Polaris told investors who it was going after with its Indian Motorcycle acquisition in April 2011, flashing up a simple pie chart that showed those 39 percent of heavyweight motorcycle buyers that Polaris simply called “the die hards.”
That opportunity dwarfed the “performance enthusiast” segment it was targeting with its home-brewed Victory brand, first sold in 1998. Well, those Victory customers are on their own, as Polaris said this week it will wind down its Victory brand and put all of its attention on Indian.
So Indian Motorcycles are a big success after six years in the hands of Medina-based Polaris even as Victory goes out of business — and both were designed and built by the same company. So maybe what’s turned out to be a die hard is the Indian brand itself.
There may be no better example here in the Twin Cities of why shrewd executives breathe life into a brand that has proved to be impossible to kill rather than risk launching a new one.
There was a time when marketers didn’t quite grasp how brands could have value apart from the products themselves or the companies that produced them, according to George John, marketing professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.
Some of that brand value comes from nostalgia, often leading to products getting relaunched, John said. Yet it also can work to introduce an older brand in a new market segment if consumers hear it and think cutting-edge technology or some other desirable attribute.
“The third thing, which we kind of underplay, is sheer name recognition,” John said. “Name recognition has a huge impact, on not only our knowledge of it, but our willingness to buy the story they are selling.”
And it matters how the consumer learned the name too, said Dan Wallace, a Twin Cities speaker and co-author of “The Physics of Brand.” Before Polaris acquired the business it had been nearly 60 years since the Indian name had last been associated with a significant motorcycle manufacturer, yet Wallace keeps an Indian Motorcycle magnet on his refrigerator.
He has never even been on an Indian Motorcycle, but his grandfather in 1917 rode an Indian motorcycle out of a rural backwater in Michigan and parked it in front of the Ypsilanti house of a young woman who later married him. “That’s a powerful story,” Wallace said. “I didn’t learn about [Indian] through an ad.”
Indian got its iconic status through the original Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Co., which created enduringly popular products like its Scout and Chief cycles at its home in Massachusetts. Indian at one time was a rival of the likes of Harley-Davidson, yet a series of missteps brought the company down. It last built bikes in 1953.
Right away entrepreneurs thought of making money with the Indian brand. What followed was what one writer called a nearly 60-year period of “dreamers, money-grubbers and bad-luckers that … attempted stewardship of the Indian name.”
One of the entrepreneurs selling the dream of reviving Indian was Philip Zanghi II, whom law enforcement authorities later concluded had collected more than $800,000 from investors only to sell a few Indian T-shirts. “Maybe I’m a con man,” Zanghi told the jury in his closing arguments at his 1997 trial for fraud, acting as his own attorney. “Maybe I’m a promoter. But I brought the Indian trademark back.” The jury spent less than three hours concluding he was, indeed, a con man.
There was later a legitimate effort to build Indian cycles in California, and after yet another failure, in 2006 private equity investors decided to give it a try in North Carolina. That was the operation Polaris acquired, although it didn’t take long for Polaris to move assembly operations to Polaris facilities in Iowa.
The business Polaris acquired had booked about $11 million in annual revenue, and Polaris said from the beginning that it would take time to design and launch new products and only then would sales grow.
Polaris had a better chance to succeed reviving Indian than the other companies that had tried and failed because it wasn’t anything like them. They had barriers to entry Polaris could easily manage, with a big and sophisticated organization to efficiently design and build off-road vehicles and relationships with dealers who could sell them. That’s also what set Polaris apart from another Minnesota effort to relaunch an old motorcycle brand, the short-lived Excelsior-Henderson Motorcycle Manufacturing Co. of the 1990s.
What Polaris did not have in the 1990s, when it wanted to jump into the motorcycle market, was a proven motorcycle brand. That was a barrier, too, and it decided to risk creating its own. Sales of Victory came to not quite $10 million the year it launched, in 1998.
It’s not fair to call Victory a flop for Polaris, because its products generated good reviews. Yet even at the time of the Indian acquisition in 2011, then more than a dozen years into the Victory venture, Polaris CEO Scott Wine complained to investors that Polaris didn’t have nearly enough motorcycle dealer representation in the biggest metro areas. In fact he was hoping the Indian brand would help attract more and better dealers.
Now, nearly six years later, the Indian relaunch has gone so well that Harley-Davidson investors consider Indian a real threat. The surging popularity of Indian boosted sales of motorcycles and related accessories from about 7 percent of Polaris’ revenue in 2013 to 18 percent for the first three quarters of 2016.
There weren’t enough Victory cycles sold to produce a profit in three out of the last five years, according to a company spokesperson. Of about $700 million in motorcycle segment sales for 2015, only about $140 million were Victory models.
Polaris will incur costs winding down Victory, yet a spokesperson indicated there will be no job losses other than a cutback of temporary workers and some unfilled vacancies, as other staff will be reassigned to the growing Indian business. All of which suggests that while the Victory motorcycle quietly dies, the iconic American brand of Indian Motorcycle is more alive than ever.