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How Polaris Can Mutate and Take Over the World

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Considering how much growth they are achieving, how many brands they are acquiring, and how many new bikes they are developing, it really is a shame that we don’t talk about Polaris here more often. The American OEM is one of the true movers-and-shakers of the motorcycle industry right now.

It probably has something to do with the fact that Polaris’ two sub-brands, Indian and Victory, produce machines that are outside our usual fare at Asphalt & Rubber. That is a polite way of saying, they make cruisers, and we don’t really like those sort of motorcycles here.

There is nothing wrong with someone riding a cruiser, of course. In fact, roughly one of every two new motorcycles sold in the United States comes from our friends at Harley-Davidson. American motorcycling really looks more like a Harley-Davidson cult than we may think here in our sport-bike focused echo chamber.

In the pursuit to see how the other half lives, I have been riding around on a Victory Octane for the past few weeks, as part of an ongoing discussion with the folks at Victory about their products, and how sport bike riders perceive them.

My initial thoughts on the Octane, and Victory as a whole, lead me to some interesting notes about the bigger picture at Polaris, and how the American OEM can set itself as one of the top global brands in the motorcycle industry. Like with Rommel in the desert, it involves a two-pronged attack.



As with History, It Starts with Indian

The first prong of Polaris’ pincer movement is through its Indian Motorcycle brand – a marque that is supposed to take Harley-Davidson head-on. I have already outlined how the Indian brand can compete with Harley-Davidson, perhaps in ways that no other brand can, so I won’t waste too many pixels rehashing it.

Basically though, the Indian name is older than Harley-Davidson, and steeped in just as much heritage and history as the Bar & Shield brand. This plays well with the authenticity-based lifestyle product that Harley-Davidson sells with its motorcycles, which has always been Harley’s je ne sais quoi in the marketplace.

Mimicking the same classic bagger, dresser, tourer, and chopper lines from Milwaukee (I am told that there are keen differences between these models, though that might not be as obvious to some), Indian makes a good alternative to the Harley-Davidson lineup.

The only missing elements are are the brand’s prestige and its loyal community of cult followers. This is because being “in the club” is a huge part of owning a Harley-Davidson, which is a nut that every other OEM must crack if they want to syphon customers away from the Milwaukee company.

Tackling this challenge doesn’t come overnight, as both building the brand and creating the club only come with time, but Indian has the advantage of not being painted into a corner with its messaging.



In other words, Indian doesn’t have the decades of baggage that come with selling two-wheeled Americana, which is offered in one very refined set of flavors. This allows Indian to go where Harley-Davidson cannot, or more frankly, it allows Indian to go where Harley-Davison is afraid to venture, for fear of losing its core demographic.

This is a real opportunity, as I have long thought that Harley-Davidson could infuse fresh blood into its brand if it had latched onto the vintage trend with more intrepidness – a trend, it is worth pointing out, that has been fueled by 20-something riders.

Capitalizing on this misstep means classic-styled standards, café racers, and street trackers, which could easily be built to retain the classic American v-twin muscle that Indian is selling with its cruiser models. This would allow Indian to compliment those bikes in style, and also augment its brand in reach.

While these models certainly won’t be as successful as the core Indian lineup of Scouts, Chiefs, and Chieftains – the sales-by-segment reports of the motorcycle industry proves as much – they can serve as a feeder to the more lucrative cruiser lineup.

The proof for this pudding is already out there, with Indian’s flat track racing program already showing interest from fans outside of the Indian brand, using a classic American form of motorsport to highlight one of its oldest brands.

You don’t have to be into the cruiser scene to be intrigued by the Indian Scout FTR750 race bike, and the comments section on Asphalt & Rubber alone should be proof that a street-legal motorcycle, that doesn’t stray too far from the racing machine, would be welcomed by more sport-focused riders.



I am sure that the marketing types in Polaris’ headquarters of Medina, Minnesota have already recognized that racing in the rebooted American Flat Track series helps establish Indian’s prestige over Harley-Davidson, and it will certainly help would-be customers draw a link from the race-winning FTR750 to the Scout that sits on a dealer’s showroom. After all, everyone likes a winner.

There is room here too for Indian to take a page from Russian brand Ural, which could show Indian how to make a three-wheeled alternative to Harley-Davidson’s trike lineup.

Sidecars have a strong presence in American history, especially during the formative WWII era, which I should point out begat our current crop of baby-boomer riders. Which consumer segment is buying Harley-Davidson motorcycles, again?

Loved for their ability to haul both man, gear, and/or dog, as well as being competent off-roaders when two-wheel drive is employed, Ural sidecars have become motorcycling’s less-reliable riff on the Subaru adventure wagon, but don’t let that scare you off.

A domestic, well-funded, and well-built brand could easily make progress on this small but vocal demographic, all the while providing an alternative to Harley-Davidson’s fastest growing segment: the trike.

An Indian sidecar could prove to be a strong offering for aging Harley-Davidson riders, who don’t want to be seen riding a motorcycle that looks like a car from the back, or for those riders who can no longer straddle a 800lbs+ cruiser, but aren’t ready to hang-up their leathers quite yet.



These are just a few examples, but it is clear when looking around the industry that there are plenty of heritage plays available to a motorcycle brand that is willing to pursue them.

For reasons that I cannot understand, Harley-Davidson has chosen to sit this round out, and that spells opportunity for Indian, if they can capitalize on it.

It Is Really All About Victory, Though

While much progress can be made in growing out the Indian brand, it is the Victory Motorcycle brand that shows the most possibilities for Polaris. Victory has long been the antithesis to the Harley-Davidson paradigm, building cruisers that buck the heritage slant.

The typical Victory cruiser owner isn’t interested in being another lost soul in the Harley-Davidson massive, and instead chooses a road-less-traveled, if you will excuse the cheesy and misused metaphor.

My point though is that Victory as a brand has already established itself as being not like Harley-Davidson. While Indian’s prerogative is to match Harley-Davidson tack for tack, Victory is left to sail its own course, and that brings with it a lot of power.



We see evidence of this already, with Victory taking on the Brammo Empulse R electric bike as its own, racing the Brammo Empulse RR in the Isle of Man TT (under the Victory name, of course), and with the Project 156 race bike that’s now made several ascents during the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

The question right now isn’t if Victory will push-out into the sport bike realm, but instead when and how.

It is clear from the fact that Victory took the time to pick my brain, that a sport bike model is being considered in its early stages. With product development cycles being what they are in the motorcycle industry, this puts a sport bike model coming from the American brand within the next five years.

That timeline might be sooner even, but the more difficult task is going to be getting such a model right, and that might be a tough order for a company that is surrounded by a bunch of cruiser-heads.

Bikes like the Victory Octane are considered sporty by cruiser standards, making over 100hp and weighing less than 600 lbs; but to true sport bike enthusiasts, Victory will have to rethink its entry if it wants to be taken seriously.

A Higher Standard



The highest hurdle for Victory to jump through is the fact that the segments outside of the cruiser realm are so much more competitive, with the technical demands from customers being much higher than they are for a machine that is supposed to work like it did back in the early 20th century.

This is the trap that Harley-Davidson fell into, offering a sport bike lineup that was initially hobbled by an antiquated power plant and cruiser-type thinking. Buell’s bikes were schizophrenic in their delivery, and a full two standard deviations beyond what the market was willing to consider.

Riding on the Octane though, it is easy to see how Victory could adapt its entry-level cruiser model into something sporty – something closer to what Buell should have produced. A proper chassis with sport bike controls would be a logical first step. Better brakes and tires would be a must, as well.

By the time you are done, you have probably described something similar to the Buell Ulysses. Pause a moment…are we falling for the classic honeypot then?

I had to think more about this…if I was at the launch of a 100hp / 500lbs / $10,000 sport bike, what would my initial reaction be to such a machine? A quick look at the Yamaha FZ-09, which beats this hypothetical Victory on all three criteria, and things don’t bode well.

Maybe a small premium can be asked by Victory for such a machine, chalked up to a little bit of a jingoistic sentiment from the buying public in the United States, but such a bike would have a hard time on the merits abroad, especially without segment must-haves, like ABS, ride-by-wire, and traction control.



Suddenly, the idea of wedging the Octane’s perfectly adequate 60° v-twin engine into an upright sport bike chassis doesn’t seem like such a simple formula for success. We would expect more from such a bike. I know this, because the market already demands it from the current crop of machines.

There is certainly something credible to this notion though, so don’t get me wrong, but the takeaway here is that such an effort cannot simply be an exercise of doing Buell++. Instead, it has to be well-thoughtout offering that competes on the merits against the bikes that already exist in this very competitive space. History teaches us as much.

The Next Honda, But with Soul

I propose that Victory sticks to what it knows best: premium-focused machines that exude character and design. There is value in being unique, but what the Buell experiment teaches us is that you cannot be different for the sake of being different.

Understanding the contrast and gaps found between being unique and being different is key. That concept is lost on the folks in East Troy, but hopefully the ears in Medina are listening and understand this.

I have some faith that they do. Victory’s lineup of baggers and tourers have done a good job of offering something unique for buyers who are considering a BMW K1600 or Honda Gold Wing – a buyer who already wants something that isn’t a Harley-Davidson.



Victory is already the antithesis to Harley-Davidson, which really means that it is outside the realm of the Bar & Shield brand (and thus outside of the realm of Indian), and lumps it with the efforts of BMW, Honda, Triumph, Yamaha, et al.

This should make sense, after all many brands have tried to make a better Harley-Davidson, only to watch their efforts fail – mostly because of one key fact: they are not Harley-Davidson.

While that has been a fatal misstep for the Japanese and European brands, in a way it is a non-issue for Polaris. The Indian brand is the only legitimate contender to the Harley-Davidson crown, as I have already pointed out.

This frees up Victory to risk more where it stands and to pursue other segments with vigor. There is nothing stopping the Victory brand from becoming Polaris’ conduit to the other 50% of the US motorcycle market.

Adding to its already robust cruiser lineup (I would argue that its “cruiser” lineup should be moved over to Indian), Victory could easily push forward into the sport bike scene, fueled by its racing efforts at Pikes Peak and at the Isle of Man TT.

Leveraging its experience in the tourer realm, it is easy to see how Victory could embrace the hot adventure-touring market as well. The permeations from there just keep on building. This process reminds of the situation faced by Ducati, which had to move on from being just a sport bike brand. It is the same story, really.



We are still early days with Victory, of course. But, these first steps into the sport bike segment mark a journey for Victory, which could see it moving from market outlier to an industry player.

Coupled with the efforts being made at Indian, this positions Polaris to be a dominant power-broker in the motorcycle industry as well.

Conclusion

The concept here can be neatly boiled down into several key takeaways. The US motorcycle market is comprised of two halves, which are very different from each other. One half is the cruiser market, which is dominated by Harley-Davidson, and the other half is everything else.

Polaris needs a two-pronged approach to tackle this unique dynamic. As such, its Indian brand goes after Harley-Davidson’s market, offering itself as the original cruiser motorcycle, with even more history than the Bar & Shield brand itself.

Meanwhile, Victory re-positions itself to be more than just a neo-cruiser marque, and evolves to become a robust American brand that fills various key segments within the motorcycle industry.



If Indian is to Harley-Davidson, then Victory should be to Honda…except maybe with more soul and passion. Once you start thinking in those terms, Polaris starts looking like a brand that can truly mutate and take over the world.

The following is an example of the exclusive content that A&R Pro members can expect to read on a weekly basis at Asphalt & Rubber. If you want to have access to this kind of long-form content after this week’s free trial period, we recommend you sign-up here

Jensen Beeler

Despite his best efforts, Jensen is called one of the most influential bloggers in the motorcycle industry, and sometimes consults for motorcycle companies, whether they've solicited his expertise or not.

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