® The Vanilla Challenge

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. Seriously! All the Big Four motocrossers, for example, are the same bore and stroke! 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 here. The challenge for the Big Four Japanese is to somehow distinguish themselves from each other. Hard to do.

A second and even more important challenge is for them to compete at the culture game. Though they make hundreds of times as many motorcycles as the American and Euro brands, no one seems to notice. This is an era today in which riders are increasingly demanding more of their motorcycles; it is an increasingly hectic world in which 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 to those with fewer issues yet offering a blander riding experience. Thats right. The people laying down the money today for new motorcycles are prepared to 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 largely at a loss. They simply don't know what to make of it.

The problem is 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 drives brand loyalty, about that 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, as well as controlled by their manufacturers monetarily. No passion. No sense that motorcycles are a lifestyle with these companies, because frankly they're not. Big Four corporate offices have very few staff at decision making levels riding motorcycles on a daily basis.

The niche brands (all others, essentially) 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. But at least one is trying. Yamaha's recent move to separate its cruiser line as a separate brand (Star) is an acknowledegment of their awareness of this issue. But is it enough? Time will tell if it is successful.

The Big Four are in a tough position. Their corporate DNA doesn't allow them to compete with the niche brands in terms of excitement and enthusiasm, and compared with such emotionally charged brands as Ducati, Moto Guzzi and Harley-Davidson, and such perceived premium brands such as BMW, they're seen as plain, vanilla, ho-hum. Additionally, with nearly identical manufacturing and marketing structures, the Big Four are that much more likely to be mistaken for one another. A row of vanilla manufacturers varying only by packaging color, in other words. How can they overcome that? Many on the inside 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.

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