Saturday, March 28, 2015

Local TV, for once, gets a motorcycle fatality right

In the days after Dane Westby's untimely death, local Tulsa television showed conspicuous care and judgement in the way they covered the story. That included balanced, sensitive, and non-sensational coverage of his funeral. - Tulsa, OK - News, Weather, Video and Sports - |
I don't know whether credit for this should go to News on 6 news director (I believe that's Scott Thompson, a much awarded, very experienced journalist) or whether it reflects the fact that the Westby family is long-established and respected in the community—there's a 'Westby Hall' at University of Tulsa.

Whatever the reason, though, I was pleased to see such respectful coverage of an event that would usually have been reported with a macabre, schadenfreude-laden "another motorcycle death" spin.

So thanks, News on 6.

Although I didn't know him, I'd say his death is a large loss to the nascent MotoAmerica series. Not only was he fast and destined for on-track stardom, but he was real person—not a characterless sponsor-thanking robot, raised from birth to be a racer with no other life experience. As such, he was the kind of guy who could appeal to a new generation of fans, who take an ironic view of sponsorship and value authenticity.

There's still no explanation for Westby's street bike crash. It happened on a commercial strip, and there would surely have been witnesses, if he'd been riding like an asshole. So, I think it's safe to assume he was riding responsibly. But something happened, he ended up running up on a curb and hitting a pole.

If there's a lesson in this, it's a lesson for the most skilled street riders who feel that the rest of the motorcycling public desperately need better machine control skills.

The skilled guys, rightly, point out that almost every motorcycle crash—especially single-vehicle crashes, as Westby's may have been—could be avoided if only the (usually) newb/drunk/reckless rider had been able to brake harder or change direction faster. The skilled guys, who are racers and track-day riders, who train on dirt bikes, etc., often derive a sense of security from the knowledge that they're in the skilled minority.

The lesson is: Even Dane Westby—a national-caliber racer at the height of his powers—got into a situation that he couldn't ride out of. If it can happen to him, it can happen to you.

It's spring. In the midwest and across the northern tier, car drivers who don't see us at the best of times are now unused to seeing us at all. And the sides of the road are still covered with gravel, salt dust, and a winter's worth of detritus. You're almost certainly a little rusty, too. If you have to take evasive action out of the main travel lane, there's a good chance you will not be able to make that second change of direction that will keep you on the road.

So pay extra attention and increase your following distance. Because if you kill yourself, your local TV station won't pay you the same respect.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Lane-splitting in the mainstream? Here's a two-step program to get those laws passed

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a neutral-to-pro-motorcycle story about lane splitting, noting that several states are at least considering legislation that would make it legal for motorcyclists to travel between lanes of stopped or slow-moving cars (at least, when certain conditions are met.) That would actually give lane splitting a status it doesn't have in California, where I believe it's merely "not illegal", as opposed to specifically permitted by statute.

Duh! In most European countries, you have to prove you can competently "filter" (aka lane split) in order to get a motorcycle license.

The ability to keep moving when cars are stuck in stop-and-go traffic is the killer app for motorcycles and motorcycle sales. And the motorcycle lobby (as fractured as it is) has finally done a decent job of convincing legislators across the U.S. that it can be done "safely". The challenge is that a significant number of drivers (read: most voters) are still against it.

When surveyed, uninformed drivers cite "danger" as the reason they're opposed. They also claim they're frequently startled by motorcycle traveling between lanes (solution: pay attention) and, less frequently, claim it's unfair that motorcycles can get through stalled traffic when cars can't.

In my work in the ad industry, I've organized many consumer surveys, and I can tell you that even anonymous respondents tell interviewers what they think is the best answer, not necessarily what they really feel.

The primary opposition to lane splitting is that rarely-mentioned issue of fairness, or its corollary, cage-drivers' territoriality. So if the people lobbying for lane splitting want laws to pass, the argument they need to make is, allowing motorcycles to filter helps everyone get to where they're going faster.

Every vehicle that moves out of the traffic column (and into the interstitial space between lanes) speeds the flow of the column, not just the flow of motorcycles. And traffic engineers can prove that sometimes even changing the number of cars/hour by a few percent can make the difference between flowing and stop-and-go traffic patterns. By allowing lane splitting, legislators will

  • improve traffic flows for cars, as well as motorcycles
  • improve the economy and sales tax revenues by encouraging motorcycle sales
  • increase the number of commuters who choose motorcycles
  • free up parking spaces
  • reduce the production of CO2 and hence, reduce global warming

To recap: the way you get lane splitting laws passed is, by making it clear that lane splitting will improve traffic  and parking congestion for cars.

As for safety, you can easily protect motorcyclists in the long term by writing a proviso into laws that lane spitting is only legal when motorcyclists wear helmets, and by specifying that if states with mandatory helmet laws repeal those laws, that the right to lane split is automatically also repealed.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Friction between "AMA" and "AMA Pro Racing"

The other day, DMG-slash-AMA Pro Racing—in the guise of Fan's Choice—issued a press release saying that as part of the run up to the season opening GNC short track races down in Daytona, they'd broadcast the "DAYTONA Flat Track Amateur Championship".

When that phrase showed up on my monitor, I thought, Hmm it's a little early in the season for the Amateur Championship. But, I chalked it up to promoter hubris. After all, although the press release put the amateur races in the context of the AMA Pro Racing season opener, the claim was only that it was the 'Daytona' championship, not an AMA or national championship.

But within a day, the AMA issued a pissy clarification.

Through the purchase of specific professional racing assets from the AMA in 2008, the Daytona Motorsports Group acquired the right to use the AMA Pro Racing name in conjunction with specific professional motorcycle racing disciplines. Daytona Motorsports Group's use of the d/b/a "AMA Pro Racing" frequently causes confusion between Daytona Motorsports Group and the AMA, the not-for-profit 91-year-old membership association and sanctioning body. Daytona Motorsports Group is an independent for-profit company and is not governed by the AMA.  

Daytona Motorsports Group's issuance of a statement as AMA Pro Racing stating that an amateur flat track event held just prior to a professional flat track event they are promoting conveys the apparent authority to grant amateur championship status. Daytona Motorsports Group has no authority over any amateur racing activity, nor does it have the authority to designate an event an amateur championship.

I can't say that I can remember any recent incidence of such a detailed, passive-aggressive clarification of the admittedly confusing AMA-has-nothing-to-do-with-AMA-Pro-Racing arrangement. And, I was surprised when AMA Pro didn't immediately pull down the release or issue a retraction of its own.

Expect more of this kind of thing, now that the AMA is back in the pro racing sanctioning business, courtesy of MotoAmerica. Don't be mislead by the fact that MotoAmerica is asphalt-only (for now) and AMA Pro Racing is dirt only; the two are competitors for fans, sponsors, and status. And although we're all told in no uncertain terms that the deal for the Daytona 200 has nothing to do with DMG/AMA Pro, the people who own the Speedway control DMG. You can be sure this year's '200' is a burr under the MotoAmerica saddle.

One thing DMG should do, to eliminate this confusion, is drop 'AMA Pro Racing', which is a less-than-worthless trademark anyway, considering the bad memories associated with it. The only flat track trademark worth anything is 'Grand National Championship'.

The GNC is the real American motorcycle racing championship, and DMG needs to firmly re-establish it, if it's to have any hope of maintaining or improving its status. Those aren't footsteps DMG hears behind them, that's the sound of MotoAmerica's engines warming up.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

#1 with a Bullet: Enfield shoots past Harley

A lot of people in India want to get on a new Royal Enfield.
According to Forbes Asia, Royal Enfield has outsold Harley-Davidson for the first time. Figures for 2014 suggest that Enfield sold over 300,000 bikes, compared to about 270,000 for Harley.

Harley's net income is still about twice Enfield's, mainly because the cheapest Harley's about twice the price of the most expensive Enfield. But, Enfield's passing Harley in the number of units sold does illustrate the fact that in the developing world in general (and India in particular) more and more people can afford motorcycles. By contrast, it seems that fewer and fewer people can afford them here in the U.S.

Harley's response has been to produce the Street 750 and 500 models, which are 'world' bikes—they don't expect to sell many of them in the domestic market. But even a 'cheap' Harley is expensive by developing-world standards. A new Street 500 in India will set the buyer back about Rs. 400,000. That puts it well into the range of new cars in India. What that means is that even in places where motorcycles are purchased as functional transportation, even the cheapest Harley will be sold to people choosing it for a reasons that have little to do with functionality.

The Forbes story reminded me that Enfield's a subsidiary of Eicher Motors, a company that manufactures and sells Volvo heavy trucks and buses in the Indian market. Eicher's also got a joint venture with Polaris, which in a roundabout way means that Indian (as in 'brand') is now a cousin of the most famous Indian (as in 'subcontinent') motorcycles.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

There will be motorcycles in Super Bowl ads. There just won't be any ads for motorcycles, and that sucks

As the Super Bowl approaches, TV advertising becomes a topic of conversation because ordinary consumers recognize that it is the ad industry's "big game" too.

For years, Master Lock—a small company, compared to most Super Bowl advertisers—dared to blow their entire annual media budget on a single commercial in the game. It was always the same basic spot; a guy shoots a bullet clean through a Master padlock with a high-powered rifle, but the lock holds. That advertising strategy helped Master build a solid brand in that category, and it was proof that taking an expensive risk—because Super Bowl spots are very, very expensive—also delivered a big reward in terms of customer awareness and recall.

Every year, I bemoan the fact that no motorcycle manufacturer has the balls to run an ad in the big game—the kind of ad that would reach a wide audience with the goal of not just selling a bunch of bikes, but selling the very idea of motorcycling. Surely it's not that the sport of motorcycling doesn't lend itself to advertising. If you can make a great TV ad about a padlock, you sure as hell could make one about a motorcycle.

I've already written about Honda's famous 1964 "Nicest People" campaign. That campaign broke during the Academy Awards telecast, which was the most valuable ad time in the world, at that time. (The first Super Bowl was still three years in the future, and it would be some time before the NFL grew into the commercial behemoth it is now.)

Honda hired Grey Advertising—a top ad agency in the 1960s. One of the problems with motorcycle advertising today is that manufacturers have chosen to work with agencies which are not in advertising's big leagues. The one notable exception was Harley-Davidson, but even they dropped Carmichael-Lynch after years of excellent creative.

In 1964, Honda spent $300,000 on its Academy Award ad buy. Corrected for inflation, that's about $2,500,000 in today's money. So not quite in present-day Super Bowl ad territory—the nominal cost for a 30-second spot in Super Bowl XLIX is about four million bucks.

But look at it this way: $300,000 was the equivalent of Honda's gross revenues on 1,200 units of its best-selling motorcycle.

I don't know what American Honda's best seller is today, but whatever it is, I bet that if the company was willing to spend 1,200 times that revenue, it could afford a spot in Sunday's game. Obviously, the people running the company today are playing with deflated balls, compared to the guys calling Honda's plays in 1964.

Ironically, I also bet that more than one ad will feature a motorcycle cameo. All kinds of other brands include motorcycles in their spots these days, because they know motorcycles are hip and all-round awesome. Think about that: the guys making those other brands' ads are using valuable screen time to show you motorcycles they don't even sell, just to make whatever they are selling more appealing. Imagine how excited those Creative Directors, Copywriters, and Art Directors would be, if they were ever given the chance to advertise a motorcycle.

You know that cool ad agencies are full of hipsters who already commute to work on caf├ęd-out CB350s and chopped Ruckuses. Or is the plural of Ruckus, 'Rucki'?

Irony #2: Loctite is advertising in this year's Super Bowl. Yes, Loctite. They sell those little tiny bottles of goo, that you put on your nuts, before screwing.

Sorry, that was a cheap shot, but I couldn't resist it. But seriously folks. Loctite dares to risk an obviosly huge chunk of its marketing budget, promoting a product—shit, a category—that most Super Bowl viewers don't even know exists.

You know who does know what Loctite is? Everyone who works in the motorcycle industry. I hope they're paying attention to Loctite's sales numbers and awareness over the next year.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

AMA Pro Racing's bullshit logo competition

AMA Pro Racing recently announced that it was opening up the creation of new logos for it’s two classes, renamed GNC1 and GNC2, up to anyone who wants to enter a design competition and submit their ideas. First prize? $275. Let’s call it a maximum of 10% of the value of that job, if it was performed by a professional branding consultant.

Essentially, AMA Pro Racing is trying to get a new logo (actually a pair of logos) for free.

I hate that. As a guy who makes (most of) my living in the world of advertising and communications strategy, the decision to open this assignment up to amateurs pretty much had to piss me off, but it’s not just me. Google the phrase “graphic designers work for free” and you’ll see that it’s a raw nerve for the whole ad & design world.

I suppose at one level, the logo should be semi-pro at best; after all, only a handful of GNC riders are truly professional in the sense that they earn all or most of a decent living from their racing. But going about it the way they have is stupid, for the following reasons:

1.) They’ve asked for logos for two classes, and not for what they need, which is new identity for the Grand National Championship, which can anchor a revitalized marketing strategy, and a national ad campaign for the entire series. The GNC has not spent the last few decades being held back by the names or logos associated with the specific classes.

2.) Besides the fact that AMA Pro Racing’s taken a cheap-ass and unstrategic approach to this assignment, using turns the selection process into straight up, first-impression beauty contest. That’s something that pros in my industry despise. Logos don’t work that way at all. Meaning is imbued over many, many impressions, so professional logo designs need to be presented with an underlying rationale. Clients should see examples of all the ways the logo will be used.

3.) Any creative assignment is only as good as the brief the creative team gets. The brief presented to the contestants was pathetic, which is why the results are almost completely generic wordmarks. Most of them look like the logos for nutritional supplements. Only one of the top five has a motorcycle on it; look at the bike. Look at the front wheel. It’s understeering for fuck’s sake. It’s the opposite of what flat track’s all about.

Over the course of my career, I’ve had countless conversations with clients who want a new logo. One of the questions I ask is, What logos do you love? Almost everyone says ‘Nike’. Nike’s logo is actually pretty crappy. Apple’s? It’s maybe a ‘B’ effort. My point in telling you this is, many great category-defining, commercially successful businesses have mediocre logotypes. 

So in theory at least, AMA Pro Racing could use any shitty logo they get for their $275, and still take flat track back to the heights of the early ‘80s. The reason they won’t is, their whole approach to this logo assignment confirms the fact that they’re fucking amateurs when it comes to building a real brand, or marketing, well, anything.

Here’s an analogy for the benefit of the flat track community...

Imagine if, instead of proving your merit and earning an expert license, every Grand National race was open to all comers, on any bike. Hundreds of riders could show up, vying for 18 starting positions. Now imagine that those starting spots were assigned by holding 18 heat races. Winners go the final, all others go home. Now imagine this: Every heat race is one lap

Would that format be exciting? Maybe. Action filled? I guess so. But would you be able to say with conviction that, at the end of the night, the best man’d won? Not usually.

That’s how AMA Pro Racing’s approaching logo design.


I went back to look at AMA Pro's web site, and searched for the FB post that initially alerted me to the contest, and all references to the logo contest have been deleted. So it's possible AMA Pro's had second thoughts about the contest. That doesn't change the fact that embarking on it was a completely amateur move. Trying the contest in the first place is excellent evidence that, in spite of the fact that American flat track should be a major racing brand, it's being controlled by people with no marketing savvy.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Polaris acts on Empulse

Polaris made an investment in Brammo back in 2011 and upped their stake again 2012. Now, they've acquired the rest of Craig Bramscher's motorcycle business. I haven't spotted the amount they recently spent; I may not find that out until their next Annual Report. But the first two investments were (IIRC) $11M and $28M.

It begs a few interesting questions:

  • What motivated Bramscher to sell out once and for all? Is it significant that Polaris' press release makes no mention of Craig's continued involvement?
  • Polaris says it will begin making electric motorcycles in Spirt Lake IA, this year. Does that mean Brammo's existing operations will move from Oregon to the midwest? Will the bikes made in Spirt Lake be Brammo models, or is there an electric Indian in the works? 
  • Was Polaris influenced by Harley-Davidson's impressive LiveWire foray into electric motorcycles? If so, should Craig should send a box of chocolates to Milwaukee?
  • Is there any significance to the fact that, like Mission, Brammo's evolved from an electric motorcycle company to an electric powertrain company?

Back in the early days of Brammo, Zero, and Mission I visited all those companies and found that they were staffed with the expected engineers and nerds, and that they all had a few serious riders on board. But they didn't have motorcycle designers. Mission solved that problem by outsourcing that role to the iconoclastic genius James Parker.

When it created the LiveWire, Harley went the other way; they had motorcycle design capability in house and brought in powertrain expertise (from Mission).

The fact is, while there are a number of good engineering schools where you can go to learn how to make a decent car from scratch, motorcycle vehicle dynamics are more complex, and there are far fewer places you can go to study motorcycle engineering (as distinct from styling). I was always struck by the lack of serious brand-building, sales channel development, and marketing expertise in those upstart companies, too.

I always walked out thinking, They say "What you don't know won't hurt you", but if you don't know what you don't know, that can be deadly.

So it makes sense that two of those three companies have now shifted their focus to supplying other builders with batteries, motor controllers, and motors; that's what they know.

Polaris' product mix offers a ton of EV potential; far more than Harley-Davidson's does. The basic shape of a quad, snowmobile, or 'Slingshot' lends itself to heavy, flat battery deck carried in the bottom of the chassis. That's way better than trying to swing a great big battery pack from side to side in the turns.

Just the other day, I found myself thinking, I've let it go too long between lunches with Harry 'Brammofan' Mallin. I'll pick his brain and get back to you.