Motorcycles Become A Favorite Prop For Marketers

Automakers, toy stores, fashion and filmmakers have found a new halo marketing vehicle: motorcycles.

Companies that don't make motorcycles are using them to promote their products by association. Chrysler Group used motorcycles in ads for its Ram pickup. Automakers Honda, Toyota, Suzuki, and Ford used them, too. Even Home Depot has been using motorcycles to drive an emotional connection with its products.

"We began to see an upsurge in this trend about three years ago," says Ty Van Hooydonk, director of product communications with Discover Today's Motorcycling (DTM), a division of the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC), which represents mostly Asian makes.

In this year's Super Bowl, for example, bikes played central roles in ads for Lincoln's Zephyr sedan, Mobile ESPN, and even Degree deodorant, where a guy rode into a room on a bike to deliver a message.

Last May saw the inaugural "Legend of the Motorcycle" concourse, an event patterned after the Pebble Beach Concourse D'Elegance prestige car show. Nickelodeon ran national print ads for "Barnyard" this summer that showed the animals riding down the road on cruiser motorcycles.

Honda has used its own off-road bikes in TV and print ads for its Ridgeline pickup truck since the vehicle launched. Toyota, which began promoting its trucks at motorcycle shows, is creating an amateur motocross race-development team as part of an integrated effort around the 2007 Tundra. Suzuki also plans to showcase its cars and SUVs next year at such iconic motorcycle events as Bike Week in Daytona Beach.

Suzuki, which is better known as a motorcycle maker than a car maker, hasn't been shy about leveraging the popularity of its bikes to promote its cars. Motorcycles will play a central role in a forthcoming campaign for SUVs.

Gene Brown, vp of marketing at the Brea, Calif.-based Suzuki, says people who viewed the forthcoming spots but had never driven a motorcycle walked away thinking of it as an "exhilarating, positive experience."

"Motorcycles, at one time, were associated with outlaws, more with films like 'The Wild Bunch,'" says Van Hooydonk. "They didn't have such positive images in popular culture. That has changed. Nearly every segment of the market is fashionable."

The industry council has been instrumental in fueling the trend. If feature stories about the likes of actors Brad Pitt and Adrien Brody include shots of them astride their favorite bikes, it may be credited in part to a rider development program aimed exclusively at getting celebrities to become riders.

Actor Matt LeBlanc, whom Van Hooydonk's group got into motorcycles, has touted riding on the "Tonight Show." DTM also gave Macy's four motorcycles to display, and then auction, last month during Macy's Passport 2006 fashion shows in San Francisco and Santa Monica, an event to raise money for HIV/AIDS research.

According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, on-road motorcycle sales are up 11 percent, and scooter sales are up more than 19 percent versus 2005.

Van Hooydonk says motorcycle sales have surpassed the million unit mark every year since 2003. He credits this in part to high gasoline prices (many motorcycles get over 50 mpg), a resurgence within the scooter segment, and brand extensions in the cruiser, entry-level motorcycle and sport-bike categories.

"The last time numbers have been this high was in the 1970's," he said, adding that the demographic shift has been toward more affluent, older buyers. "The median age now is around 41. But the growth is also driven by growth of product offerings (with around 400 new models on the market) and "niches within niches."

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