this. It's real and it's huge and the Japanese have a lot to overcome. Yamaha's recent move to separate its cruiser line as a separate brand is an acknowledegment of this issue. But is it enough? Time will tell if it is successful.
Many at the Big Four wonder if it will ever be possible for them to look and feel like enthusiast companies. How can it happen? The very thing that makes them successful at selling so many motorcycles, despite the almost complete absense of the kind of brand loyalty the niche brands enjoy, is at the same time their weakness, their Achille's heel. It will be up to their distributors, who, unfortunately, can do only so much. I hope they find the way.