Opinion The Game

Sympathy for the Devil: Understanding the Challenges Manufacturers Face

Making bikes is harder than we think

Hey, you guys might know this – maybe you’re better connected with what’s going on, I don’t know – but, are CB radios still a thing?” asked one of Indian’s guys. “Are they coming back? Like, is it a Millennial thing?”

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He was asking this question in a tongue-in-cheek way. We were at the bar after spending the day riding the Scout Bobber and, with the benefit of hindsight, I realize the question was effectively an answer to my complaint that the bike doesn’t have dual front discs.

“What? CB radios?!” scoffed the collection of journos. “Man, that’s only ‘a thing’ for grandads.”

Admittedly, you can’t engage in friendly banter with local law enforcement representatives if you don’t have a CB radio.

“Yeah, that’s what we thought, too,” said Indian’s man. “But every year at Sturgis we’ll have people from headquarters come join us – people from accounts or distribution or whatever, who don’t get as much opportunity to interact with the customer. It’s a chance for them to meet the people they’re working for. We’ll send them out with surveys, to ask opinions of the brand, and what always surprises me is how many come back with the suggestion that we add CB radios to our touring bikes.”

As I say, in hindsight, I realize this was a kind of parable to illustrate the challenges a manufacturer faces in developing new products. Listen too intently to the wrong voices and you’ll end up producing a big fat stinker of a bike. Most CB users* are of a ripened age, not too far from issuing their final 10-7, and, more importantly, they’re a demographic that’s unlikely to buy a new bike. They’re rolling around on 20-year-old Harley-Davidson Electra Glides and proud of it, damn it.

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I reckon it’s a basic truth of being a motorcycle manufacturer that every idea has to be run through the “Will It Sell?” machine. I picture a designer suddenly being inspired at 2 am, fumbling for a notepad she keeps on her bedside table for just such a scenario, sketching something out, then falling back to sleep. In the morning, she stares at the notepad, lets her coffee go cold as she runs to her office and begins drawing up a full design. It all comes to her in a wonderful fit of inspiration and she gets so involved that she doesn’t realize she’s late for work until one of her team calls and asks why she’s not at the 10 o’clock meeting.

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She speeds into Polaris HQ, and spots Ola Stenegard. He’s frowning. Swedes are punctual people and he’s not happy about her missing the meeting. Wordlessly, she produces the sketch. He stares for a moment, then starts muttering to himself. Finally he looks at her, face awash in awe and respect.

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“My god, Karen,” he says. “A 130hp lightweight touring bike built around the Scout powerplant. With heated grips as a standard feature! This a game changer! How did you ever come up with such a thing?!”

“Well, you know, TMO is required reading here at Polaris,” she says.

Ola Stenegard

“Ah, yes,” nods Ola. “That man is a genius. Well, I am certain this design will result in a product that will define the Indian brand. We’ll get to work on it just as soon as we run it through the ‘Will It Sell?’ machine.”

He then walks across the room to a large cardboard box labeled: “WillItSell6000.” Inside the box sits a 67-year-old overweight man named Roger. He’s wearing a leather vest festooned with ABATE patches. Ola pushes the design through a little slot in the cardboard box and waits. After a few seconds, the top of the cardboard box opens and Roger hurls the crumpled design at Ola, shouting: “WHAT IS THIS LIBTARD BULLSHIT?

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Thankfully, that’s not how manufacturers work but there almost certainly is a process that tries to determine commercial viability, and I’m willing to bet that getting reliable information for the process is extraordinarily challenging. Especially in the modern age, when everyone has a platform for his or her opinion, but few are willing to give their views in a more concrete way.

The urge to play it safe must be very strong at times

I mean, a very large facet of The Motorcycle Obsession is sitting around the imaginary campfire pontificating on what manufacturers should or shouldn’t be doing. But there’s often a chasm between what we say we would buy and what we actually end up buying. Sometimes we’re honest about this fact – such as when Jason Macierowski offered a long list of suggestions for the forthcoming Harley-Davidson Pan America but finished up his comment with: “Even if you do all this Harley-Davidson, I don’t know if people will buy the bike” – and sometimes we’re not so honest. I’ll admit I have a particularly bad habit of declaring that I will buy this or that bike then never actually doing so.

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Manufacturers can find a steady stream of “should” and “would” feedback on their social media channels, but it’s difficult to know how much of it translates into actual sales.

Meanwhile, if you go out in the world with a clipboard to ask people’s opinions, or phone them up, or ask them to fill out a survey at a motorcycle show – in other words, if you get customers’ opinions in a way that would allow you to get back in touch later and say: “Hey, we built that thing you wanted, why don’t you come on down to the dealership and buy it?” – you’ll find that many will avoid you like the plague, especially the younger ones.

When you think about it, it’s surprising (and awesome) that this bike is going into production.

I’ve been thinking about all this in light of two press invitations I received this week. The bike revealed at one will, I think, please a lot of people. The other may cause a few folks to roll their eyes. I’m personally looking forward to riding both and will be interested to see how the world responds to them, both online and in real life; I suspect the latter will outsell the former.

In which case, it may be best to follow the thinking that a representative from a different manufacturer (who shall go nameless) once shared with me: “Often we find customers don’t actually know what they want until we give it to them.”

* Every time I knock CB radios I get a commenter telling me I’m a dick. I understand CB is better than Bluetooth for coordinating tail and lead riders on a group ride, but that is not a common enough scenario that a manufacturer should incorporate a CB system into its new models.