After more than a decade of plummeting sales the motorcycle industry is targeting nostalgic businessmen and women in an effort to improve sales.
According to the Motorcycle Industry Association, total registrations of motorcycles, mopeds and scooters for the first eight months of the year are up 19 per cent on last year.
Fashion scooters and sports bikes – bought by weekend riders – are fuelling the growth. The pick-up in the industry has spread through all bike sectors, even to the more functional commuter models.
A new report by Euromonitor says that much of the decline of the UK motorcycle market can be attributed to the collapse of the moped and scooter sector, which continued into the Nineties. Between 1990 and 1994, the number of scooters and mopeds bought fell by 65 per cent.
However, more recently, scooter sales have benefited from motorbikes becoming a fashion item. As a result, the scooter and moped sector is expected to increase its share of the market from 12.5 per cent to 13.6 per cent by the end of the decade.
Italian scooter maker Piaggio entered into a sponsorship deal with fashion store Miss Selfridge in 1994 to promote the Vespa as a fashion bike. It is now running a similar promotion with fashion chain C&A in four main London outlets.
In 1992, the company sold 500 scooters, but this year it expects to sell 4,000.
This week, Piaggio will launch a new four-stroke, metal Vespa bike with automatic gears aimed at young riders but designed to appeal to women in particular. The company has been targeting the 25 to 45 year-old market, but also want to appeal to young adults who have never ridden motorbikes before.
Piaggio has seen sales grow six times the level they were in 1992 and the company has managed it without advertising so far. Now, to capture more of the growing market, the company is looking for an agency to expand and build its marketing activities.
Suzuki is also targeting women, based on the idea that it can grow more easily by expanding into new markets. Money traditionally spent on Sunday supplement ads to attract men is now being redirected into women’s glossies.
Others are more dubious about the value of targeting women. A Kawasaki spokesman says 94 per cent of its customers are men. It sees little point in focusing on women.
However, in line with Suzuki, Kawasaki is launching a fun and fashionable motorcycle aimed at younger riders, including women. An industry source says new growth will only be generated when motorbike manufacturers begin to educate the people who have no exposure to them.
However, Kawasaki’s marketing approach remains unchanged. Its advertising agency, McCann-Erickson, has focused on the riders and their motivations for travelling by motorbike. Mark Dibsdall, account director for Kawasaki at McCann, says the focus is on the Kawasaki brand, not a particular bike.
Dibsdall says the motorbike has moved on from being a greasy, noisy and cheap form of transport. It is now an expensive, technically advanced machine that commands respect instead of disapproval.
Traditionally ridden by bearded and overweight bikers, the aim is to woo fortysomething executives to the 256m market.
Among those at the very top of the corporate ladder, who favour supporting the “two wheels good, four wheels bad” philosophy, is Unilever chairman Niall Fitzgerald. He famously took advantage of the wind of change blowing through the organisation and asked for a company motorbike. However, Unilever resorted to type and insisted on giving him a Jaguar instead.
Account directors at ad agencies are also choosing to spurn the company car in favour of a motorbike. It can cost as much as a run-of-the-mill company car – 14,000 to 15,000 – but performs better and can cut through city traffic in half the time.
Most businessmen owned bikes as young men and, having shed other financial commitments, can afford a motorbike as an accessory alongside their 20,000 company car.
The motorbike is becoming an essential leisure item. It is seen as a status symbol and imparts a sense of individualism – valued by rising company stars who use it as an identity badge.
The lifestyle-led revival has fuelled the motorcycle sales drive. According to Euromonitor, sports motorbikes (those bought by weekend riders or enthusiasts) remains the largest sector. In 1994, the sector accounted for 39.1 per cent of the total market, although its total share is expected to dip slightly by the end of the decade.
Between 1990 and 1994, the custom bike sector, patronised by company executives or born-again riders, was the only one to show any volume growth, with new registrations going up by 37 per cent. This is expected to increase from 8.8 to 10.4 per cent of the total market.
According to the Motorcycle Industry Association, Britain’s Triumph is leading the premium sector. In its first eight months it has captured 4.9 per cent share, ahead of BMW with 3.4 per cent, and Harley-Davidson’s 2.9 per cent.
In mass-market terms, Honda remains market leader in the UK with 25.6 per cent of the market; six years ago it held over 27 per cent.
Honda is still comfortably ahead of its nearest rival Yamaha, which holds 16.6 per cent. Honda’s Fireblade is the best-selling sports bike.
Launched in 1992, Fireblade targeted companies who were beginning to let staff choose their own vehicles. So far, more than 2,000 of the bikes have been sold this year.
Keen to improve on Fireblade’s success, Honda last month revealed its latest bike, the Super Blackbird, which is even faster than the Fireblade, at 190mph.
Increasing sales of bikes such as the Fireblade, show the market is being led by enthusiasts, not consumers who buy for functional reasons.
Although motor manufacturers’ ad budgets suffered in their lean years (between 1983 and 1993), manufacturers will now need to increase ad spend and target the market more effectively.
Manufacturers aim to elevate the motorcycle to icon status in the Nineties. Companies such as Piaggio and Suzuki are no doubt hoping that revival through market segmentation will prove an enduring and successful way to keep on running.