May 24, 2007

Good Enough or Good?

Music is something I normally listen to while reasonably stationary - sitting in a vehicle, at work, or sitting around on the 'puter. I haven't had a Walkman since high school (high tech stuff, that!), and there are a couple radio stations that don't annoy me often that I can listen to.

Then the Significant Other picked up an iPod. She loves it, providing her with hours of entertainment managing playlists, creating party soundtracks, playing musical games with herself (for instance, the current song must mention the title or theme of the next) etc. I used it on occasion, mostly at work with a set of external speakers, but otherwise it didn't mean much to me. We added that doohickey that lets it broadcast over your car speakers, and that was neat, but still, it wasn't a major revelation.

Eventually, by the way, this post will be about motorcycles.

I was listening to it today, carrying it around with me as I wandered from shop to shop, running errands. It was phenominally easy to use. The interface worked flawlessly, and with minimal instruction I could tell how to do what (and how loudly) inside a minute. I jumped from playlist to playlist; selected out individual artists; and moved about the catalogue with ease. The ear phones were comfortable.

It was delightful.

On the strength of this, as much as anything else, we are very likely to purchase a macintosh as our next computer when this old PC finally dies. The obvious work that went into the interface of the iPod and the attention that went into the design has convinced me that the change, which will no doubt take a little while to get used to, will be worth it.

Work in one branch of Apple has led us to another.

There are few companies in the world as famous as Harley-Davidson. I am willing to bet that every single person that just read that name has an idea of what a Harley is: not just that it's a motorcycle, but off all the things that surround it. Ever since Willie G. bought the brand name back from AMF, they've worked hard at maintaining the brand (as numerous copyright infringement lawsuits can attest) and improving the product, even if the result wasn't what H.D. traditionalists were dreaming of.

Eventually, they were told by marketing that a huge porportion of first-time Harley buyers were women, so they tageted their marketing appropriately. Women often buy cruisers as a first bike, as they are lower to the ground than most sport, naked, or dual-purpose bikes; they often start with metric (Japanese) cruisers because they are smaller than Harleys, and many of them eventually "graduate" to Harley-Davidsons, the bike they really wanted. Such is the strength of the brand name.

(Side note: women on bikes get approached because guys know what to talk to them about. Try it - you'll see.)

But the company did end up waiting until they were told that women were buying their bikes before marketing to them specifically. It was a plan that occured to them late, after being told by salesmen to dealers to marketers to head office, who then planned a marketing strategy targeting people who ride smaller cruisers in addition to current Harley riders. The folks who rode bigger cruisers (usually men) were older, and married, and wouldn't mind at all if their wives/girlfriends got bikes of their own (so long as they were smaller). And the people who rode smaller cruisers, well, they could often be "sold up" once they got some experience...

(For a company that totall cocks up this idea, see the National Hockey League, who tend to buy advertisements during their own games. Way to reach new markets, idiots! Rant over.)

Suzuki has taken that idea and increased it dramatically - they are advertising one of their cars as being "As exciting to drive as our bikes", using an attractive couple in mild competition with each other. It's a lie, of course, but it's also a brilliant piece of cross advertising. Everyone knows that bikes are exciting, even if they've never ridden before; and it's a nice reminder to couples who might not be able to buy a car outright, but want a second vehicle that hey! Here's something that's half the cost and a damn sight more fun... They are advertising two items in one commercial, and since buying a motorcycle is far more a visceral decision than a buying a car is, they only need to do the stat-speak on one of them. It's a fantastic move.


There is a coming crisis in motorcycling, and it's the usual reason: an aging populace. Cruisers have been doing well right now partially because of their more comfortable posture when compared to other bikes, and because Ye Olde Baby Boomers finally managed to drive their kids out of their homes and have a bit more money to spend on themselves. Mortgage is lower (or paid off), they've been working a good long while, and they always wanted to learn how to ride, so off they go.

Talking with a few motorcycle instructors, they've seen a dramatic increase in older people (40+) coming in to take classes for either their first time or for refresher classes, having sold their old bikes "when the kids came along" or some similar story. It's been great, and the motorcycling companies have been booming because of it, but it's not going to last, and for a very obvious reason. Hint: it's the same reason why moped and scooter sales are up over the past few years.

The instruction classes mostly use old Honda CB125s, which are nice and mild bikes - very forgiving of overexcited throttle hands or the occasional missed gear. But little bikes sell for far less, and as the demographics were moving upwards in age and experience, production companies moved with them. There aren't many small bikes out there for new riders to buy, so the only option (many feel) is to get an older bike. As a first bike, that's not a bad option, but you do inherit someone else's problems when you buy used, and a faulty first bike can turn someone off riding forever. A customer forever lost.

Enter Honda, once again.

They have launched an agressive campaign, featuring women prominently, for their new 125cc CBRs. That looks a damn sight better, eh? The focus is on easy and fun: it's easy to ride, easy to reach the ground (776 mm seat height), easy to control (119 kilos dry weight) and easy to pay for (about $4250 brand new). They are knocking on instruction school doors, offering fleets at a discount, and even discounts on individual sales if the new rider has taken such a course. They offer package deals on full riding gear, too, from helmet to boots.

And as for fun? Well, it beats the hell out of riding the bus.

They push the economy of the bike, as well. The competition form high-powered scooters has actually become a challenge (step-through bikes are easier to get on and off), so they are sure to describe cost, quality of make, and fuel range.

Yeah, it has a tiny 10 litre fuel tank, but let me put it this way: when the S.O. and I went shopping for a new truck, the best fuel economy was in a 4 cylinder Toyota, which claimed 7.7 litres of gas used for every 100 km driven. The CBR125R? It claims 2.6 litres for the same distance - three times as efficient as the best small truck we could find.

Need that converted? Okay - how does 90 miles per gallon sound?

It's not bare-bones stuff, either: six-speed engine, electronic fuel injection, disc breaks, full fairing, and a four-instrument cluster just like on the big bikes.

Would I get one? Probably not: I ride a lot of highway miles, and little bikes can get blown around pretty easily. The right question is: would I recommend one to a new rider? I haven't been on it yet, but from what I've seen so far, its only competetion is Kawasaki's very impressive zzr250, a bike whose 38 horsepower could be quite a handful for a new rider, especially when compared to the Honda's 13 hp.

Bottom line is, every manufacturer is hoping that Honda's aggressive approach to drawing in new riders works, like Suzuki's pitch to returning riders. Because if not, some manufacturers riding the baby boom are going to go bust.


Edit: I stand corrected. Here's a Honda CBR125R for $3400, brand new. Four grand gets you it and the gear. Wow.


posted by Thursday at 8:45 pm


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