What Modern Brands Can Learn From A 75 Years Old Russian Motorcycle Brand?

Ural motorcycles have been around since 1942 even though most people in the U.S. have never heard of them. Urals are basically reverse-engineered BMW R71 from WW2. The Russian probably thought, “this Blitzkrieg thingy is not going to work for us, we can build those rigs too”. But just out of precaution they moved of their factory to Irbitz in central Siberia, where the rigs are still being built today.

Army troops on Ural motorcycles

Most people have never heard of them and their current worldwide sales numbers are fairly low I would guess. However, the brand is witnessing some sort of revival and its popularity is growing extremely fast despite the company’s extremely limited marketing budget.

The design has barely changed since 1942 (one of the appeals of the brand). Same with the technology and safety features. They are quirky to ride, heavy and underpowered. But they are extremely robust, easy to work on and fix, and the 2WD version will get you through snow and mud better than a Jeep. They are basically utility motorcycles built for the battlefield, not for comfort riding or highway cruising.

The product should have died a long time ago and yet the brand is witnessing a revival, allowing for a few lessons about modern brand management.

Stand-out or disappear:

It’s almost embarrassing to start with this point but just look at a grocery store aisle, a parking lot, or simply at the advertising you get exposed to day in, day out. All you see is a giant sea of sameness. My favorite is still the shampoo aisle at Target. This observation even applies to newer, fast growing categories like the craft beer category with its 5000+ breweries in the US.

“Standing-out” has always been a key success criteria for brands, and therefore maybe lacks a bit of sex-appeal and novelty in today’s marketing conversation. But it is more relevant than ever. In fact, Microsoft scientists have shown that the average human attention span has apparently decreased from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2014. Goldfish have supposedly an attention span of 9 seconds, but don’t ask me how Microsoft figured that out.

A Ural motorcycle just stands out. The fact that it has a sidecar and because of its unique, old school design that has barely evolved in the last 75 years, it’s impossible not to notice the rig, even in a parking lot full of motorcycles. I’ve noticed that people even give me the right of way more often, simply so that they can check-out the rig or take a picture.  

Start your story with the product:

Urals are so different and the brand’s history is so unique that everyone wants to talk to you about them, ask questions or share their own stories and dreams with you. The product acts as conversation starter (just like Tesla by the way). It’s what is known in the community as UDF, or “Ural Delay Factor”, the extra time a rider need due to all the people that will walk up to him or her to ask about the bike, take pictures, etc.. Ural riders even joke that you shouldn’t get a Ural if you are people-shy.

The importance of the product (the modern buzzword for that is now “experience”) and its story is becoming more relevant for modern brands again, not the least thanks to Amazon and it’s product reviews (55% of all online product searches start on Amazon) and to Youtube and its consumer generated product videos.

Going back to the essence of your product, its look and feel, its origin, its uniqueness, why it was created in the first place, how it works, etc., and then trying to understand which of these elements still hold relevance today or what could be a modern re-interpretation of the original product essence will create new growth opportunities for brands.

The product has always been an important contributor to a brand’s perception and equity (just think Apple). The industry just seems to have forgotten about it for a while. Interestingly, and based on our analysis of over 1200 case studies of successful brand building (www.positioning-roulette.com), of the 26 universal triggers of successful brand positioning, 40% are rooted in the product.

Or as Jeff Bezos said: In the old world, you devoted 30% of your time to building a great service and 70% of your time to shouting about it. In the new world, that inverts.”

Build a community around a lifestyle and a passion:

Another distinctive element of Ural is its community of owners. When I decided to buy a Ural, I placed an ad on Craigslist trying to find other riders here in town to teach me how to ride one. These bikes are quirky and have their own riding dynamic that is very different from a 2 wheel motorcycle. So I wanted to find out if I’d even enjoy riding this motorcycle (the product experience again) or if I even could. A few (non-Ural) riders told me at the time that I won’t be able to find anyone to help me, since bikers don’t like to let other people ride (or even touch) their bikes. Well, three people here in Minneapolis responded to my ad, one of which gave me several riding lessons for free despite my repeated efforts to compensate him for his time. Try that with a Harley Davidson or even a BMW owner.

The online community of Ural owners is one of the most active and supportive I’ve ever witnessed. And most of it is not even managed by the brand itself. People are passionate about their rigs (and probably the fact that they are so rare), exchange tips, tricks and how-tos in discussion forums, but more importantly they like to share their rides and adventures. Ural understands that and primarily uses consumer generated content about rides and adventures to promote its brand and newest models (not unlike GoPro).

Leverage your non-owned (digital) communication channels

Ural operates on a very tight marketing budget and seems to focus the majority of its efforts on social media and direct emails. They also seem to be able to get some good press coverage now and then, which I believe comes back to my first two points about standing out and having a story built into the product.

I am always surprised by how little attention marketers pay to their brand’s communication eco-system that isn’t owned by the brand. I am not talking about monitoring online conversations through social-media listening tools even though that is important too. I am referring to the fact that you can find consumer generated videos, especially on platforms like Youtube, that provide reviews, specs and personal experiences –and therefore help inform your decision- about every single imaginable product out there. I, for example rarely buy anything without checking the consumer generated videos on Youtube. And apparently I am not the only one. To quote Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai “People turn to YouTube and they want to research, buy or fix a product”.

Brands always seem to want to focus on the big influencers and most popular Youtube sensations rather than the dozen of content creators in any given category that in my opinion are way more influential and credible. I understand the “scale” argument and the fact that this require more efforts. One brand that understands this and has leveraged this approach to fuel its growth and success, especially amongst Millennials, is LaCroix sparkling water.

So, what can Ural, this 75 years old Russian motorcycle brand teach brands that want to succeed in today’s increasingly chaotic environment?

  1. Stand-out or disappear
  2. Start your story with the product
  3. Build a community around a lifestyle and a passion
  4. Leverage your non-owned (digital) communication channels