Whatever: What's in a Name?
Branding: It's not just for cows
One interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed over the years is the seeming inability of the non-motorcycling public to read. Inevitably, when whatever motorcycle I’m riding draws a layperson’s attention, they’ll ask, ‘What kind of motorcycle IS that?’ And it doesn’t matter how large VICTORY or HONDA is written on the gas tank. The sole exception is Harley-Davidson. Then the comment is always ‘Nice Harley.’ And if some casual observer says ‘nice Harley’ when you’re on a Japanese cruiser trying to hide its identity, you know the Japanese have won another skirmish but are destined to eventually lose the cruiser war.
H-D enjoys instant global brand recognition, and that can’t be a bad thing. Lately H-D’s reluctance, okay refusal, to take bold new styling steps looks like genius. While the critics continue to criticize, Harley continues to lead the league in sales.
On the other hand, you had the bold new spaceship Victory Vision, which appeared in 2007. Built on a stiff aluminum frame via computer-aided design, packed with advanced features, a superior ride and a great engine at a reasonable price – its interpretation of classic American cruiser veered just slightly too far into Buck Rogers territory for the intended buyer. The bike failed to achieve the high hopes Polaris had for it; our press accolades failed to bring it the success it deserved. At gas stops, the occasional person would wander over to the Vision with ‘nice Harley’ on the tip of their tongue, stopping short at the last second and recoiling like a dog finding a different food in its dish. What the?!
The difference is the dog would probably adapt in about two bites and say, ‘Hey, this is pretty good…’
Personally, I was a big fan of the Vision 8-Ball, which was a lowered and blacked-out bagger version of the bike. It made me feel like Batman, like I should be wearing a cape. I’ve never seen one on the road. In 2010, Victory sort of dumbed down the Vision to look more like what people expect, and called it Cross Country and Cross Roads. Maybe by then it was too late.
Does America just not want different anymore? You always read how there were 200 motorcycle companies competing in the U.S. in the old days. How many are we down to now? Really, I don’t think it’s that we don’t want different; I think we just want the Familiar more than ever. I guess that equals the same thing. As the Empire declines, people want tradition, a return to the good old days when we were on the way up.
I reviewed the first Triumph Thunderbird when that storied marque was resurrected and returned to the U.S. market in 1994. It was a good bike but not a great one, and most of the new Triumphs that followed it over the next few years weren’t exactly cutting-edge or even as good as the mostly Japanese competition. It really wasn’t until the second-generation Speed Triple that Triumph had a real hit.
Looking back, I think what saved them was one thing: Triumph was prominently displayed on that classic ’60s garden-gate logo on the gas tank or somewhere on the bike. Yo, my uncle had one! I have seen this before! It probably didn’t hurt that Triumph was ramping up just as the U.S. was entering the upslope of a huge housing-fuelled economic boom (which should’ve lifted Victory also, which debuted its V92 in 1998, but didn’t quite).
When xenophobia and Brexit and wall-building rhetoric begin to spread across the globe, though, it percolates right down to the things we buy, too. If Soichiro Honda showed up today with the Honda Cub, would it be a success? Or would it receive the same nasty comments Chinese bikes do now? (Granted, the Chinese sort of had it coming; my greyhound had the runs for a year after eating a bad bag of Costco dog food. Not that that kept him from eating all kinds of other weird things including three $20 bills, which were still spendable after I bleached them.) Are the nicest people from the ’60s who made Honda so wildly successful the same people today, now in their 60s, who won’t ride anything but a Harley? Beats me.
My dad, a Navy veteran of the Big One and a George Wallace Republican, suffered through years of AMC Ambassadors, Plymouth Volares and Chevy Vegas while swearing that buying a Japanese car constituted a low form of treason. But once my mom talked him into a Toyota Celica, it was nothing but Camrys from then on. If that guy could open his heart, forgive and forget and embrace the new, you’d think anybody could.
Doesn’t seem to be the case: Politically, socially and motorcycle-ly, the tribes seem to be further apart than ever with even less common ground, and each tribe defending the totem it worships more vigorously than ever. Given a stagnant motorcycle economy and an uncertain future, I finally arrive at my point: Closing down Victory was the right thing for Polaris to do.
Guys who bought Victorys and ride them know what great bikes they are, but that’s a small group, outside of which nobody knows Victory Motorcycles ever existed. No impressionable youth is thinking ‘someday I will own a Victory.’ And let’s face it, a lot of cruiser buyers (not all!) don’t do a lot of market research; they tend to be “low-information voters” (my favorite new phrase) – some of the same people who put Trump in the White House and voted Britain out of the European Union. They are a yuuge voting bloc.
What makes shutting Victory down smart, of course, was the genius acquisition of Indian in 2011. I don’t think everybody’s gotten the word yet that Indian is back in business, but once it spreads, do you think Joe the Plumber would prefer a Victory t-shirt or a vintage Indian one?
Word on the street is while some Victory factory employees will lose their jobs, most of the engineers and designers who worked on Victory will be assimilated into other jobs at Polaris – which means the best brains will wind up at Indian – where exciting things are going on, including a new FTR750 flat-tracker. Now that there are no Victory and Indian brands to keep separated and squabble over resources, Indian can build whatever it wants to build. We can hope, anyway, that the suits won’t completely quash the motorcycle nuts.
Whichever direction Indian goes in, though, whatever bikes it builds, they’ll all stand a much greater chance of success for one simple reason: They’ll all say INDIAN on the gas tank so big a blind man’s seeing-eye dog won’t be able to miss it. Which is smart. Yo, my Granddad had one!
More by John Burns