Deciphering the Code of Motorcycle is about the ride

I sat on the wheel well in the back, facing in, my hands behind my back gripping the handrail and hanging on for dear life. The Jeep was in first gear, headed up a streambed filled with rushing water, rocks and trees. The bumpers were bucking waves, but the engine just kept chugging. Determined. Absolutely unstoppable.

Sheer joy. I was 6 years old. We were going to the swimming hole, and we were getting there in a Jeep.

That Jeep was fresh off duty in WWII, but now, instead of GIs, there were four kids in the back. My friend’s mom Blanche Cardell was at the wheel, and happy were we, with the sun, the wind and the open beauty of that remote little place called Thermalands in Northern California. It was 60 years ago, but it seems like yesterday, and I will never forget it.

And, it seems, similar moments were experienced by the people interviewed by researcher Clotaire Rapaille as he studied the typical Jeep consumer for Chrysler (in “The Culture Code”, 2006). It was the late 1990s. Jeep sales were off, and they couldn’t understand why. They had added all the things their buyers had said they wanted in a Jeep: more luxury, solid doors, enclosed rather than open, etc. But as Rapaille listened closer, he began to hear a recurring theme in the conversations: It really wasn’t about the vehicle itself; it was about the experiences people had in Jeeps.

People spoke with stories, and those stories took place in open air places where no ordinary car could go. They recalled riding free of the constraints of the road. Many people spoke of the American West, of soaring mountains, or of great expanses of sky. They talked about “hanging on” to something to keep steady — being participants in the ride, rather than just passengers. They recalled freedom. And, when asked to explain, the word that came up time after time, was horse.

The Code for Jeep was horse. That was what people really thought, hardly ever verbalized, but thought, when they were thinking of their Jeep experiences — horse.

So Rapaille went to Chrysler with his findings. He told them to take back their soft seats, their trendy colors, their butternut leather. And most important of all, get rid of those square headlights.

And the execs did it. They went back to the basics, and they replaced the square headlights with the original round ones. After all, who has ever seen a horse with square eyes?

And it worked. Doors came off, tops were down, and Jeep drivers were out in the open air again (and more importantly, even if they weren’t, they knew they could). Sales rebounded, and today there are T-shirts that actually say “Real Jeeps have Round
Headlights!”

Understanding the Code worked.

But it was different in Europe. In France and Germany the Code for Jeep emerged as liberator. Think about it. What is the iconic scene for these two countries involving Jeeps? We can all see it in our minds — John Wayne, the front seat of a Jeep, his driver on his left, pulling in to the bombed-out town, and the people pouring out, free at last from the terror of war. He gives the children chocolate, smiles, waves and drives on. So ads in Europe stressed liberation, while ads in the U.S. continue to this day to stress the individuality and freedom of movement gained on the back of a horse.

Code. It extends to every part of our lives. It is the unconscious meaning we give to any object or action in our lives. But this Code is always refracted by the prism of the culture in which we live.

Think not?

As we have seen, the Code for Jeep in the U.S. is horse, and in France and Germany, it is liberator. In France, food is seen as pleasure; in the U.S., it is treated as fuel, and in Japan it is seen as an art of perfection. Health in the U.S. is manifested through movement. In Japan, health is a personal obligation for the protection of those around you. To the Chinese, health is harmony with nature.

Whether you are selling Jeeps, food, or health, your message will be found awkwardly out of context if the Code and the culture are not considered.

So, what is the Code for Motorcycle?

“It’s not just about the bike. It’s where the bike takes you, and the joy of getting there,” says Hal Ethington.

Ask people directly, and you will never get the answers. The truth is buried deep in the subconscious thoughts that drive our lives — things we almost never verbalize directly. The truth is evident only in the ideas that are expressed in our actions and through the deep motivation for those actions.

Think about it. What do you feel when you ride a motorcycle?

First, look at the words we use: We ride a bike; we don’t drive one. We are on a bike, not in it. We don’t call it a seat; we call it a saddle. It’s like being on the horse, not in the wagon.

Now, look at how we ride them: You want to go left? You lean left. You want to go right? You lean right. You want to go faster? You lean forward (visualize yourself and think of the jockey on race horse). You want to stop? You often stiffen your elbows and push yourself away from the handlebars. Body position and knees are everything. Again, just like that jockey.

Any horse riders out there? Think about communicating with that beautiful animal you’re on. Does anything here sound familiar? Just as with our cousin the Jeep, the first American Code for Motorcycle is horse.

And there is another American Code for Motorcycle. Who of you hasn’t ever gotten on a bike and just romped on it (think: 50 Harley riders leaving a restaurant parking lot en masse)? Remember the Honda wall posters from a few years ago: huge expanses of seashore, vast mountain ranges, stretches of desert and sky that would go on forever? And there, just a tiny speck in it all, was the Gold Wing, a guy and a gal, barely visible, but there. They got it. It’s not just about the bike. It’s where the bike takes you, and the joy of getting there.

Think not? In June, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, after winning his tough recall election, said, “I’m gonna go ride my Harley all around the state of Wisconsin. Who knows where I’ll end up? I’m just getting on the motorcycle and riding.”

Again, just as with our cousin the Jeep (now manifested in its UTV persona), the second Code here for Motorcycle is liberation.

And all of these unspoken feelings are so powerful, so rewarding and so refreshing that we can communicate the thrill of it all with just a simple one-finger wave across the white line to the guy coming the other direction. He gets it too.

Pretty cool.

Think about your ads. Think about your showroom. Think about your service to your customers.

And think about Code: Horse. Liberator. That’s what your customers — no, wait, your friends — want when they come in to see you.

Enjoy what you do. Write better ads. Focus on the subtlety of the unspoken Code rather than the brashness of the shrieking price. Talk to people where they feel things, and share the goodness of it all.

Hal Ethington has been associated with the powersports industry for more than 40 years. Ethington is a senior analyst at ADP Lightspeed. Contact him at Hal.Ethington@adp.com.

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