Lightning McQueen, Boba Fett and Kylo Ren Meet MotoGP

HJC Helmets expands licensing agreements with Star Wars, Pixar, and Marvel.

WK Hong of HJC Helmets
Podium performer: “We’ve never had a $700 helmet before,” admitted HJC America’s George Hong. “You could never really compare an HJC to an Arai or a Shoei because our price points were much lower than theirs. Now, for the first time, our prices are very close.”Photo: HJC

HJC was the first and, thus far, only motorcycle helmet manufacturer to title sponsor a round of the MotoGP World Championship. Last year, the company reached an agreement with Madrid-based series rights-holder Dorna Sports to back the Grand Prix of the Czech Republic at Brno. This past May, HJC swapped locations with Monster Energy, taking over the race at Le Mans, the HJC Helmets Grand Prix of France.

"Because our helmets were number-one sellers in the US in the 1990s, a lot of people in Europe thought HJC was an American brand," said HJC America's George Hong. "It's actually Korean, and this October, it will have been around for 46 years. Brno is the most well-attended MotoGP race of the year—it's in August, during the holiday season, and everybody is on vacation—so we thought it would be a perfect opportunity.

Lightning McQueen RPHA 11 Pro
Pixar perfect: Jackson Storm meets Lightning McQueen. According to Hong, RPHA sales in the US aren’t as big as in Europe but the high-end model is selling well. “We’ve had more growth, in terms of percentages, with the RPHA 11 than any other helmet.”Photo: HJC
Jonas Folger, HJC helmet
RPHA 11 Pro is the top of the line. “HJC owns good and better, but not best,” said Ed Hughes, purchasing manager at Sullivans, one of HJC’s two US distributors. “Now that we have this product in the field, HJC deserves credit.”Photo: HJC

“We did one year with Brno and then France opened up as a potential venue. France is our biggest market in Europe, right there with Germany. In addition, it’s also the home of HJC Europe. We have been located in Strassburg since 2000—17 years—so it makes sense that we have a home GP where our office in Europe is located. Now, we are negotiating with Dorna for multiple years in France.”

Hong spent part of Thursday at Le Mans standing in the pouring rain with seven suited-and-booted GP riders—Jonas Folger, Jorge Navarro, Aron Canet, Xavi Vierge, Phillip Oettl, Albert Arenas, and Marcos Ramirez—posing for photos in front of HJC signage. Each rider was carrying a helmet under his arm, part of a promotion for ongoing licensing agreements with Lucas Films, Marvel, and Pixar, all of which are owned by Disney.

HJC has launched seven new graphics this year, three under the Star Wars banner ("Kylo Ren," "Boba Fett," and the open-face "X-Wing Rebel Fighter"), and two apiece with Pixar ("Lightning McQueen" and "Jackson Storm") and Marvel ("Dead Pool" and "Ghost Rider"). On Saturday night at a private dinner, future designs were modeled by women handling starting-grid and podium duties for HJC on Sunday.

“They have built their helmets from the ground up, 100 percent HJC,” said Mark Gandy, a VP at Helmet House. “They’ve looked at and studied the market, and we’ve been a part of that study. They’ve taken that direction and put it into a very nice package.”Photo: HJC

“It’s a very lengthy process,” Hong said about the licensing. “Obviously, for [Disney] intellectual property is everything. So, there is a due-diligence period that you must go through. It took months. They had to audit everything about our factory, that all of our helmets are certified to the standards, as well as environmental, labor, and quality-control checks. There was a multiple-checklist approval process that we had to go through.”

HJC helmets are distributed in US by two well-established companies, Helmet House in Calabasas Hills, California, and Sullivans in Hanson, Massachusetts. I ate breakfast during Sunday morning warm-up—the final practices before the races—with Helmet House VP/Director of Products Mark Gandy and Sullivans Purchasing Manager Ed Hughes in the exclusive MotoGP VIP Village. Only corner workers get closer to the on-track action.

HJC IS-5 X-Wing Rebel Fighter
HJC IS-5 X-Wing Rebel Fighter graphicPhoto: HJC

"Our helmet business was flat, maybe even a little bit down," Hughes admitted about the period prior to the introduction last year of the initial Marvel graphics. "When those first three helmets arrived, the next quarter we saw an increase in sales of five to seven percent. When we did the numbers, those helmets basically brought the increase in sales. And that increase carried all the way to the end of the year. So, for us, this project has been good."

Gandy told a similar tale. “From a distributor standpoint, we have seen a direct sales result and an elevation of the HJC brand, bringing with it attention, new energy, and excitement. We need every bit of that we can get. Maybe we underestimated the power of some of those brands, whether it’s Marvel, Pixar, or Star Wars, and the strengths, the influences, that they have on consumers even outside the powersports industry.

The Punisher
The Punisher graphic has been a sales success, but sometimes you have to try again. “There have been times when the artwork has been approved and then, just as we enter into the development process, disapproved, for one reason or another,” Gandy said.Photo: HJC

“We have a fun industry, and these types of projects are fun. We’ve seen consumers who aren’t necessarily motorcycle riders purchasing helmets; they’re collecting them. To me, there’s value in that because it’s drawing more attention to powersports and our industry. As for Europe, HJC started in the low end to midrange but learned this is a more upper-end market. To really get a strong footing, they had to move toward the higher end.”

For many years, Gandy added, HJC has been a workhorse helmet for dealers—a good product at a fair price. “Now, with the RPHA 11 Pro, HJC is really stepping into a legitimate upper-end helmet with nice interiors, fair weight levels, excellent venting and aerodynamics. They are one of the few helmet companies that have a wind tunnel. and they are getting better at utilizing that technology.”

Toni Elias
MotoAmerica Superbike points leader Toni Elias wore the “Lightning McQueen” graphic at Road America. “And we have young kids, like Toby Khamsouk, who podiumed at the last race,” Hong said. “Aaron Yates’ son, Ashton, and Melissa Paris also race for us.”Photo: HJC

All of the HJC-contracted GP riders were wearing the RPHA 11 Pro, HJC’s top-of-the-line helmet. DOT and ECE approved, the lightweight shell is a proprietary mix of carbon fiber, aramid, fiberglass, and organic non-woven fabric. With the addition of the fancy new graphics, retail pricing as high as $750 towers above the asks for the entry-level and midrange models for which HJC has for decades buttered its bread.

Hughes admitted higher stickers raised a few red flags at the beginning. “Our biggest concern was, how are we going to take this helmet that has a retail price point of $139, that the consumer knows is an established product, and add 20 to 25 percent to the retail price to cover licensing royalties? How will that translate to sales? So far, it hasn’t been a problem. The consumer has been willing to pay it.”

Former World Superbike Champion and MotoGP race winner Ben Spies has worn HJC helmets since his AMA Superbike days. The American’s newest replica is currently only available in Europe. “Spies is popular in the US and Europe, but there is much more of a direct sales result in Europe than in the US,” Gandy said. “Fans here want to be associated with MotoGP. When they see HJC branding so closely tied to the riders and event, it has a positive effect on sales.”

“The markets are so different, and I think the passion level for MotoGP seems to be much higher here than what we have in the US. HJC has had tremendous success with its racer-replica graphics for their MotoGP riders in particular. It’s helped to step up the brand and create sales and energy that weren’t there before—and, frankly, couldn’t have been—without this level of product.”

HJC helmet licensing
“We love racing at the highest level, which is MotoGP,” said W.K. Hong, founder and CEO, HJC Helmets. “Besides the iconic characteristics of the circuit, HJC chose to sponsor Le Mans because France is one of the most important markets for HJC and home to HJC Europe.”Photo: HJC

So, what is selling stateside? "There is one on the Marvel side of the first three, a graphic called 'The Punisher,' that is still selling well," Hughes said. "It's a matte-black finish with a skull-type character built into the top of the helmet. That one, I think, has appeal outside the Marvel story. Some customers are coming in and getting out of the store not even realizing that it has 'Marvel' written on the side. By far, that's the best-selling Marvel model."

Both Hughes and Gandy are seeing riders hold on to their gear longer. They are also not buying new motorcycles as frequently. And they’re older. “We’re dealing with an aging demographic and a more savvy consumer,” Gandy said. “We’ve gone through some economic conditions that have changed buying patterns. These licensing agreements give consumers motivation to buy something when maybe they didn’t have that reason before.”

Sullivans has its own licensing agreements with Honda, US Army, and US Marines, so Hughes is very familiar with the vetting process to get those licensing agreements in place, the product commitment, the royalty reporting, the percentage of royalty that has to be paid, and the minimum royalty requirements. “Your second purchase order is always your most risky,” noted Gandy, “especially with these types of products.”

“Not only are you paying a royalty on everything you’re selling, but you’re also paying a minimum,” Hughes explained. “If you don’t have the sales, you’re still going to pay a flat fee. Mark and I have worked hard with HJC to slow them down a little bit on this project because sometimes, I think, they’re showing stuff a little too soon. From the time the consumer first sees the graphic, a press release or images, before they can actually buy it.”

“There comes a point when you need to make it something a little bit unobtainable,” Gandy concluded. “You want people to ask, ‘When is the next one coming out?’ and become excited about that. You don’t want to saturate the market to the point that it’s so commonplace. Are you better off just focusing on a few? More doesn’t necessarily generate additional sales. We think HJC understands that sometimes less is more.”

Hong, meanwhile, says HJC has motivations beyond sales. "Anything we do, whether it's a title sponsorship or a licensing deal, we're trying to support the industry," he said. "We're trying to get that guy who likes Star Wars or Marvel to ride a motorcycle. You would be surprised by how many people on our social media have told us, 'I love that helmet. Now, I need to get myself a bike.' We're trying to get people to ride. We're trying to make riding fun again."