If you had told me a few years ago that Ducati would build a cruiser-segment motorcycle, I probably would have called you a couple cylinders short of a v-twin. Up until recently, mentioning the thought of the Bologna brand chasing after Harley-Davidson riders would have invited fisticuffs in most Italian motorcycle cafés. And even despite the launch of the Ducati Diavel, you can start a heated debate among loyal Ducatisti by bringing up Italy’s latest power cruiser.

Make no mistake, the 2011 Ducati Diavel is a controversial motorcycle…and that’s putting things lightly (at worst it’s a complete dilution of the Ducati brand). If the Diavel is Ducati’s deal with the Devil, then let me play the Devil’s advocate for a moment, and put forth the business case about why this motorcycle had to be built, and what it means to the Ducati brand — minus the pandering to the Ducati faithful.

It’s easy to hate the Diavel before it even hits the streets (we’ll get to the actual ride report a bit later in another piece). The idea of a Ducati power cruiser is offensive to many, and that sentiment is easy to capitalize on when searching for headlines, clicks, buzz, or whatever metric you’re trying to boost. That’s not to say that the push-back leading up to the Diavel was unwarranted, just perhaps “overly passionate” under the best of light. The truth of the matter is that Ducati is doing something that very few brands in the motorcycle industry are willing to do: change.

An issue I’ve derided companies like Harley-Davidson for ad nauseam, it’s an incredibly difficult proposition for a corporation that’s long made its hallmark on being good at one particular thing to actually change or re-invent itself later in its life. While Harley-Davidson seems content for now to continue making the same bikes it made in the 1990’s (I think I’m being generous with that timeframe), Ducati sees the paint drying much earlier in the process, as it slowly backs itself into its superbike-branded corner.

Being a brand that caters to only one market segment rarely pays off in the long-run, and it’s no coincidence that the most successful companies adopt a well-rounded portfolio approach (this is at least what my stockbroker tells me when he rolls around in the dollar bills funded by my trading transaction fees). Realizing its need to be more than a company that sells bikes that look a lot like a World Superbike winner, Ducati long ago embarked on a strategy to enter gracefully into new motorcycle segments.

Building Bridges: The Ducati Way
We can debate on when the transformation began in earnest, but the defining moment when the shift actually became feasible occurred with the Hypermotard series. Capitalizing on the trendy supermoto aesthetic, Ducati with the help of Terblanche successfully made a motorcycle that wasn’t a Monster, and wasn’t a Superbike, but was entirely a Ducati. While the short-term payoff on the Hypermotard was that it brought in new riders to the brand, the real value of the Italian company’s take on the supermoto was the graceful stretching of how we interpret what is and is not a Ducati motorcycle.

If the Hypermotard was yoga workout for Ducati, then the Multistrada 1200 was full-on pilates. The push-back from Ducatisti was noticeable, especially with spy shots showing the MTS1200 jumping off small inclines and sporting a protruding bird’s beak broke cover. Spend some time with the Multistrada 1200 though, and the front fender grows on you (perhaps my favorite part of the bike now), and one twist of the throttle eases your senses and tells you the bike is another Bologna Bullet.

Another crisis seemingly averted, and each of these bikes has setup Ducati to release the Diavel with success. They’ve each built a section of a bridge that extends Ducati’s brand onto a shore where things aren’t all race-bred sport bikes, but instead stylish, powerful, and elite enthusiast machines. Each time Ducati enters a new segment, it doesn’t aim to meet the status quo, its intent is instead to apply its own iteration of what should be in these markets, and that’s the key difference and reason for success.

The keyboard critics who are quick to worry about Ducati’s brand dilution have this concern because they’re expecting a fish-out-of-water result from the Italian brand. While a valid consideration because we see so many brands end up having that outcome, Ducati has clearly taken notice of how other prominent companies have redefined themselves and entered new segment categories.

The Porsche Analogy
In many ways Porsche is the Ducati of four wheels: a rich racing heritage, a masthead vehicle that embodies everything that the company stands for, and an insatiable tie to geographic region and culture. For auto-enthusiasts, the Porsche 911 Carrera is an achtung of German tuning and race engineering that has a cult like following with men of leisure. But like with motorcycles, the rising pressure of the automotive world made it infeasible for the Stuttgart company to sell only luxury sports cars.

In 1996, Porsche dipped its toe in the entry-model market with the Boxster, and in 2002 unveiled four-wheeled blasphemy with the Cayenne sport utility vehicle. The arguments made for both these launches was that the German company had strayed from its brand, rejected its core enthusiasts, and was bound for the special part of hell where they keep baby torturers, child rapists, and attorneys. The Cayenne has been Porsche’s best selling model since its release…that is of course until the four-door Panamera came out.

The thing with Porsche, which holds true for Ducati, is as long as the company holds onto its performance-oriented roots (one of its key brand elements) with all its model offerings, and continues to produce a no-compromises sports car the remains true to what the old guard holds dear, young boys will persist in hanging posters of Porsches on their bedroom walls, and the of effigy men going through a mid-life crisis will replicate the same with the actual cars in their garage. If the Multistrada 1200 is Ducati’s Cayenne, then the Diavel is the Italian company’s Panamera.

The Numbers
In 2007 Ducati’s sales were lead by the Superbike series (35%), followed by the Monster series (32%), with the Sport Classic (12%) and other model lines similarly much farther behind (note: that’s two model lines accounting for two thirds of the company’s sales). As we come into 2011 though, sales trends have clearly shifted. The Monster series (30%) has supplanted the Superbike series (28%), and the Multistrada comes in with a strong showing of 12% of total sales, despite only being available for half of the year. Ducati expects to see the MTS1200 take on similar numbers as the Monster and Superbike series for 2011, meaning the three mini-brands will account for nearly 3/4 of Ducati’s sales on their own.

The beauty of these numbers is that there is only light cannibalization between the models, which means that people who are buying Multistrada’s weren’t interested in buying a different kind of Ducati, say a Hypermotard or Monster. For Ducati, this means the Italian company is tapping into new buyers and new demographics, which it desperately needs if it wants to become a robust motorcycle company (the company currently has plans to grow to 60,000 motorcycles worldwide). In plan terms, for the Bolognese this means more bikes sold, more money made, and more people indoctrinated into the cult of Ducati. Charlie Sheen would simply call this “winning.”

For 2011 Ducati is expecting the Diavel to do similar numbers as the Multistrada did last year, again without tapping into current Ducati riders, which would make four sub-brands accounting for 80% of the company’s sales. In other words, with each new product-line extension, Ducati is finding new buyers for its bikes, and from that new ways to appeal to more motorcyclists, and this is where the real push-back is coming from, whether people realize it or not.

Why You Hate the Diavel
Good brand management boils down to whether or not you understand that you, the company, don’t own your brand…your customers do. And companies with strong brands will hear quite frequently when they’ve stepped outside of the box their consumers have put them in. However while modern theory would dictate that you should listen to your core following, the truth is that catering to the whims of your ultimate stakeholders can prove just as fatal as ignoring them. Like lemmings running off the cliff into the sea, die-hard Ducatisti would have long ago run Ducati into the ground pursuing the ultimate in Superbike-only brands…in fact they did…several times.

The inconvenient truth in Italy is that the Ducati Diavel wasn’t made for the current Ducatisti — it was made for future ones. It shouldn’t be surprising that the Diavel is unappealing to many of the already indoctrinated, and that’s likely well and fine by Ducati. It’s not looking to up-sell its current rider base to this $17,000-$20,000 motorcycle, instead the Italian company is looking for fresh meat for the brand.

The issue of brand dilution won’t be seen in the Diavel, but instead will be reflected in the 2012 Ducati Superbike. If the nay-sayers are truly right, then the forth coming Ducati Superbike will be a flop. The legion of Ducati fans around the world will see the new Superbike, and scoff at how much Ducati has sold them out, and is now a brand for people who dress up like pirates on the weekends. However I suspect the opposite will happen.

Ducati’s new Superbike is already shaping up to be a monster of a machine, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Bologna-based company planned its debut to come just after the Diavel’s on purpose. In November of this year, motorcycle fans around the world will see Ducati’s new Superbike, and instead of thinking the brand has been diluted, they’ll think about what a progressive leap forward the company has made with its iconic design. Will kids stop dreaming of Ducatis? Will Red shirts, hats, and jackets, all emblazoned with the Corse logo stop selling?

If anything I think 2012 will be a break-out year for Ducati in those regards, and it’ll be interesting to see who is still saying that Ducati betrayed its core constituents at that point in time when all the evidence points to the opposite. As for the Diavel, if the bike truly embodies the aesthetic, performance, and prestige of its predecessors, it should be a strong success in the marketplace. Afterall, the sales will speak for themselves.