A century ago, Indian motorcycles were the brand of choice for Japan's police. They were called "aka-bai" - or red bikes - because of their color. Now, the maker of big American two-wheelers is seeking to recapture some of that glory with a brand relaunch.
Recreational vehicle maker Polaris, which makes and sells Indian bikes, is betting that it can gain market share from entrenched foreign rivals such as BMW Motorrad and Harley-Davidson. Instead of relying on a single distributor, the Medina, Minnesota-based company now has its own operations in Japan, with plans to double its store count to 30.
Even though Japan's population is shrinking and economic growth is tepid, the archipelago is one of the top five markets for heavy bikes. Polaris is seeking to boost Indian's single-digit market share to 10% by 2025. It has taken direct control over local marketing, which it had outsourced after buying the Indian Motorcycle brand and relaunching it globally in 2011.
"We weren't doing the rational thing in Japan," said Kintaro Izumida, general manager of Polaris who works out of an office in Yokohama with about a half-dozen other employees. "Now we're going to do that."
Harley provides a rich target as the longtime market leader among import brands, with a 44% share of the 20,385 bikes sold last year, according to the Japan Automobile Importers Association.
Japan's domestic bike makers - Honda Motor Co., Kawasaki Motors Corp., Suzuki Motor Corp. and Yamaha Motor Co. - specialize in smaller-engine mass market bikes, with relatively few high-end motorcycles with engine displacements of more than 1000cc.
"They are very strong manufacturers with really strong brand, but we don't really go head-to-head," Steve Menneto, president of Polaris's Indian motorcycle division, said in a phone interview. "For a small island, it's amazing how much appreciation there is for motorcycles, and premium motorcycles at that."
The move comes as U.S. motorcycle sales face headwinds, which is prompting American brands to look abroad for growth. Last month, Harley-Davidson said it anticipates international sales to expand to half its business.
Japan is a natural market because it has the type of well-heeled buyer who can splurge for bikes that start at $8,999 for the Indian Scout, and top $29,000 for the brand's Touring model. Partly due to its international exposure, Polaris's sales rose in the first six months and the company forecasts a full-year gain in the low to mid-teens over the segment's 2018 revenue of $546 million.
Indian's retro-styling and long history in the U.S. and overseas is a selling point in Japan, where brand identity is a key differentiator. That extends beyond the bikes into lifestyle categories such as Indian-branded accessories and apparel, which account about a fifth of his division's revenue.
"The awareness of the Indian brand in Japan is pretty strong," said Izumida, noting it was the favored brand of a famous sumo wrestler who became the father of pro wrestling in Japan.
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This article was written by Chester Dawson and Reed Stevenson, reporters for Bloomberg
With assistance from Bloomberg's Melinda Grenier.