Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ural? Ural!

Since a good part of my time is devoted to practicing the dark arts of communications strategy, it counts for something that if, say, in 2008 you'd asked me, "What motorcycle brand is least likely to become a hipster favorite?" I would have responded, Ural.

And yet.

Here we are in 2011 and a friend of mine sent a note about a sidecar outfit he'd seen written up in the Continental Airlines inflight magazine; he thought it looked really cool. There was a Hammarhead custom Ural parked inside the Ace Hotel for Hell for Leather's New York motorcycle show party. And Ural sponsors the delightful Australian-based BikeEXIF web site.

Where's my machine gun? When Mary and I met our friend Mark for coffee in Lawrence last summer, and he drove up on this thing, he admitted that he'd bought it because he wasn't sure his wife would let him have a two-wheeler. But I immediately fantasized about setting this up with a 'Russian front' style windshield and leg guards, and using it through my first Kansas City winter. Huey Lewis was right: it's hip to be square.
Nice job, Ural. You've gone from a non-brand for aging geeks, to the choice of the uber-cool types who embody William Gibson-style 'antimarketing' theories.

To be sure, Ural got some help from The Great Recession. First, it became somewhat less cool to flaunt conspicuous consumption, and the anything-but-trendy Ural emerged as a sort of antidote to posers on their 1198s.

Picture the conversations...
"Is that this year's model?" 
"Yes, and last year's, and next year's, and the year after that, and..."

Or, in the snowbound northern tier...
"I'm having my MV Agusta trucked to L.A. so I can do a track day at Willow Springs."
"Oh. I'm leaving for Uruguay tomorrow morning. But first I'm using my Ural to plow the driveway, and then I have to transfer 600 pounds of construction debris to the dump."

In this age of Tea Party budget cuts, Urals evoke a "who cares if there's no money to fix potholes?" insouciance. So it's a bike for these times, I guess.

The recession also opened another door for Ural, a company with a nearly non-existent budget for conventional advertising. When the bigger, richer manufacturers (and that's almost all of them) killed ad budgets and closed whole marketing departments in '08-'09, they proved that one of the oldest communications strategies in the world of business is still utterly valid: The time to build mindshare is when everyone else cuts back on their marketing activities. You don't have to do much to get attention when everyone else is silent.

Ural's become hip with what amounts to a textbook example of skillful and timely guerrilla marketing. (They wear those ratty fatigues well, since I once heard a rumor that Osama bin Laden escaped from the Tora Bora area, across the border into Pakistan, as the passenger in a Ural sidecar.)

And, from what I hear the company's also backing clever communications with good customer service. A friend of mine who bought one used found that there were metallurgical problems in some valve-train components. Clearly a manufacturing defect, but this was a bike he bought used; to make matters worse, Ural had no dealership near him (he lives in Lawrence, Kansas.)

Ural could've said, "Hey, we have no idea what the last owner did to it, and we don't know you. You're on your own."

Instead, the company found and recommended a local BMW shop, and covered the cost of bringing the bike up to proper spec.

Not just great guerrilla marketing, but a hearts and minds program to back it up.

Wouldn't you know it? The Commies are coming...

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