Sunday, June 5, 2011

Motorcycle Manufacturers

There is a strong argument that anyone who’s spent 42 years, a small fortune and a substantial number of days in various hospitals is, by any general standard, not the shiniest spanner in the toolbox. This puts me in a somewhat vulnerable position because I must confess to a life-long addiction to bikes, and this has cost me a lot of money and an equal amount of pain.

I have personally contributed to the profits of a significant chunk of the motorcycle industry, not only through the purchase of an obscenely large number of bikes, but also several large warehouses of spare parts, clothing and shiny things in nice packets which vendors promise will make me and my bike faster, better handling and a step closer to Valentino Rossi.

I have never resented paying my dues because in return I have enjoyed thrills, excitement, intense pleasure and now a career from motorcycles. In short, it has been a fair deal. I’ve chipped up the money and accepted the pain, and the bike industry has eagerly taken my money.

This unwritten agreement has carried with it a sense of fairness. So far, the motorcycle industry has respected that I am an addict and has treated me, more or less, with respect. Now the situation is changing.

Take the current fad for “spy pictures” – all of which are leaked “exclusively” to the press worldwide. The best example of this was the launch of the Triumph Tiger 800. For months we in the media were bombarded with loads of secret pictures which, anyone with intelligence greater than an under-ripe mango, could see had been meticulously set up.

The saddest thing about the whole exercise was that the Triumph didn’t need any hype or deception. The baby Tiger was, and is, a superb motorcycle in its own right and sells at full ticket price, so why treat customers as if they are too dumb to know that the whole charade was just that – a series of clumsy publicity stunts.

Now, Honda has joined the party with some equally “secret” pictures of their new large capacity automatic scooter/bike hybrid. These were shot secretly in a remote location in Switzerland - a country which, ironically, IS given to secrecy, at least when it comes to parking large amounts of dodgy cash in very discreet banks.

These secret pictures, taken from every angle, are pin sharp. To anyone in the media that means only one thing: a set-up job. The images you see at MCUSA – even the ones which look “natural” - take forever to produce. If the photographer is any good, he or she will have you ride round the same corner again and again until your eyes bleed. You will be expected to shift line by half a millimeter, alter your body position by a quarter of a degree and ride time and again until the pic looks right. And that’s what the Honda pictures are: good, professional images shot with time and care. Why then go through the nonsense that some passing tourist hid in a ditch and took a few pics with his phone?

Triumphs recent advertising strategy for the Tiger 800 is another example of how months of planning go into spy pictures.
Recent advertising for Triumph's Tiger 800 is another example of how months of planning go into 'spy pictures.'
In fact, that’s a rhetorical question. The answer is that the pretence is initiated and propagated by marketing people who now seem to control motorcycle manufacturers. You used to be able to go to bike shows and talk to people from the bike industry who actually liked motorcycles and the people who ride them. Now, the majority of marketing staff don’t actually ride bikes. In fact, the situation is worse than this. Not only do they not ride bikes, as in: “it’s-the-middle-of-winter-and-I-don’t-want-to-freeze-to-death” - a view which I can sympathize with. No, it’s a question of, “I don’t ride bikes and I don’t know which thing operates the gears or which one you press to make the rear brake come on.”

What comes with this lack of knowledge is a sneering, disdainful view of why anyone, for any reason, should want to ride a bike. In fact, they have the same attitude to motorcycles as I have to golf. I just don’t understand the attraction of walking around a big field trying to knock a little ball into a hole with a metal stick. The difference is that I don’t work for a golf club company, and my living doesn’t depend on there being a continuous supply of rich muppets who do want to play golf.

With this distance from the consumer comes a contempt which is shown in how manufacturers try to manipulate potential purchasers with, for example, spy pictures. It’s the same with the media. Manufacturers have a love/hate relationship with the press. Ideally, manufacturers would like the media simply to publish their press releases and, if they were forced into ever having a press launch, it should be restricted to a two-mile ride, after which the journalist would be allowed to ask one question from a list provided by the factory’s Public Relations Deparment. Then, everyone could go home. Sadly for manufacturers, journalists don’t see things this way.

In todays motorcycle industry many professionals who run marketing departments have little to no riding experience.
In today's motorcycle industry many professionals who run marketing departments have little to no riding experience.
I should add one caveat here. Press Officers themselves - or at least the ones in direct, first-hand contact with the media - are generally nuts, and if they weren’t working in the bike industry they’d be bankrupting themselves buying motorcycles just like the rest of us. It’s the drones in corporate land who are the source of the trouble.

Sadly, the idea of having professionals who run marketing departments now sell bikes at a retail level is starting to rear its ugly head. I was in the showroom of a major manufacturer last week - it’s not fair to name the brand because they are all equally culpable - and was listening to the salesman pitching an extremely high-performance bike to a middle-aged customer with just two years of riding experience.

The first question is a moral one. Does the salesperson not have a duty of care when moving someone from a 600 Fazer to a 180 mph hyper-sports bike? Is he not morally bound to explain that the bike is completely, totally and utterly unsuitable for the prospective purchaser, and might well kill him?

Maybe the question was answered as the sales pitch progressed. It was clear as day that the salesman had never ridden a high performance motorcycle, and had as much idea about the challenges involved in riding a bike of this kind as I have in giving birth.

While working in the industry knowing little to nothing about motorcycle riding is more than bad business  its plain dangerous.
Knowing little to nothing about motorcycle riding is more than bad business, it's plain dangerous when attempting to sell certain products. 
Later, I was gossiping to one of the mechanics at the shop and he confirmed that my hypothesis was correct. Not only had the salesman no knowledge of sports bikes, he hadn’t even mastered riding a scooter around the shop’s car park - and had no interest in doing so. He had come from the RV industry and, on the basis of being able to sell snow to Eskimos, had been hired to dump high-ticket superbikes on middle-aged blokes who, to paraphrase the blessed Casey Stoner at Estoril, have “...more ambition than ability.”

Ironically, the situation may be changing for two reasons. First, it’s getting ever harder to obtain a bike license not only in Britain but for the rest of Europe. Those who jump the increasingly high hurdles and obtain their full (i.e. non-restricted) license do so with the same sense of pride and achievement that a private pilot has when he goes solo.

In parallel with the difficulty of ever achieving a licence is the ever tightening economy in Europe. Greece, Ireland and Portugal have already had to go to the European Central Bank with their begging bowls, and both Spain and Italy are next in line. Anyone with a grain of brain in Britain isn’t smug about the situation here either as our unemployment levels soar.

What does this mean for the bike industry? My prediction is that it will contract dramatically – at least in the Western world. What we will be left with is a small, enthusiast-centered market. And in this brave new world, where everyone is knowledgeable and passionate, treating customers like morons will not be acceptable.
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