Drawing the Line - Motorcycle Marketing Maneuvers

Drawing The Line

We've followed the development of the BMW S1000RR for a couple years now, and in the last few months the results have become clear: This new superbike is a fully competent, fully competitive entry in the class. Racing success has so far eluded the factory World Superbike team, but Troy Corser led both of the most recent races in Assen, Holland, and podium places can't be long in coming.

The S1000RR project, as interesting as it is technically, is even more intriguing as a change in marketing direction for BMW. The revitalized German company has made clear that no potentially profitable market segment is "off the table." No motorcycle category will be deemed the exclusive property of the Japanese, American or other manufacturers. Will BMW re-enter the cruiser market after its lackluster results with the R1200C? I wouldn't be surprised after seeing the dramatically focused effort put into the S1000RR.

On the flip side, other manufacturers are drawing a bead on BMW's market share. The R1200GS (and its Adventure variant) has long been the company's best-selling model. Introduced in 2004, sales of the bike passed 100,000 units in '07 and recently topped the 200,000 mark. Numbers like that have certainly gotten the industry's attention, and there are competitors. But the GS remains unique in that it is perceived to be an ultimate expression of the do-everything motorcycle and, at the same time, technically sophisticated with its Telelever front suspension, Paralever rear, anti-lock brakes, traction control, electronically adjustable suspension, etc. It's the flagship adventure bike.

In '03 Ducati came out with its Multistrada (meaning "Many Roads"), taking aim on the R1200GS's predecessor, the R1150GS. The Ducati was competent but flawed in detail. In '04, when the heavier and less powerful 1150 was replaced by the 1200 and GS sales began to take off, the Multi struggled in its wake. The Ducati was more compact, slender and lighter than the Beemer, but the air-cooled V-twin's power was no match for the Boxer's. With part of the Multi's fuel load under its seat, the padding was too thin for comfort, an area in which the GS excelled. The styling of both bikes is an acquired taste, but the BMW was rarely criticized while the Ducati attracted more than its fair share of detractors.

We've just seen the first tests of the new-for-2010 Multistrada 1200, and it's obvious that Ducati's designers and marketing planners have taken another good, long look at the GS. The power of the Multi's liquid-cooled, 1198cc Testastretta engine leap-frogs the four-cam 2010 BMW R1200GS by 20 horsepower, topping out at 130 bhp. The wheelbase has grown almost 3 inches to just over 60-an inch longer than the BMW's 59.3. Comfort has been a focus of the design group, and styling has been dramatically re-drawn. Not everyone likes the "beak" extending from the fairing nose that combines the look of a dirtbike fender with ram-air intakes, but the overall response has been positive.

Added to that newfound power is, on the S-model at least, a full suite of electronic aids. ABS, TC and ESA are all changed in concert by choosing one of four modes: Sport, Touring, Urban or Enduro. Best of all, it all works, and works well, and the bike represents a quantum leap over its namesake. The original Multistrada was not seen as a "flagship" model even by its creators, but this latest version carries the marketing hopes of Ducati as a whole.

Can Italy take on Germany in the profitable "adventure-bike" niche that the GS currently rules? Questions remain: How important to this upscale class is the convenience and immunity to dirt of the GS's shaft drive? Will the Multistrada gain the GS/Adventure's off-road cred? Don't forget that BMW has competed in-and won-off-road rallies such as Paris-Dakar since 1979.

Whatever the outcome, the new marketing strategies of BMW and Ducati are refreshing and exciting at a time when economic bad news is all we hear. And it's good to remember that these strategies don't just represent marketing, but result in real technical innovations and improvements to the motorcycles we'll all be riding very soon.