Lessons in Brand (Mis)management: Why You Should Be Watching Indian Motorcycle
What’s happening at Indian Motorcycle is a cautionary tale for all brand managers.
I’ve had some bad job interviews. I think the worst happened when I was home from college and showed up at a Southwest Airlines job fair to see if I could get hired on as a baggage handler for the summer. I walked up to a table Southwest had set up to direct traffic and asked a positively-beaming woman there what time the interviews were for baggage handlers. She told me they weren’t for another hour, but they were doing interviews for flight attendants right now and would I like to maybe interview? What happened immediately after that still isn’t totally clear, but I must have said something like, “Sure, I’d love to interview for a career-track job even though I’m totally unprepared and I’ll also be back at school in a few months.” What I do remember very clearly is walking through a door a few feet away and finding myself 10 seconds from the start of a group interview with 20 super prepared, super energetic women who were gunning to be Southwest flight attendants. They sang songs, recited poetry and performed dances in an attempt to out-cheerful one another while I dribbled out one unprepared, humiliating answer after another in front of all these people. It was awful. I ended up getting a summer job servicing swimming pools. This mostly consisted of waking up at 3:45 AM and spending the day breathing in chlorine gas and fending off black widow spiders and ferocious dogs, which I was happy to do since it didn’t involve any group interviews with Southwest Airlines.
My encore came in 2012 when I interviewed for a marketing position at Indian Motorcycle. Polaris had recently acquired Indian and I was excited for the brand because I thought here — at long last — was a company with the resources and engineering smarts to finally make Indian successful again. I love motorcycles and have an affinity for Indian. At the time, I was working for a large consumer goods company where the marketing team were general managers for their brands — we were involved in pretty much everything, including product development and manufacturing decisions. Coming from this, I thought a marketing role at Polaris would naturally involve helping determine what the product was going to be. I spent most of the interview sharing my thoughts on the Indian brand and what a new line of Indian motorcycles would look like. I guess I should have read the job description more carefully because it became clear this was purely a marketing communications job with no real opportunity to influence product development; those decisions had already been made.
I didn’t get the job and the recruiter’s feedback was that I came across as “arrogant.” I guess it’d be easy to think that; I spent much of the interview advocating for something (a) about which Polaris didn’t want my input in the first place and (b) was the exact opposite of what Polaris had already, stupidly, decided to do. Plus, I probably was/am arrogant.
I was disappointed to be passed over, of course, but I was mostly disheartened because I really wanted to see Indian become a company of performance motorcycles designed, engineered and built in America. I wanted Indian to become America’s answer to motorcycle offerings from the Japanese and European brands. Since that interview five years ago, I’ve watched with disappointment as Indian Motorcycle continues down a path that seems totally logical to anyone who hasn’t taken the time or thought deeply enough to really understand what Indian Motorcycle is all about — including the leaders at Polaris who set the initial product strategy for Indian.
A Cautionary Tale
What’s happening at Indian Motorcycle is a cautionary tale for all brand managers. It perfectly illustrates that how well you understand (or misunderstand) your brand affects nearly every decision you make as a company — especially decisions about product. Getting it wrong early on is especially dangerous, because the better Polaris executes its flawed strategy for Indian, the more difficult it is for them to change course. Good execution of a bad strategy is often the last thing you want, since it has the potential to carry you very far, very fast in the wrong direction.
A brand is powerful because, once people at a company truly, deeply understand the brand, all the other decisions they need to make — about product, marketing and advertising, target market selection, customer service, pricing and promotion, hiring, culture and even supply chain and finance — become quite clear and intuitive. This is a double-edged sword, however — imagine the company that truly, deeply misunderstands its brand. That company is going to make a lot of face-palm-worthy decisions — and they’re going to do it very confidently.
What Polaris should be doing with Indian is simple with a correct understanding of the brand and a resolve to be true to Indian’s heritage. The saddest thing about Indian is that the team at Polaris clearly can execute; they’re just executing the wrong thing. Indian’s success so far has been the worst kind of success because it has kept Polaris focused on continuing with their current strategy for Indian — one that at best will never allow Indian to achieve its full potential as a motorcycle brand, and at worst is just delaying (yet another) failure for the brand.
Why is the Indian brand still around today, anyway? Indian hasn’t come out with a new motorcycle design that has been a competitive success since before 1931 (when Charles Franklin, the last guy at Indian who could design a bike, left the company). Indian was successful for its first 30 years before falling into an 80+ year losing streak. Think about it: if you were an 18-year old kid and you bought a new Indian motorcycle in the early 1930s (unlikely, but stay with me), you would have already celebrated your 100th birthday. This means there’s hardly a person alive today who can remember Indian being a formative player in the motorcycle industry. In its history, no fewer than 13 different companies have produced — or attempted, but subsequently failed, to produce — Indian-branded motorcycles. Polaris is still trying, of course, but all the others failed. The fact that the Indian brand has endured all these years is an incredible testament to how we feel about whatever Indian stands for. That is the power of the Indian brand.
And yet here is Polaris, doing basically what every other company that has attempted to revive Indian tried — and failed — to do. Only Polaris is doing it with more resources.
What Polaris Got Wrong About Indian Motorcycle
In the minds of most people, Indian is inextricably linked with Harley-Davidson. Understanding why the two brands are connected is key to understanding Indian’s place in today’s motorcycle market — more on that later. People also tend to think about Indian in terms of the flagship Chief models — big, showy bikes with huge fenders, tons of chrome and more leather fringe than a fur trapper’s convention. Unfortunately, by the time Indian was producing those Chief models, the brand was already a goner — like a washed-up Hollywood star with a few too many cosmetic surgeries gone awfully wrong. There is no way to understand the power and value of the Indian brand by looking at anything produced by Indian post-WWII. In fact, you really can’t look at anything launched after about 1931, when racer-turned-designer Charles Franklin took a leave of absence from Indian for health reasons (it didn’t work; he died the following year).
This brings us to Harley-Davidson. The Indian Motorcycle of founders George Hendee and Oscar Hedstrom, and of designer Charles Franklin, was always an engineering company. In today’s motorcycle terminology, Indian made bikes for the supersport and other performance-oriented segments. This is the Indian of 1901–1931, the Indian founded by two bicycle racers, the Indian of board track racing, the Indian that held every American speed and distance record, the Indian of Brooklands, the Isle of Man TT and the Belgian Grand Prix, the Indian that introduced us to “Cannon Ball” Baker and that gave us the Scout. The reason why Indian and Harley-Davidson were fierce rivals is because they just happened to be competing in the same space — high performance street and racing motorcycles.
After Charles Franklin’s death, Harley-Davidson began putting distance between itself and Indian. When the U.S. entered WWII, America and its allies awarded military contracts to Harley-Davidson over Indian in overwhelming numbers, pretty much spelling the end of Indian’s ability to compete with Harley-Davidson. Indian’s fate was sealed when returning American servicemen sought to purchase the Harley-Davidson motorcycles they had come to know and love during the war. Regardless of any pre-war loyalties, it was Harley-Davidson, not Indian, that helped win the war. Game over.
Ever since, people have thought of Indian in overly-simplistic terms as the competitor to Harley-Davidson. This isn’t true; Indian was a rival to Harley-Davidson back when Harley-Davidson was an engineering-focused company devoted to making high performance motorcycles. But decades ago Harley-Davidson moved into the cruiser market and is now as much a lifestyle brand as it is a motorcycle company. For Indian to simply follow Harley-Davidson, lemming-like, into its current segment and compete head-on is insanity. If you believe 1901–1931 is all that matters for Indian, then there is simply no heritage-based justification for Indian to be in the cruiser segment, regardless of what its erstwhile rival, Harley-Davidson, has chosen to do. If the Yankees gave up baseball to become the dominant force in international cricket, would the Red Sox do the same? If Airbus decided to put all its R&D into designing and manufacturing luxury yachts, would Boeing follow? Duh. Yet this is exactly what Indian has been doing unsuccessfully for decades — and what Polaris is attempting yet again.
Furthermore, one of the reasons why following Harley-Davidson is especially troublesome for Indian is that its parent, Polaris, is at its core an engineering company. Polaris’s strengths are not in creating “lifestyle” or “image” products, or products known primarily for their beautiful design. Not only is the cruiser segment wrong for the Indian brand, it’s wrong for Polaris, too.
Sacrificing the Brand on the Altar of Laziness?
This leads me to the only possible thing — besides not understanding the Indian brand — that could ever lead a company like publicly-traded Polaris to produce a line of bloated, chrome-and-leather-adorned cruisers with a median weight of 835 lbs. (i.e. the antithesis of what Indian should be). That, of course, is the short-term pursuit of profit.
I’m sure the executives at Polaris did the market analysis and knew that one in two motorcycles sold in the United States today is a Harley-Davidson and that the company basically has no significant competition in the cruiser segment. I’m sure the thinking at Polaris was they could come in with a superior product and just clean up. I mean, surely there’s a huge contingent of AARP members just pining for an American alternative to Harley-Davidson, right? Never mind that Polaris’s now-euthanized Victory brand was failing miserably at being exactly that — Polaris just needed a brand with more “heritage,” the thinking probably went.
As a direct competitor and alternative to Harley-Davidson, Indian is making inroads — in terms of both sales and favorable product comparisons with Harley-Davidson. But the problem is that a significant percentage of Indian and Harley-Davidson’s core demographic is — how should I say this? — one bad flu season away from going extinct. The United States motorcycle market, while cruiser-heavy at present, will shift as older riders stop riding and younger ones (fingers crossed) take their place. Where will this leave Indian?
This might be overly generous toward the executives at Polaris leading Indian, but it’s possible they actually understand that 1901–1931 is the only period that matters when it comes to Indian’s real heritage. After all, Indian’s website includes a detailed history of the brand with many references to racing victories and you can buy tons of racing- and speed-themed Indian apparel in their online store. Maybe they’ve just chosen to go along with the prevailing “Indian will always compete with Harley-Davidson” thinking because they believe the bigger market opportunity is in the cruiser segment — never mind Indian’s true heritage and the opportunity to become a real player in the motorcycle industry. Said another way, they’ve determined it’s financially advantageous and much less work — in the near term, at least — to betray Indian’s heritage and do what’s easiest. It seems schizophrenic to me that Polaris talks up Indian’s illustrious racing past to market a line of ponderous, two-wheeled barges, but what do I know?
(Well, for starters, I know that Indian’s current product line is at total odds with its illustrious heritage and sometimes even with Polaris’s own messaging for Indian. It might help if they fully acknowledged the problem and just rebranded as Bipolaris.)
What Indian Did — and What They Should Be Doing
It doesn’t really matter much whether Polaris’s decisions regarding Indian are born of (a) ignorance or (b) sloth and insincerity. Either way, they’d end up doing exactly what they did — and are doing — in launching and marketing new Indian motorcycles. Things like:
- Relaunch the Chief before the Scout *[cough] the bike that is truer to Indian’s heritage [cough]* — and do it at Sturgis, of course!
- Sell apparel that says “World’s Fastest” while ignoring the obvious irony that their bikes weigh 800 lbs.
- Relaunch the Scout by playing up its racing pedigree, but not actually producing anything remotely race-able. At 555 lbs., even the “svelte-for-Indian” Scout 60 is a fatty compared to any standard naked bike.
- As part of the Scout launch campaign, feature dudes with long beards doing “Wall of Death” daredevil stunts on the new Scout. Back in the day, stunt riders chose the Scout because it was an exceptionally-competent performance bike taken from the racing world and adapted to their needs. Stunt riding was never the Scout’s true intent or highest expression of how good a bike it was, so why feature the “Wall of Death” in the launch campaign? And besides an event for Indian or a scenario involving a sponsored rider, would any stunt rider today actually choose the current Indian Scout? No, that would be silly.
- Announce with great fanfare that Indian is entering flat track racing (which hardly anybody watches) with a bike that isn’t related to any current products because, you know, Harley-Davidson races flat track so that’s where Indian needs to be.
- Of course, be sure to always use cubic inches instead of cubic centimeters for Indian’s engine displacement figures, because that’s American and it’s what Harley-Davidson (sometimes) does. Never mind that the rest of the motorcycle industry uses cubic centimeters and the entire auto industry, including the Detroit Three, quotes engine displacement in liters.
It all makes perfect sense. Unless you’re George Hendee, Oscar Hedstrom, Charles Franklin or anyone today who is actually paying attention — then it makes no sense at all!
Instead, here’s what Polaris should have done/be doing:
- Launch the Scout first. Make it a standard naked bike that competes with bikes from the likes of Yamaha, Ducati, BMW, Aprilia and Triumph. Make it light. Focus on handling. Launch it in blue and let everyone know the first Indian motorcycles were blue or black; red didn’t come along until later.
- Focus on performance, like Indian would. The motorcycle industry can be slow to innovate. Establish a position in the market for being on the leading edge of innovation in terms of powertrain advancements (including electric), lightweight materials, innovative designs and safety advances. It’s what George, Oscar and Charles would do.
- Have a clear product roadmap for other segments — like supersport, adventure touring, enduro — and a bonkers supermoto just for fun.
- If Indian is going to race, do it in a series with international appeal since motorcycle racing in the United States is struggling and Indian’s true target customers (if they’re watching racing at all) are following MotoGP, WSBK, the Isle of Man TT, etc. Don’t do MotoGP or WSBK (too costly), but do consider returning to the Isle of Man TT.
- After Indian launches an enduro bike, enter the Dakar. Except show up in Paris for the start because “we’ve been away awhile and didn’t get the memo about the change in venue.” Ride to Dakar, Senegal anyway. Film the whole thing, have fun doing it and bask in all the positive brand impressions.
- Rent the Interstate highway system from New York to Redondo Beach and shatter the motorcycle record for the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash by several hours. If that’s not realistic (hint — it isn’t), a well-coordinated, independent team could break the current record without the need to close roads or expose Indian Motorcycle to any legal liability. This is in the spirit of Indian Motorcycle much more so than recreating the original “Cannon Ball” Baker run with a heavily-modified Chief over 11 days, which Polaris actually did in 2014 (dumb). “Cannon Ball” Baker wouldn’t have wanted that; he’d have wanted them to go fast and break the record on a modern, sporty Indian. Except Indian didn’t have one of those…
- Focus on the next generation of motorcyclists, including women riders and people who don’t yet ride but who should. Design bikes around commuting and the practicality of motorcycles as transportation, in addition to the fun, adventure and freedom.
- Be public about Indian’s support for lane splitting and other motorcycle-friendly laws. Use Polaris’s resources and influence to help make it happen. Be visible, while other manufacturers watch from the sidelines.
- Harley who?
If Polaris embraces what Indian Motorcycle truly stands for, the brand — after 85 years of futility — will finally be on its way to becoming the modern American performance motorcycle company we’ve been waiting for. It’s up to Polaris, but whatever they decide, Indian Motorcycle will be worth watching as a case study of what to do — or not do — when it comes to being true to your brand.