An Interview With Tom Orbe of Kawasaki

EDITOR’S NOTE: This month, Kawasaki’s vice president of marketing, Tom Orbe, celebrates his one-year anniversary working for the Japanese powersports manufacturer. When Orbe came on board on Jan. 20, 2003, one of the first changes he made in the marketing department was to consolidate all of the powersports segments (ATV, motorcycle, watercraft, and snowmobile) under one marketing umbrella.
Previously, each entity operated independently of one another. With a more cohesive foundation, Orbe set forth bringing about subtle yet noticeable changes to Kawasaki’s marketing and advertising campaigns.
His ideas and strategies are gleaned from 25 years of experience working in the management and marketing side of the automotive industry. Orbe spent 19 years at Nissan working his way up to vice president and general manager of the Infiniti Division, a position he held for three years.

He also worked in various sales and marketing positions at Ford Motor Company. Orbe has a track record of turning struggling areas of a company into profit making centers. He was recognized by J.D. Power and Associates in 1999 as one of the Top 50 marketing people in the U.S. for his one-on-one marketing programs.

Contributing Writer Genevieve Schmitt talked with Orbe about his plans to build Kawasaki’s marketing efforts. The transcript of this conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

PSB: What attracted you to this position?
Orbe: What interested me is this industry. It’s an enthusiast’s industry. The products are dynamic. Kawasaki has been a stalwart in the industry for many years. A lot of longevity and strength are there. And the people I’ve met along the way, well, I’ve really enjoyed the discussions we had—their enthusiasm. That was the main thing. I wanted to work in a team environment, people who like working together and who like the product. That’s what I found here. Good people and an enthusiast product.

PSB: Are you a motorcyclist?
ORBE: When I was 10 years old I actually built a motorbike. I took a lawnmower engine and put it on a bike and went wild through the woods. Then when I was 13, I moved to Florida and bought a small 150cc motorcycle. I rode it for a couple years when I was down there, and then stopped.

When I joined Kawasaki I went though the motorcycle school and got my license and now I’m back out on the road again. It’s good to be back on a bike. I’ve ridden all our products.

That’s one thing I felt strongly about with marketing. There are two fundamentals: you really need to know the product and you really need to know the consumer. I’ve ridden all the products; I now have a Vulcan parked in my garage. You could say I’m an enthusiast in progress.

PSB: What is the biggest challenge in your position and how are you meeting it?
ORBE: The biggest challenge is to ensure that we have products that are the leading edge in performance and design, having products that consumers are really excited to find out about.

And we also have to ensure we have a clear and focused message in the marketplace. We really need to be able to communicate effectively to consumers who we are. A requirement to that is that within the company we have to know who we are and what we stand for and what we want to represent in the marketplace.

We also want to have a product that is aesthetically pleasing to the consumer, but also emotionally pleasing to the consumer. Performance, power and exhilaration. That’s what we’re all about.

PSB: Are these new ideas that you’ve brought to the company or are you building upon what was already started?
ORBE: We are just building on the fundamentals of the company. The heritage of the company is performance, design and leadership in certain categories.

One thing we’re doing in advertising is that all of our communication and the marketing we do will have a common feel, texture and tone to it. So whether we’re advertising a Jet Ski or a dirtbike or a cruiser, you will notice by the feel and look that this message is coming from Kawasaki.


PSB: So, the message is a lot more cohesive between the different powersports divisions.
ORBE: Yes, very cohesive. And that not only applies to what we’re doing in print, but for television and extends through direct mail, our brochures, and our consumer event displays. Everything we do, from license plate brackets to television advertising, will all look and feel the same way and will be a depiction of our product very prominently. So the product will be big, bold, and in your face.

PSB: Without giving away any proprietary information tell us what we might expect from Kawasaki on the dealer side and on the consumer side.
ORBE: They’ll see the product very prominent. We have different filters we run things through. We say everything we do is big, bold, and in your face. Is the message clear that we’re all about power, performance and exhilaration? That’s the focus.

What we want to do is basically connect with the consumer on a one-to-one basis. So we’ll be doing a lot of direct marketing one on one. We’ll be taking some venues that we have and enhancing them, such as our consumer events. We do a lot of consumer events so we want to make a connection with the consumer at these events.

We’ll be enhancing our Team Green activity and making more of a connection with our consumers and dealers with that. We’re also looking at ways to bring consumers into the dealerships, particularly on new product launches, where they’re coming in and saying, “Hey, I heard something new is coming out from Kawasaki and I want to take a look.”

The other filter we’re passing everything through is, “How does it play on the retail floor?” Kind of stealing a line, “How does it play on Broadway?”

It’s all about what happens when the consumer walks into the dealership. So our incentive programs, our point-of-purchase materials in terms of information for the consumer, it all has to play on the retail floor so the dealer sees it as an enhancement to the process of what happens in the showroom.

Our role is drive traffic to the dealer with our marketing message and then once the consumer is in the dealership help the dealer connect with the consumer as easily as possible.

PSB: What other changes and/or new marketing ideas will we be seeing from Kawasaki in 2004?
ORBE: In each segment we want a leadership product. For example with the cruiser, we have the Vulcan 2000. That’s really a leadership product, not only in our lineup, but in the industry. It makes a statement.

So in each segment our design is to make a leadership product, make a statement in the industry and to the consumer and have them say, “Hey, something pretty terrific is going on with Kawasaki. Let’s go down to the dealership and take a look.”

So, like with the 2000, they may not want a bike that big. The may say, “Well, the 1600 is fine.” But the 2000 will be an enticement for them to come down, take a look and see some of the other cruisers we have. That’s kind of fundamental to our strategy, what we’re going to be doing in 2004 and 2005 and in the years to come.

PSB: What is your view of the powersports industry for 2004?
ORBE: Overall we see the industry growing. All our projections point to growth in the industry. We’re looking at growth for ourselves. 2003 will be, in total, our best sales year ever. And we see overall growth for the industry continuing pretty strongly over the next several years. So our outlook is very, very optimistic particularly with the economy recovering and people having more money to spend, consumer confidence. We couldn’t ask for a better, brighter outlook.

PSB: When it comes to marketing and promotion, how are the automotive and powersports industries similar? Are you planning to implement some of your successful ideas into marketing Kawasaki’s products? If so, what can we expect to see in the near future?
ORBE: They’re very similar. I had the fortunate opportunity to be involved with both the luxury side and the regular car side so I was able to see the enthusiast side of the business — people who can have everything. You have to appeal to them.

It’s analogous to our industry in that our products are not necessities. They’re truly enthusiast products that people purchase solely for their enjoyment, not really out of need. There’s a slight exception with, let’s say, our Mule, our utility vehicle. That is need-oriented.

But all in all, our products are an enthusiast product. In a way it’s a luxury product. The key to why they’re so similar is that it’s all about knowing the consumer. The similarities are, if you can get into the head of the consumer and know what they want and anticipate their needs, that’s where success lies both in product development and in your marketing.

The way we develop product with the timeline, the research, are very similar to the automotive business.

Another similarity is the automotive industry works through a dealer network, a franchise system. So knowing how the dealers’ business works was very important to coming over here.

PSB: So, this job is a pretty good fit for you.
ORBE: It’s an excellent fit. The other thing is I worked for a Japanese manufacturer so knowing the intricacies, the necessities for good communication between the parent company and here, and how the manufacturing works. I had extensive background with working with distribution and the plants, and communicating at the high levels of the parent company. That experience really lent itself well to coming over here.

PSB: Describe your marketing style?
ORBE: Fundamentally, my marketing style is to have an integrated marketing approach where we don’t have walls or divisions or different departments. Because, from the consumer point of view, we’re Kawasaki, We’re not Kawasaki the P.R. department. We’re not Kawasaki, the advertising group. My approach is a very integrated approach; when we meet, it’s each area working together to see how all the elements tie together and leverage the resources that we have.

PSB: What are your biggest marketing successes and your failures?
ORBE: I’d say some of my biggest successes came from some of my biggest failures. When I came to Kawasaki I said to the staff the benefit I have is that I was involved in some things that just didn’t work. I saw how things didn’t work out and how they were supposed to work. You have to have some missteps in order to know what the right moves are. That’s what we say around here. Let’s take a risk. Let’s fail once in awhile. Let’s make mistakes because that means we’re pushing out a bit. So what you learn by failure, you learn how to do it right the next time. You know in what direction to push and that gives you confidence.

PSB: Describe Tom Orbe in 25 words or less.
ORBE: I would say aggressive decision maker, team builder, very dealer oriented, retail oriented. I am an advocate for dealers and an advocate for consumers.

PSB: What’s your involvement with the Kawasaki/ Suzuki alliance? Give us an update.
ORBE: We share product development so my involvement is in terms of having alliance products and marketing them with the Kawasaki imprint on them. From what I have observed and experienced, it is a very good relationship that works out well for both sides and works out well for the consumer. The consumer has the convenience of having a more expansive lineup on both sides of the fence so it works well for them and with the dealers. It’s kind of win/ win where you can share development and expand your product line for both brands.

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