By Neil Pascale
The statistic registering black consumers’ impact on U.S. sport bike sales is either an industry sore spot or a reason to cheer.
Blacks made up 11.3 percent of new sport bike sales in 2006, representing the only minority category to reach double digits in the ethnicity findings of the latest J.D. Power and Associates new bike buyer survey.
The survey, as it has for the past nine years, shows an industry end-user with an overwhelmingly white face. So much so that the black, Hispanic and Asian end-users, combined, represent less than 10 percent of the average new motorcycle consumer.
That’s why the 11.3 percent statistic is so telling — it represents progress for the industry within one racial demographic in one bike segment. But it also reveals a gaping hole in the industry’s sales portfolio, one that in many segments is 90 percent or more white.
As the industry’s overall new unit sales flatten — the Motorcycle Industry Council reported overall annual sales fell in 2006 for the first time in at least six years — “we need to be very proactive in reaching all the customers that we can,” said Bob Starr, Yamaha Motor Corp.’s communications manager.
Although Starr was referring to Yamaha, he could’ve been talking about the entire industry. In fact, that message of opportunity that the relatively untapped minority consumer groups carry was repeated by several industry officials.
Still, of the five major powersports manufacturers contacted for this article, only Harley-Davidson indicated it has significantly increased its marketing to the Black and Hispanic communities during the past few years.
A larger picture
To understand how much the new bike buyer pendulum swings toward the white consumer, it’s best to look at the United States’ overall racial demographics. Unfortunately, the latest census data provided by the federal government isn’t as clear-cut as the J.D. Power information. Whereas J.D. Power provides one ethnicity question, the 2005 American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, has several. One of the racial questions profiles a person’s “one race” and a separate category charts the number of Hispanic/Latinos. The “one race” category reveals the nation is made up of nearly 75 percent white, 12 percent black, 4 percent Asian and 6 percent of “some other race.” The separate Hispanic/Latino category shows that population at 14.5 percent.
That picture of the nation’s minority population is not mirrored by the new bike buyer data, however. In fact, it’s not even close.
For all motorcycle segments, the Hispanic and black populations each make up 4 percent, numbers that have nudged only slightly upward from five years ago. The Asian percentage of 1.1 percent also has shown little movement during the past five years.
The percentage of white buyers for all motorcycle segments is nearly 89 percent.
How indicative the J.D. Power statistics are of the industry’s consumers is debatable.
Both H-D and Suzuki said the J.D. Power ethnicity ratios are similar to their own, with Suzuki reporting its new bike buyers being 84 percent white, according to a 2006 survey.
Honda and Kawasaki could not provide data, and Yamaha’s Starr believes the J.D. Power minority buyer findings “are understated in some regard. I think there is a broader diversity of ethnicity in the motorcycle market than one would believe.”
What is widely accepted by manufacturers is that sport bikes have been the industry’s best link to minority consumers. The J.D. Power numbers back that up, as the black and Asian percentages are nearly three times higher than the overall new bike buyer numbers. Plus, the percentage of Hispanic consumers (7 percent) is nearly twice the overall number.
Still, the consumer for the largest street segment, cruisers, remains overwhelmingly white, at nearly 92 percent.
How powersports manufacturers are reaching out to minority buyers via marketing varies. H-D has a specific marketing plan, while others, like Suzuki and Kawasaki, are using high-profile racers as connections to different groups.
“We do have a variety of efforts going on to reach more diverse audiences and it is extremely important to us,” said Rebecca Bortner, a manager in H-D’s communications department.
Bortner said the company’s marketing efforts toward blacks and Hispanics has increased significantly during the past few years via different event, public relation and marketing strategies.
While Bortner could not detail H-D’s specific marketing plans, she said the company seeks “to be in the right places at the right time,” both physically, by attending culturally relevant events, and through different media, in appropriate advertising.
Honda’s John Row, the company’s manager of its motorcycle press, said Honda has at times run ad campaigns “directed at groups with higher minority purchase potential.”
He also said the company has found “some groups or cultures might need more assistance at the dealer level with feeling invited or welcome,” noting dealers with ethnic or bilingual sales staff have fared better than their competitors in some markets.
Yamaha’s Starr said the company recently at Daytona completed a new TV commercial for the R1 and R6 “that takes a different direction than we have in the past with a little more of this diversity of the customer in mind.
“We are looking very closely at all the ways that we reach our buyers,” he said, “whether it’s media or events or as the customer has contact at the dealership and trying to refine our ways to reach this new, broader audience.”
One part of Kawasaki’s marketing approach to reaching a broader audience is using black drag racer Rickey Gadson in its “Go Green” TV commercials that are airing on ESPN and other networks.
Gadson also played a big role in Kawasaki’s Daytona festivities, said Bruce Stjernstrom, the director of marketing for Kawasaki Motor Corp. USA.
“I was just marveling at what a great spokesperson (Gadson) is, not only for our company but just in general,” Stjernstrom said after watching Gadson interact with riders at Daytona. “He has introduced us to the African-American market in a number of different ways through some trade shows and different opportunities.”
Suzuki also has been a strong supporter of drag racing, which is popular among some minority groups, “but we don’t do that to target a certain race,” said Glenn Hansen, Suzuki’s communication manager.
“We have products that minorities seem to like and that’s evidenced by our profile data that shows our highest numbers of minority ownership among the GSX-R and Hayabusa product line.”
Whether the industry can transfer the success it has had in the sport bike arena to its other market areas, including its largest segment cruisers, remains to be seen.
But as Yamaha’s Starr said, “we realize there is a tremendous opportunity” with the minority consumer groups.