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 Logotournament.com 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.