Polaris Industries, Inc.
Polaris Industries, Inc.THE NEW AMERICAN MOTORCYCLE CAMPAIGN
RIDE THE BEST CAMPAIGN
2100 Highway 55
Medina, Minnesota 55340
Telephone: (763) 542-0500
Fax: (763) 542-0599
Web site: www.polarisindustries.com
In 1998 Polaris Industries, Inc., best known as a manufacturer of snowmobiles, introduced the Victory Motorcycle, the first new American motorcycle to be introduced in 60 years. Although it was part of the cruiser category dominated by Harley-Davidson, Victory was not intended to challenge the icon of the industry. Rather, Polaris looked to find its own niche in a large and growing category, hoping to play off its American roots to take sales away from Japanese companies Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, and Suzuki. To help establish Victory in the marketplace, Minneapolis-based advertising agency Martin/Williams launched a major marketing campaign in the summer of 2000.
The campaign, estimated at $2-4 million, centered on print ads that appeared mostly in the leading motorcycle magazines. To a lesser degree Polaris spent money on television spots that ran on national cable channels and in some local markets on a spot basis. Some local radio advertising was also done. The main objective was to convince potential customers to visit their local Victory dealer, where they could pick up promotion materials but more importantly could take a Victory motorcycle for a test-ride. The motorcycle itself was expected to close the sale.
"The New American Motorcycle" campaign ran until Martin/Williams gave up the account in the spring of 2004. By that time Victory had enjoyed a steady increase in sales, had established a niche in the marketplace, and was well positioned to enjoy strong growth in an expanding category.
The manufacturer of Victory Motorcycles, Polaris Industries, Inc., was best known for its snowmobiles, a vehicle the Minnesota-based company had pioneered in the 1950s and popularized in the 1960s. Over the years Polaris suffered through some tough times and looked to diversify, moving into producing all-terrain vehicles in the 1980s and personal watercraft, such as jet skis, in the 1990s. Later in the decade Polaris sensed an opportunity in heavy-cruiser motorcycles (the largest bikes on the market), a category that competitor Harley-Davidson ruled.
Harley-Davidson had reached cult status that extended beyond motorcycles. The owners of its "hogs" would tattoo the name on their bodies, and people who had never ridden a motorcycle in their lives would wear a Harley-Davidson leather jacket as a fashion statement. A number of companies like Polaris in the mid- to late 1990s sensed there was room in the heavy-cruiser class for a new American bike. The famous Indian brand, last seen in 1953, returned with the newly formed Indian Motorcycle Company, as did Excelsior-Henderson Motorcycle Manufacturing Company of Minnesota. They were joined by startups such as Big Dog Motorcycles of Sun Valley and a number of smaller shops. Many of them made the fatal error of trying to challenge Harley-Davidson head-on. Polaris, on the other hand, sought to offer something different than Harley: more contemporary styling along with advanced technology, such as electronic fuel injection, overhead camshafts, and premium brakes. The result was the Victory motorcycle, which first rolled off the line in July 1998, becoming the first new American cruiser-class motorcycle to be introduced in 60 years. It was positioned as more of a compatriot of Harley-Davidson than a threat.
Two years after its introduction Victory had enjoyed only modest success, ranking a distant sixth in sales, behind Harley-Davidson and the Japanese imports. In December 1999 Polaris awarded the reported $2 to $4 million Victory Motorcycles advertising account to Martin/Williams, a Minneapolis agency that was already handling the company's snowmobiles and personal watercraft. In July 2000 Victory Motorcycles launched a new marketing campaign under the banner of "The New American Motorcycle."
In general the campaign targeted men between the ages of 35 and 54 with annual incomes of at least $65,000. More specifically, the marketers hoped to appeal to former motorcycle owners who had given up their bikes for family life or other reasons and now had the time, money, and inclination to resume their interest in motorcycles. Some of them, hopefully, would opt for a forward-looking American-made cruiser instead of the Harley or Japanese models. Polaris also wanted to appeal to consumers who already owned a Harley, had a passion for riding, and would buy a Victory as a second bike. Harley referred to many of these consumers as "Rolex" riders, a clientele wealthy enough to indulge their interest in motorcycles by buying more than one brand. To a lesser degree Polaris also wanted to appeal to younger, first-time buyers who might prefer the Victory style and technology over what Harley had to offer. Built lower to the ground than a Harley, the Victory also became an option for women interested in buying an American cruiser-class motorcycle.
Founded in the early 1900s, Harley-Davidson was a survivor, outlasting scores of other motorcycle companies to emerge in the 1950s as the "king of the road." The bike also gained an outlaw image, due in no small measure to the Marlon Brando movie The Wild One, in which Harley-riding renegades terrorized a community. While the company was not entirely pleased with the motorcycle-gang connection, it benefited from the subculture that developed around the brand. The introduction of the larger, throaty superbikes in the form of the Sportster model in 1957 only added to the Harley mystique. Although the company had long ago vanquished its American competition, during the 1960s it received a fresh challenge from Japanese companies such as Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, and Kawasaki, which offered bikes in all categories, including heavyweight. Harley suffered through the recession of the early 1980s but made a strong comeback later in the decade, and by 1990 it held a 62.3 percent share of the U.S. heavyweight-motorcycle market.
Although the Victory Motorcycle campaign poked good-natured fun at Harley-Davidson in some of its advertising, Polaris did not want to directly compete against the icon of the class. Moreover, Harley-Davidson continued to bring out a good product and could match anyone in spending on development and marketing. Instead Polaris wanted to play up the Victory's combination of nostalgia and technology in order to compete with Harley while emphasizing its American roots in order to take on the Japanese bike makers Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Yamaha. All of them were well-established brands with the financial resources necessary to maintain market share. In addition, Victory had to contend with a number of domestic upstarts also trying to establish themselves as the American alternative to Harley-Davidson: the likes of the legendary Indian brand, Excelsior-Henderson, and Big Dog Motorcycles. There were also scores of local shops offering custom-built cruisers that competed for the disposable income of motorcycle aficionados.
The marketing team attended bike rallies, such as the major events held at Sturgis, South Dakota, and Daytona Beach, Florida, and talked with people in the target demographic. They learned that indeed there was an opening for an American-made alternative in the cruiser-motorcycle category. Consumers said that they would be interested in a bike that was modern yet had classic lines. The original Victory, however, lacked curb appeal, that aesthetic quality that provoked an emotional purchase.
Out of the conversations with the target market, Victory and Martin/Williams settled on "The New American Motorcycle" positioning. To make the case for Victory Motorcycles, the agency focused on the print medium. The core market was comprised of extreme motorcycle enthusiasts who wanted to know what was new. Hence, in July 2000 Victory Motorcycle ads began to appear in leading motorcycle magazines, including American Motorcycle, Cycle World, American Iron, and American Rider. In addition the company advertised in other publications that reached the right audience, such as Popular Mechanics and North American Hunter.
Despite the intention not to compete directly with Harley-Davidson, one of the first ads made an amusing allusion to Harley-Davidson, the copy reading, "No, the motorcycles gods will not strike you down." In many ways "The New American Motorcycle" campaign helped the marketers to refine their approach, the allusions to Harley giving way to a pure focus on Victory.
The later ads gave the audience what it wanted to see: the bike itself. To emphasize the positioning of the brand, its American essence, the bike was photographed in iconic American settings such as the West. But to connect it to its hardworking audience, the motorcycle was also displayed in industrial scenes. In other ads the bike was set in urban nightlife scenes to suggest that the Victory was a motorcycle for the city as well as the open road. The text was spare, with the print ads mostly relying on the tag "The new American motorcycle." Victory later redesigned its catalog to include new images of the bikes, a lesson it learned from this initial campaign.
The parent company of Victory Motorcycles, Polaris Industries, Inc., was founded in 1945 in Roseau, Minnesota, closer to Manitoba, Canada, than to Minneapolis. It started out producing custom-made farm machinery under the name Hetteen Hoist & Derrick, and it was not until the 1950s that it sold its first snow-going vehicle. The company began making the transition from fabricating farm equipment to snowmobiles, in the process changing its name. Drawing on the Latin name for "north star," it became Polaris Industries in 1954. At the time, several years before Alaska became a state, Polaris was one of the northernmost companies in the United States.
Because the campaign's budget Polaris only did a limited amount of television advertising for the Victory, but it was an important medium because it provided potential customers with the sound of the bike—and the roar of a heavyweight bike was a major part of its appeal—while showing the lines of the Victory in motion. The company produced one or two 30-second TV spots a year over the next four years. They were shown on select national cable channels, such as the Speed Channel, ESPN, and TNN. The company also did some limited local radio advertising.
The goal of all the advertisements was to persuade potential customers to visit their area Victory dealership. There the company provided brochures and posters, and most importantly people were able to test-ride a Victory Motorcycle. The company believed that if it succeeded in getting someone in the saddle of a Victory, it had a good chance of selling one.
Gradually customers began to accept the Victory brand. In 2002 the company launched a new set of print ads that played with the tagline "That is my Victory" and featured testimonial letters from customers expressing what the Victory motorcycle meant to them. Although the advertising played a key role in growing the brand, perhaps of more importance were changes that company made on other fronts. In 2002 Victory introduced the Freedom engine to greatly improve performance. Another significant development was the introduction of the Vegas model, the styling of which finally gave Victory a distinctive look, one that met with approval from motorcycle enthusiasts. Four of the major motorcycle magazines named the Vegas the "best cruiser of the year" in 2003. Victory also enjoyed success with a limited-time Custom Order Program that allowed customers to design their dream bike online. As a result Victory Web traffic increased sevenfold in 2003.
During the time it ran its "The New American Motorcycle" campaign, Victory experienced a steady gain in sales. Although Victory had a small market share (about 2 percent) in the cruiser category, the company was confident that it had successfully established itself in the marketplace. Much of that success, granted, was based on anecdotal evidence, such as the sight of a Victory motorcycle riding side-by-side with a Harley through the streets of Sturgis and reports of bikers with Victory tattoos. "Victory is very, very strong," Mark Blackwell, general manager of Polaris's Victory division, told Powersports Business in 2004. "We've reached critical mass. Three years ago, people were asking, 'Who is Victory? Are you the guys from Minnesota who are bankrupt?' Last year, people were asking about the Vegas and now people are pretty well informed; they know we're part of Polaris." According to Motorcycle Industry Council data reported in September 2005, Victory Motorcycle was the fastest-growing brand in the industry, with retail sales increasing at a rate of about 50 percent. Although difficult to quantify, the spadework done by Martin/Williams's "The New American Motorcycle" campaign played a significant role in that growth.
Blackwell, Mark. "Victory Motorcycle Comes of Age." Powersports Business, June 28, 2004, p. S46.
Carney, Daniel F. "Chrome, Sweet Chrome." Popular Science, July 2000.
Chura, Hilary. "Victory Kicks Off Effort to Catch Up with Harley." Advertising Age, July 24, 2000, p. 8.
Frank, Aaron P. "Victory Vegas: The New American Motorcycle Company Rolls the Dice on a Radical New Cruiser." Motorcyclist, October 2002, p. 54.
Geiger, Bob. "Minneapolis-Based Martin/Williams Drops $15 Million Polaris Account." Minneapolis (MN) Finance and Commerce, March 6, 2004.
Greenberg, Karl. "Victory Motorcycles Powers into Hollywood." Brandweek, April 25, 2005.
Hallinan, Joseph T. "Polaris Expects to Ride Out Speed Bumps in Economy." Wall Street Journal, December 29, 2000.
Kiley, David. "E-Z Rider." Brandweek, August 18, 1997.
Klebnikov, Paul. "Clear the Roads, Here Comes the Victory." Forbes, October 20, 1997.
Miller, James P. "Polaris Set to Challenge Harley in Motorcycle Market." Wall Street Journal, March 11, 1998.
Panczyk, Tania D. "Victory Takes Testimonial Tack." Adweek, February 25, 2002, p. 4.
Roderick, Thomas. "Ace in the Hole: This Vegas Is a Sure Bet." Dealernews 39, no. 8 (August 2003).
Minneapolis, Minnesota-based Polaris Industries Inc. continued "Ride the Best," a long-standing campaign, to promote its personal watercraft (PWC) in 1998. The campaign, handled by Carmichael Lynch of Minneapolis, had been in effect for much of the time since Polaris introduced its PWC in 1993 and was used primarily in magazine advertising. During 1998 Polaris spent an estimated $7 million on advertising, $5 million on snowmobiles and watercraft, both handled by Carmichael Lynch until October 1998. At that point the company was the world's leading snowmobile maker and one of the leading producers of personal watercraft.
The big story regarding Polaris's watercraft advertising during 1998 was not so much the advertising itself as it was the swirl of events surrounding that advertising. After a 15-year relationship with Carmichael Lynch, Polaris undertook an agency review in September 1998, and after considering a number of agencies and raising much speculation regarding what its ultimate choice would be, the company selected Martin/Williams of Minneapolis. Accompanying the change of agencies would be a change of focus, with a greater emphasis on television advertising as opposed to magazines.
As to what prompted the switch, Polaris did not make any explicit statements, and the suddenness of the review seemed to catch Carmichael Lynch off guard. In any case, by early 1999 Polaris and Martin/Williams were ready for a new push and some fine tuning of strategy—though the "Ride the Best" campaign would stay. Polaris also made all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and the Victory motorcycle; advertising for both was handled by Associates and Stahl of Minneapolis and was not affected by the review.
Coupled with the changes in Polaris's advertising lineup was a continued choppiness in the world of maritime recreational equipment. On the one hand, a strong economy and the lower prices of personal watercraft compared with boats gave Polaris an advantage over boat manufacturers; on the other hand, PWC sales had not been explosive either. But things were looking up for Polaris as 1998 went on, and by the end of the year profits were looking up as well.
Around the end of World War II, Edgar Hetteen and David Johnson earned a living doing welding and repair work for neighbors and by making custom machinery for farmers in rural Minnesota. Hetteen and Johnson formed Hetteen Hoist & Derrick in Rousea, Minnesota, in 1945, and a few years later Johnson developed a gas-powered sled. The latter evolved into the snowmobile, which Hetteen Hoist & Derrick began producing under the Polaris brand name in 1954.
By the late 1950s the company—now named Polaris Industries Inc.—was selling some 300 snowmobiles a year. Eventually Hetteen left after a dispute with some of the company's investors and went on to form Arctic Enterprises (later Arctic Cat Inc.), maker of the Arctic Cat snowmobile. The latter would prove to be one of Polaris snowmobiles' most significant competitors in years to come. Meanwhile, Hetteen's brother Allan became Polaris's president, and in 1968 the company was acquired by Textron, which also owned Bell helicopters, Schaefer pens, and Talon zippers. Also in 1968 Polaris began what would turn out to be a long relationship with Fuji Heavy Industries of Japan, with an agreement whereby Fuji became the exclusive manufacturer of the engines used in Polaris snowmobiles.
Initially, Polaris had sold its snowmobiles purely as utility vehicles, which meant that its customer base was confined to persons in extremely cold northern states who could justify the expense for their work. If the company wanted to expand its customer base, it would have to begin marketing snowmobiles as recreational vehicles, which it did in the 1960s. By 1971, however, recreational snowmobile purchases had risen as high as they ever would, with Polaris selling almost 500,000 units in that year. A decade later Textron was ready to close the doors at Polaris, but company president Hal Wendel led a buyout by management.
One of Wendel's greatest contributions to the company was in the area of diversification. For a number of reasons—not least of which was the fact that people in most places could only use snowmobiles for part of the year—Wendel recognized the need to develop a supplementary product line. This appeared in 1985 in the form of the ATV, and again Polaris approached the product as a utility rather than a recreational vehicle. Soon it had become the world's No. 2 ATV maker, after Honda, and in 1991 it emerged as the leading snowmobile company.
With the introduction of personal watercraft in 1993, Polaris extended its offerings even further, and in 1994 it made an initial public offering of its stock. Three years later Polaris announced an extraordinary initiative: it would become the first American company in half a century to enter the motorcycle market. By that point all American motorcycle manufacturers with the exception of Harley-Davidson had shut down, forced out of business by cheaper and more efficient Japanese models. Nineteen ninety-eight saw the rollout of the first Victory motorcycles.
"In less than a decade," wrote Susan Feyder in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune, "personal watercraft have established a beachhead on the water sports scene." According to research conducted by the National Marine Manufacturers Association, unit sales of personal water-craft more than tripled between 1991 and 1996. By 1996, when 191,000 units were sold in the United States, PWCs made up 37 percent of all powered water-craft sold in the nation—as opposed to just 20 percent five years before.
Personal watercraft typically drew a younger buyer than did boats. This was true for several reasons, one of which was price. As Feyder noted, personal watercraft ranged from $4,000 to $8,000, whereas a boat buyer most likely would have to spend more than $10,000 to acquire a good powerboat. "With personal watercraft, you're appealing to a different kind of buyer," an industry analyst told her. "This is either someone who wouldn't buy a boat, or an existing boat owner who buys [a personal watercraft] to have one more toy."
Feyder noted the contrast between the image of the boating industry as opposed to that of personal watercraft as reflected in advertising: An ad for Genmar Wellcraft powerboats featured in the Saks Fifth Avenue Christmas catalog showed a well-heeled couple enjoying the pleasures of boating with a headline announcing "The Gift of Style." "Compare that to the way personal watercraft makers promote their products with ads picturing daredevils recklessly churning up spray and jumping waves," Feyder said. "There's the ad for the Arctic Cat Tigershark that reads, 'There's powerful. And then there's staple-the-sunglasses-to-your-head powerful.' " She went on to cite a Carmichael Lynch print ad for Polaris "featuring a rotund buyer sitting on his Polaris SL650offering this testimonial: 'Take my word for it, this thing hauls some serious butt.'"
RIDING HIGH ON LAKE TAHOE
Primarily because of the reportedly higher rate of danger associated with personal watercraft, a number of lawmakers in the United States during the 1990s sought to restrict if not ban the use of personal watercraft on public waterways. This effort reached all the way to Capitol Hill, where the House of Representatives reviewed a number of ultimately unsuccessful initiatives intended to put brakes on what some perceived as careless use of personal watercraft. Then in May 1999 the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) at Lake Tahoe, Nevada, achieved what Washington seemingly could not: as a means of protecting the lake's environment, if not for the purposes of safety, it established regulations prohibiting virtually all personal watercraft from the Lake Tahoe area.
So why would Polaris Watercraft want to announce this fact, in triumphant tones, in a May 28, 1999, news release? The TRPA prohibited virtually all models of watercraft—"except one," as Polaris proudly noted: "The new direct fuel injection system of the Polaris Genesis FFI is the only technology available that has unrestricted permanent usage rights on Lake Tahoe." According to Jim Baegte, TRPA executive director: "Lake Tahoe is a unique natural resource and national treasure. Because it is also a popular recreational destination, we must constantly search for balance so people can continue to enjoy activities such as boating without causing further harm to the sensitive environment. We are pleased that manufacturers like Polaris have responded in such a timely fashion to the call for finding that balance by developing cleaner watercraft engine technology."
Irwin Jacobs would not have found this the least bit funny. Jacobs was the owner of Genmar Holdings, makers of the Wellcraft and other boats, from the $850 Crestliner fishing boat to the $9.2 million Hatteras yacht. Typical Genmar offerings carried a five-figure price tag. "In Jacobs's mind," Feyder wrote, "the interests of the boating and personal watercraft industries are so at odds that he doesn't consider personal watercraft to be boats at all."
Quite aside from boat manufacturers such as Jacobs, Polaris had to compete with the other leaders in the personal watercraft market. Leading the pack was Bombardier Inc., a Canadian company that produced the ultra-popular Sea-Doo and enjoyed a 49 percent market share. At a distant second came Yamaha with 18 percent, followed closely by another Japanese company, Kawasaki, which held 14 percent of the market. Fourth in line, and top among American manufacturers, was Polaris, holding a 13 percent share. Far below it was its only American competitor, Arctic Cat Inc., with just 5 percent of the market. All remaining personal water-craft manufacturers made up the last 1 percent of sales.
All was not rosy in the personal watercraft category. Brunswick, a Chicago company with a $2 billion marine division that produced powerboats and engines, had flirted with the personal watercraft market in 1996 before deciding to make a retreat. "In our view, it is not a growth market," a company spokesperson told Feyder. More significant was the fact that industry leader Bombardier had been forced to make cutbacks. But Polaris and Arctic planned to maintain their production force at about the same levels as they had been the previous year.
Discussing the move by Brunswick into yachts and away from personal watercraft, investment analyst Jill Krutick of Smith Barney told Feyder: "Given the crowded field in personal watercraft and slower growth there, it's turned out to be a savvy move. You've got a potentially big market from baby boomers with wealth they've accumulated in the strong stock market." This did not stop Jacobs from sounding a sour note with regard to personal water-craft: "Through glitz and marketing they've created a glorified environment over something that is a nuisance and dangerous," he said. And Phil Keeter of the Marine Retailers Association of America, Feyder noted, was not convinced by watercraft manufacturers' claims that they were not hurting boat sales. He had seen a jump in the number of personal watercraft at the lake where he did his boating, and said, "I think they're keeping people from trading up to another boat."
In July 1999, when new agency Martin/Williams unveiled its first campaign for Polaris, Aaron Baar in Adweek described the work of Carmichael Lynch, which had lost out in the fall 1998 agency review: "Carmichael's last work for Polaris showcased its watercraft with humorous artwork and copy that stressed the benefits of the vehicle's engine." Typical of this advertising was the ad showing the overweight man and the "serious butt" caption. On the other hand, Baar wrote that Martin/Williams's campaign "addresses the bond between man and machine." In contrast to Carmichael Lynch's humorous approach, that of Martin/Williams was much more tongue-in-cheek. One constant remained, however: the tag line "Ride the Best."
In September 1998 Polaris inaugurated the agency review that led to the switch. Naomi Teske, the company's marketing communications manager, told Adweek that Polaris was undertaking the review in order to "make sure we're with the right agency." Along with the review came a change in leadership at Polaris, with Wendel stepping down to be replaced by Thomas Tiller as CEO.
According to Baar in Adweek, Polaris had sent out feelers to about a dozen agencies before cutting the number in half by late September. As for incumbent Carmichael Lynch, agency spokesman Stephen Dupont told Tim J. Johnson of Minneapolis-St. Paul City Business in early October that the agency had not been invited to take part in the review. "Until we got the word a couple days ago, we didn't know ourselves," he said regarding Polaris's final choice. As for why the company had decided to switch agencies, he said: "We're really disappointed in the decision, but we know that a lot of companies, especially ones that have worked with an agency for a long time, simply want a change. We understand that."
Perhaps another possible cause for Polaris's decision to conduct an agency review may be found in an April 6, 1998, story by Baar in Adweek. According to Baar, Carmichael Lynch was "working on undisclosed projects for Outboard Marine Corp.," a Waukegan, Illinois, company that produced boats, engines, and boating accessories. Two weeks later a Polaris news release indicated that the company had reduced its personal watercraft production as a response to a decrease in demand across the industry. In such an environment, it may have considered Carmichael Lynch's work for Outboard Marine an indication of divided loyalties.
Whatever the case, Polaris announced the choice of Martin/Williams in October 1998, and later that month Baar reported that the new agency's "first task will be to develop a campaign and collateral materials for the company's 2000 model year snowmobiles." Mike Gray of Martin/Williams told Baar, "Over the longer term, [Polaris] wants to look at what [its] brand means across all categories."
By June 1999 Delaney Report announced that "Agencies should keep an eye on Minneapolis-based Polaris Industries, which is gearing up for a big marketing offensive." The following month Polaris and Martin/Williams launched a campaign for snowmobiles and personal watercraft. Headlines of print ads read: "It's only engineering until you get on. Then it's all chemistry." The company also prepared, for the first time in several years, to run television spots.
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――――――. "Polaris Narrows List." Adweek (Midwest edition), September 28, 1998, p. 3.
――――――. "Polaris Selects M/W to Handle Its Account." Adweek (Midwest edition), October 19, 1998, p. 7.
――――――. "Man, Machine Meld for Polaris." Adweek (Midwest edition), July 12, 1999, p. 8.
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