Bikes, Brands & Badges: What’s In A Name?

Can an existing motorcycle under another name sell as well or better?

Rebadged Brammo eBikes represent Victory’s ambitious attempt at reinventing its brand identity.©Motorcyclist

Let’s be clear: Neither “badge” nor “brand” engineering are actually “engineering” as we commonly understand that term. Both activities center on marketing, psychology, and perception—not inventing, designing, or building anything new. Both are just strategies to sell more product by altering or modifying how the buyer perceives that product.

Badge engineering is easy to explain: Take an existing product that has one company's name on it and put another company's name on it to create a new product for the latter company to sell. The first badge-engineered bikes I encountered were "Indian" motorcycles of the '50s and '60s that were re-badged Royal Enfields, Velocettes, and even Italjet minibikes. A few years later, the ironically named American Eagle company badge engineered various British motocross bikes and even some Italian Laverdas.

This summer we witnessed two contemporary examples of badge engineering, both from Polaris' Victory brand. That firm competed at the Isle of Man TT with a rebadged Brammo Empulse R electric roadracer and at the Pike's Peak hill climb using what appeared to be heavily modified, liquid-cooled Indian engine technology mounted in a custom roadrace chassis. Since Polaris owns Victory, Brammo, and Indian, these badge-engineering examples are all in the family and presumably a quick and effective way to radically alter and expand the customer perception of the formerly all-cruiser Victory brand.

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Brand engineering is something entirely different, though it still seeks to manipulate marketing, psychology, and perception. Examples from the automotive industry are informative here. In the late ’80s, the three largest Japanese automakers—Toyota, Nissan, and Honda—each decided to enter the luxury-car market by creating new brands in an effort to distinguish (or, in some cases, to distance) the new products from their previous efforts. So Toyota created Lexus, Nissan launched Infiniti, and Honda added the Acura nameplate. New dealerships were even established to further distance the new brands from the old, so in many cases the Lexus buyer might never encounter the name Toyota. This is brand engineering.

We see something similar in the motorcycle cruiser marketplace, where Yamaha has rebranded its cruiser line as Star Motorcycles, and Suzuki’s cruiser bikes are all called Boulevards. Yamaha even goes so far as to maintain an entirely separate web presence for the Star product (Boulevards are still featured on the suzukicycles.com site), though you won’t find the word Suzuki anywhere on any Boulevard bike, nor will you see anything labeled Yamaha on a Star machine. One crucial difference from the automotive examples above is that there is no real option of having stand-alone Star or Boulevard dealers, but since most dealerships carry several brands, over time Star and Boulevard will likely be considered stand-alone brands in the minds of many buyers.

Another relevant and recent example of motorcycle brand engineering is Ducati’s efforts with the Scrambler name in an attempt to appeal to younger buyers and, at the same time, to establish a nostalgic connection to an older, simpler Ducati model. The more prominent name on the tank is Scrambler, with the word Ducati only appearing in very small letters below. Looking at the motorcycle alone it’s obviously a new Ducati model, but Ducati’s marketing department is clearly pushing to make Scrambler a kind of brand within a brand, much like what Yamaha intends for the Star name. It will be interesting to watch how the Scrambler brand evolves.

Shakespeare once asked, “What’s in a name?” Would a motorcycle under another name sell just as well or better? Would an existing motorcycle given a new name transform the fortunes of the new company? Would image-conscious enthusiasts who wouldn’t normally consider buying a bike from a Japanese—or Chinese, or Indian, or Russian—manufacturer buy an identical machine only with a more neutral name? Badge and brand engineering are attempts to answer these questions.

James Parker designed his first original motorcycle in 1971; his most recent design is the Mission R electric superbike. In between, he worked on multiple other motorcycle projects, including 30 years spent evolving the RADD front suspension system used on the Yamaha GTS1000 and various other prototypes.