An Unknown Market - a New Challenge
By December 1962 American Honda was selling more than 40,000 motorcycles annually, while the number of dealers - at nearly 750 - exceeded that of any competitor. For the following year Kawashima set a sales goal of 200,000 units, meaning a figure five times that of the previous year's record. It was an astonishing target to the staff at American Honda. Kawashima knew it was not impossible at all, as long as the public reputation of people who rode motorcycles was elevated and the product name became better known. Accordingly, he was willing to invest a fortune on it. In fact, Kawashima was ready to lay down the largest sum his company had ever used to promote Honda motorcycles.
So, when Grey Advertising, a major U.S. agency, proposed a campaign with the slogan, "You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda," Kawashima knew right away that it would work. This was to be a major campaign targeting the eleven western states.
Holding up the "You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda." poster are Kihachiro Kawashima (then general manager of American Honda), left, and Takeo Fujisawa (then senior managing director of Honda Motor), second from right.
The ad depicted housewives, a parent and child, young couples and other respectable members of society - referred to as "the nicest people" - riding Honda 50s for a variety of purposes. Moreover, the colorful illustration and highly professional design appealed strongly to the public. Those who would otherwise have rolled their eyes at the word "motorcycle," and those who previously had no interest in them, soon saw in the motorcycle a new purpose: one of casual and convenient daily transportation.
Mothers who once wouldn't listen to an adolescent child's plea for a motorcycle began to compromise, saying, "I'll buy you one, if it's a Honda." The Honda 50 even became popular as a present for birthdays and Christmas. And with its support from an ever-widening sector of the American public-from students and housewives to businessmen and outdoor enthusiasts-the motorcycle finally won recognition as a popular product.
Grey Advertising, now quite confident in its wildly successful Honda campaign, had a new proposal. "Mr. Kawashima," they asked, "would American Honda like to participate as a sponsor of the Academy Awards broadcast"
The Academy Awards broadcast was a major annual event drawing a public, eager for a taste of glamour and spectacle. Even then the show was televised nationally. Grey maintained that airing a commercial during this program, which attracted 70 or 80 percent of all television viewers, would immediately spread the American Honda name and product line across the nation. The broadcasting fee for two 90-second commercial segments was $300,000. Seen as an outrageous price that would immediately wipe out the revenue from about 1,200 Honda 50s, even Kawashima hesitated before giving it his approval. "When I heard they wanted $300,000, I had serious reason to pause and think about it," Kawashima said, looking back at the plan. "But Fujisawa had always told me that great opportunities weren't so easy to come by. So, I decided to go for it. ‘Let's do it,' I said. But to be honest, I was pretty nervous."
American Honda thus became the first foreign corporation to sponsor the Academy Awards show. And because no one had ever heard of a motorcycle company sponsoring the event, it became a subject of constant conversation among industry insiders and advertising professionals.
But in April 1964 the TV commercial that aired across the country caused an even bigger sensation. The response was simply overwhelming, and people everywhere were clamoring to start their own Honda dealerships. Moreover, large corporations across the U.S. began to inundate American Honda with inquiries concerning tie-ups, including such requests as, "We would love to use the Honda 50 as a product in our sales-promotion campaign."
The Honda 50 had truly succeeded in its appeal to the American public. More than simply another motorcycle, it was seen as a casual vehicle for daily activities, and as such was an entirely new consumer value. It erased the motorcycle's deeply rooted image of evil and discontent. Simply stated, the 50 was a gigantic hit.
"I really think business is a battle that must be fought with a comprehensive array of forces," said Kawashima philosophically. "First, you need to have great products. Then, you need an organization that is appropriate for the product, and people who can make the organization work. In that respect, I was blessed with great products and a wonderful staff. But also, I think the driving force was Honda's decision to build its own sales network. Our direct involvement with the retailers led to the success of our American sales network and sales campaign."