The Chrysanthemum and the Sword

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Talking to a colleague the other day, we came to a frank discussion about how the European motorcycle brands weathered the recession better when compared to their Japanese counterparts.

While there are many factors at play in this statement, there is at least a component of truth to the idea that strong brand integration helped spur the Europeans into setting record months, quarters, and years during a global economic downturn, while companies like Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Yamaha saw their businesses virtually collapse.

It is not that the Japanese manufacturers don’t have strong brands, it is just that their brands stand for something fundamentally different from those being forged by the Europeans.

While companies like Ducati, KTM, and Triumph are building entire communities and lifestyles around their motorcycles (hat tip to Harley-Davidson for showing them how), the Japanese continue to hang their hats on the attributes of their products.

Well-engineered, bulletproof, and relatively cheap, Japanese motorcycles tick all the right boxes when one is objectively measuring a motorcycle, but they are sufficiently lacking when it comes to creating lasting ties to their owners.

If you want further proof of the situation, look at the metric vs. domestic cruiser battle here in the United States.

In a market where nearly one out of every two large displacement motorcycles is a US-built cruiser, the offerings from Japan pale in sales when compared to a company like Harley-Davidson, despite the fact that the metric cruisers are cheaper, better built, and just as stylish as the Bar & Shield’s bikes.

The difference? One motorcycle company defined a generation of motorcyclists, and provides an experience beyond mere ownership of its product, while the other sells its wares next to lawn mowers, power generators, and 30 other flavors of recreational vehicles.

The effect that this has had on Japanese motorcycles in the marketplace is nothing less than the creation of commodity brands (volumes could be written on this subject, but I’ll refrain), something which can be no better exemplified than by looking at the sport bike market.

A segment whose sales leader is almost invariably defined by two basic distinctions: horsepower and weight, a dangerous situation has been created where the importance of these objective attributes, the ones leading to the commoditization of Japanese sport bikes, are taking precedence and spurring a two-wheeled arms race that neglects subjective features like branding and lifestyle development.

While being perhaps the more technically superior machines to their European counterparts (I mean this point only from a reliability & cost vs. performance basis), the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers have painted themselves into a corner in the sport bike market by failing to offer bikes with soul, or more aptly spoken, by failing to provide motorcycles that engage their owners in something more than simply riding a vehicle that has two wheels.

Seeing now the aftermath of the failed economy, a business case can also be made regarding the defensibility and value of such investments in subjective positioning, especially how lifestyle branding can help insulate a manufacturer from market instabilities.

It is hard to describe good pornography, but I know it when I see, and so I’ll use the same quip when describing how a motorcycle can embody a soul.

Objectively one cannot say an inline-four has no soul while a v-twin does, but subjectively speaking, we in the motorcycle community hear that statement made more often than not.

I assure you in the fact that the number or arrangement of cylinders in a motorcycle holds no bearing on whether the machine has some sort of divinity contained inside of it, but when you look at the motivations behind the use of those motor designs, it does shed some light on how these sort of statements come about in motorcycling circles.

Displacements being equal, a four-cylinder motor will rev higher and create more peak horsepower than its two-cylinder counterpart (shorter stroke length, less reciprocating mass, etc).

In this regard, a four-cylinder motor is technically the better motor when looking to make a motorcycle with the most peak horsepower, which one would want to do in a segment defined by this figure.

Conversely, when we look at the brands that use twin-cylinder motors for their sport bike designs, we see the reasons of use as not being technical ones, but rather ones of heritage, tradition, and aesthetic.

Arguably, for brands like Harley-Davidson and Ducati, two of the most iconic names in motorcycling, the v-twin motor itself goes beyond any technical requirement that was set by an R&D department, and is instead a necessary brand element to the company itself.

Conversely, when we look at a brand like Honda, the poster-child of Japanese-engineering prowess and a company known at least in the MotoGP community for putting its emphasis on the machine, not the rider, the notion that there is a corporate fixation solely on the objective qualities, which has out-shined the importance of subjective values, is not a hard notion to reach.

While perhaps institutionally adverse to making such a change to its core value structure of putting the machine before the man, there is at least a past-precedent from Honda in its ability to place the value of its brand not on the machine, but the experience it provides to the rider.

The phrase that “you meet the nicest people on a Honda” revolutionized not only the advertising world, but also gave a desperate shot in the arm to the motorcycle industry.

I’ll forgo a lengthy analysis on this pivotal moment in motorcycle history (required reading for the day is this article by moto-journalist Mark Gardiner and this blog post by Frog Design’s Adam Richardson), and simply say that there is certifiable proof that a) strong branding has a more-than-meaningful result on the bottom line, and b) when they want to, Japanese firms can wield this weapon as aptly as their European competitors.

The other day, I came across these concept sketches by French designer Nicolas Petit, which embody his vision of a modern-day Honda RC51. Personally one of my favorite motorcycles, the RC51 comes from a time when World Superbike was so heavily in Ducati’s pocket with how it favored twins against four-cylinder bikes (read: just a tad less in Ducati’s pocket than WSBK is currently), that Honda decided to fight fire with fire, and built a v-twin superbike of its very own (Suzuki would do the same with its TL1000R, though with admittedly less success).

The RC51 was a departure from the Honda status quo, and with the help of one plucky Colin Edwards, the machine achieved great racing success in the premier production motorcycle racing class.

The RC51 has since enjoyed a cult status with its owners, as have several other Honda models (VFR owners being perhaps the most voracious example I can think of off the top of my head), but true to Honda fashion, that loyalty and brand engagement have counted for almost nothing in the corporate office.

Honda sold the loyalty of the VFR-faithful wholesale with the release of the VFR1200F, a perfectly excellent motorcycle in its own right, but a radical departure from the fundamental brand elements VFR owners have come to expect with the three-lettered motorcycle.

Supplanting the brand values of its core owners group with its own, Honda made the most basic of errors in brand management when it came to the VFR1200F: believing that it owned the brand, instead of the brand belonging to previous VFR buyers.

If the new VFR is a false-start by Honda, then the RC51 is a failure from the Japanese brand to even get onto the starting blocks. Looking at Petit’s sketches, I’m reminded of this lost opportunity by Honda in regards to the RC51.

Ultimately killed off by the Japanese brand because it lost its relevancy in racing, and because it was competing for sales with the blessed CBR-line, the Honda RC51 could easily have lived on in Honda’s motorcycle line-up if it was only just positioned better.

Built to compete with Ducati on the race track, it baffles me why no one realized that this race-bred motorcycle should compete with the Italian superbikes on the sales floor as well.

Positioned as an exclusive, well-built, and culturally rich motorcycle, there is no reason why an updated VTR1200 like Petit’s couldn’t bring everything that Honda is currently known for to the premium superbike market (qualities that this sector is surely lacking), and in the same process, an exploration of a motorcycle of this kind could give the Japanese brand an opportunity to explore a new way to engage potential buyers.

In a market where BMW successfully went head-to-head with the best Japan had to offer, there exists no reason why Honda could not make the same role reversal, provided it gave a team the right amount of autonomy and resources to undertake such a very un-Honda like venture.

Conjecture? Sure, but I’m willing to bet somewhere there’s a young motorcycle industry professional losing sleep over this lost opportunity.

Sketches: Nicolas Petit Creation