LCR Honda: This is How You Launch a MotoGP Team

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Testing has already gotten underway and concluded at Sepang today, meaning the teams of MotoGP have released their livery for the next season with varying degrees of fanfare and showmanship. It’s no surprise then that we found a couple photos of the LCR Honda RC212V adorned with a seductive Playboy bunny affixed to it, in what surely has to be the best GP team launch in 2011.

If you read Asphalt & Rubber on a religious basis (we are your motorcycling zen temple, right?), you’ve likely divined by now that I’ll chastise just about any company that uses the premise that “sex sells” (nothing boils my blood more than this cleverly short, yet misguided maxim), and that I love a good scrappy startup that’s got more hustle than funding (case in point: A&R is a penniless motorcycle startup trying to make it in this crazy online world).

So how does a the multi-million dollar motorcycle racing team with half-naked women draped all over their machinery get such accolades from our humble motorcycle blog? Because LCR Honda is the epitome of innovation on the business side of MotoGP racing.

Let me Tarantino my thought process, and start with the fact that despite the considerable amount of cash that funds LCR Honda (we’re talking roll around naked in it money here) the sum is really just a fraction of what the factory teams spend. Yet early in the 2010 season, when all the Honda-based teams were using the same machinery, LCR Honda and Randy de Puniet were serious contenders on Sunday afternoons. Apparently no one told the patron saint of A&R that satellite teams aren’t supposed to go faster than their factory counterparts.

To say that LCR makes the best out what it has is perhaps an understatement, but even the way Lucio Cecchinello (that would be the LC in LCR) manages his sponsorships shows some strokes of genius from the former Italian motorcycle racer. Unlike the other teams in GP paddock, Cecchinello doesn’t sign sponsors to a season long engagement. Instead of this traditional method, LCR Honda is sponsored on a per race basis by brands like Playboy, Givi, Rizoma, etc.

This event segmentation is nothing new to savvy marketers, but is still an entirely new concept in motorcycle racing. Take localized markets, find a brand that wants to service that specific market, and charge a premium for that targeted advertising message. There’s some good business school bingo in that last sentence, so let me put it this way: have any Americans here bought Repsol petroleum products in the past 10 years? The brand wasn’t even available in the United States until recently, and it’s still a hard to find item. What about Rizla cigarette papers? We surely have a plethora of those in gas station convinence stores, right?

The reality is that there is a disconnect in motorcycle racing that sees localized and regional brands advertising in a sport that operates on a global level. Instead of fighting that problem, and trying to sell smaller companies on the value of sponsoring a MotoGP team as it hopscotches from one country to the next, Cecchinello has turn the tables, and made it a strength for his team. The result is two-fold, and mutually beneficial for both LCR and its event title sponsors: LCR can charge a higher sponsorship cost (when calculated from a per event basis), yet the actual cost of getting on a GP bike is considerably less for the sponsor, since it’s only paying for a handful of races, instead of an entire season.

For its second year now, LCR Honda has seen one brand among the others engage its racing team under this premise: Playboy. The highlight of the MotoGP paddock, the relationship between Cecchinello and Playboy is celebrated by fans for obvious reasons, but from a pure marketing, promotion, and branding perspective it is equally intriguing. LCR Honda has teamed up with one of the most recognizable brands across the world. A strong feature to have in a sponsor, this point is illustrated by the title graphic on this post; as only a simple silhouette of a woman with a bunny tail and ears, resting seductively on a motorcycle, is needed to jog the viewers mind as to whom is sponsoring this motorcycle team (it’s ok, you can scroll up again and ogle for a moment, we’ll wait for you).

But Jensen haven’t you called marketers who use sex as means to hock their wares “no-talent clowns who should be replaced with monkeys”? That doesn’t sound like something I’d say, but generally yes that’s the rule…except in this case. What makes the half-naked girl (remember she has on at least bunny ears and tail) standing next to a motorcycle such great marketing is the fact what’s being sold…is in fact sex. Make no mistake men are not buying Playboy magazines for the articles contained within, but instead for the centerfold pictorials that…shall we say, arose the senses.

Traditionally sex is used to sell the product it’s paired with, but in the case with LCR Honda and Playboy, the sex is selling itself, and the fact that you might overlook the RC212V below, with its dual exhaust, Bridgestone racing slicks, and titanium sub-frame, is a moot point, LCR already made its money on that photo, and isn’t trying to put a Honda in your garage.

What’s happened here is that Cecchinello and Playboy have again pivoted around an issue that’s normally problematic in motorcycling: the hot girl posed in some fashion on a motorcycle, and made it work to their ends. Instead of wondering whether people are looking at the bike or the girl, LCR is playing on the classic folly by marketers, and using the combined powers of both elements to make an even more rich brand experience that harkens to a meme in motorcycling. However this isn’t just some attractive strumpette standing next to a motor bike that’ll be plastered all over message forums 20 seconds from now, it’s a Playboy Bunny standing next to one of the top satellite teams in the garage, whose advertising message will go viral on its own accord.

The co-branding goes a step further, as LCR Honda was the only team last year to field a permanent umbrella girl to all its races (not including racers’ wives who have risen to the challenge and harsh work conditions of that duty). The affect is not only consistent branding and engagement, but also propels the LCR Honda umbrella girl to a new status in the paddock, which is easily recognizable and unprecedented.

The leggy Australian Lauren Vickers, who filled the role as LCR’s Bunny in 2010, found her career that could be described as a promising, yet still tediously tied to regional engagements, propelled onto a global level after working with the satellite GP team. Not only did Vickers land a cover photo on Playboy Italy, but she might have become the first non-hitched umbrella girl that fans actually recognized as a human being, and called for by name as she promenaded around the race track. Creating a brand of her own, Vickers became her own entity in the MotoGP paddock, which is a lot more than most of these 20-something models can say.

As the 2011 season approaches, it looks like we’ll have a new umbrella girl from LCR Honda that we’ll get to know throughout the season, but the Italian racing team is holding firm to its continual process of innovating in a field where the business model has gone unchanged over the past 50 years. The best launch in the new season didn’t need an all-hands-on-deck getaway in the Alps, nor a strategic last-minute location for a wooed sponsor. It just needed a girl, some bunny ears, a bike, and photographer with an eye for subtlety. Well played Lucio.