Marketing Electric Motorcycles

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Electric motorcycle manufacturers are targeting older and well-off customers. Are they neglecting the youth market? Should they address this market with the equivalent of a Smart For Two? Here are a few thoughts on marketing electric motorcycles.

I have been buying and riding motorcycles for over 52 years and I am interested in how they are marketed to potential customers. I think most manufacturers have figured out how to do this with gas-powered IC (internal combustion) motorcycles, now that they have about 110 years of experience. But I believe all of that experience has narrowed their marketing strategy when it comes to selling the new technology of electric motorcycles. 100 years ago it was easy to sell motorcycles as everyone needed and wanted any sort of transportation that would get them off a horse, bicycle, or shoe leather. So motorcycles were seen as relatively cheap transportation, compared with an automobile at the time – until Henry Ford came to the scene and started mass producing his Model T for less than a motorcycle cost. That pretty much put an end to motorcycles as utility vehicles and basic transportation and moved them more to the side of recreation and fun vehicles for adventurous, risk-taking, (mostly) men. That forever changed the way motorcycles were marketed, at least in the United States.

It is my opinion that the current batch of production electric motorcycle companies, such as Zero and Brammo, need to rethink their marketing strategy to a certain extent. Right now it appears to me that they are aiming their products more at existing IC motorcycle owners and enthusiasts and have, of necessity, priced them to either compete with expensive European brands, or in the case of small unique hand-built EV builders, with limited custom IC motorcycle builders, such as Confederate and the like. This pretty much restricts the market to well-off, older customers that can afford to spend many thousands of dollars on several expensive motorcycles, one of which might be electric. But this market is limited by the age of the riders, many of whom have little understanding of electric-power technology (or any modern technology, for that matter – like me) and perhaps also have a limited number of years that they will be riding motorcycles of any type due to old age-related health reasons.

Reaching a younger audience
What really needs to be done is to somehow attract the younger rider, who has grown up with computers, cell phones, and other modern electric technology, who will be more comfortable with the lack of loud pipes and oil stains. Plus, using the advantage of clean, green, maintenance-free and quiet transportation should appeal to women, as well as young men who are in their teens and early twenties. These are the customers that potentially will create the foundation of the electric vehicle market for years to come. The problem of course, is that this generation will be hard pressed to afford an expensive motorcycle, unless they are single and working in the high-tech industry. And that kind of limits the market. But it is a start and prices of EV components will come down with volume production.

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The big question is how to attract them and how to convince them to fork over big bucks for an untested technology? Well, I certainly don’t have “the answer”, if for no other reason than I have way too much experience with IC motorcycles, have a minimal understanding and trust of new technology and am nearing the end of my riding career. The young people that need to be convinced to accept electric motorcycles and scooters probably don’t read enthusiast motorcycle magazines or on-line blogs and may not even be thinking about the “sport” that we love so much. What the manufacturers need to do is to find a way to interest this age group and grab their attention in a way that will not overburden their very limited marketing and advertising budgets. But how to do that?

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My thought is that electric motorcycle manufacturers should go in two directions at once. Produce a line of models for the older, established, enthusiasts, as they are doing now, in order to generate the necessary income to stay in business for the next 10 or 20 years. And then develop less expensive models that will appeal to the younger generation, which is necessary to sustain that growth. Something like the original Brammo Enertia that didn’t look so much like a traditional motorcycle, but smaller, with a lower seat and a better distribution and marketing plan. Think of this concept as a motorcycle version of the Volkswagen New Bug, or maybe a Smart For Two, something trendy, cute, non-threatening and colorful that looks bright, happy and cutting edge modern. Then show it off to the national news press, drive it around the country, take it to various seminars and groups that young people are interested in, and do whatever they need to do to make it the latest trendy thing – while hoping that the price of oil and gasoline will skyrocket, like it has in Europe.

US vs European market
Speaking of Europe, you would think that marketing electric motorcycles would be a “slam dunk” in Europe. Gas prices in most European counties are sky-high, travel distances are shorter than in the U.S., Europe tends to be more “green” than America and most Europeans are used to paying a lot for their transportation needs and are more willing to use a motorcycle or scooter as a commute vehicle. However, with the exception of BMW’s new C Evolution scooter, most of the electric motorcycle manufacturers seem to have wanted to first market their production vehicles in the U.S. and then slowly move into Europe after a few years. Perhaps that is due to regulatory reasons, or the cost of shipping bikes overseas and the problem of managing sales and service so far from the factory. But selling electric motorcycles in any volume in the U.S. is a tough row to hoe. I would think that doing so first in Europe would have been the way to go. But that wasn’t what happened.

Whatever the reason, Brammo and Zero, the only major mass-production electric motorcycle manufacturers who are selling high-performance mass-production vehicles (read not Chinese), are pitting their models directly against established premium IC motorcycles like BMW, KTM, Triumph and the fancy Italian brands, all of which have a solid customer base and retail sales network. That is a tough market and one where the customers are looking for very high-performance, good looks, ABS, traction control, computer-controlled suspension, and various other premium components not offered on the current range of electric motorcycles due to pricing considerations. That is a tough sell. Electric motorcycles can sell themselves if potential customers can get a test ride, like what Harley is doing with the LiveWire concept. (Of course they need to know how to ride first.) The problem with Harley, is that they haven’t even decided to make the bike, much less promise potential customers when they might be able to buy one – or what it will cost. Plus, the brand has a huge and rabid following that is not about to accept new technology, no matter what the initial response to the LiveWire program has been.

The importance of quality control
Finally, what electric motorcycle manufacturers really have to pay attention to is quality control. Almost no one other than the vehicle designers know how to repair them if they stop running. You can not take your electric motorcycle to your local Yamaha or Honda dealer and say please fix my bike, it won’t run. Almost no one in the established motorcycle retail industry has a clue how to repair this technology and it will take years before they can be properly trained, so it has to be 100% bullet proof, unless the manufacturer is willing to send technicians to individual customers homes or to their dealer’s shop to make repairs. You can do this for a while, but it won’t be long before that system will fall apart due to the cost in time, travel and manpower required. Plus, if electric vehicles earn a reputation for being unreliable and unrepairable after being purchased by owners, the word will get around, future sales will suffer and vehicle retail businesses will not want to sell the product. Right now the technology is not completely reliable or repairable by current internal combustion vehicle trained service technicians and that could start hurting sales – especially considering the price of the vehicle.

Electric motorcycle manufacturers need to give this matter a lot of serious thought. Sticking to the old ways of marketing motorcycles is not going to get the job done in the future. Thinking “outside the box” will be a necessity. Maybe Apple should sell an I-moto to go with their I-phone?


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2 comments for this post
  1. Henry Tate wrote the 20/09/2014

    I was lucky enough to get a ride on the Livewire project bike. I was sold. The bike was very close to perfect in every way (to noisy). The thing I was most impressed with was the throttle control, it could be ridden at very low speed with no effort (clutch throttle work). I could ride feet up at about half walking speed very easy. I AM HOOKED. I want an electric motorcycle, I don’t think it makes much difference who makes it, if it works well.

    The components for this type of machine is pretty bulletproof, as long as it can be kept cool.

    Marketing ploy, let people ride them, they will sell themselves.

    I have been riding motorcycles daily for 58 years, over a million miles so far, I’m ready for the next big thing.

    Lets not forget the efficiency of electricity, around 90 percent.

    It has to happen. Henry Tate

  2. Albert wrote the 21/09/2014

    Maybe the electric motorcycle equivalent of a Smart is an …electric scooter?

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