By Jim Witers
LEXINGTON, Ohio — American Honda Motor Co. Inc. is celebrating its 60th year during 2019, and Charles Schnieber, the company's brand culture champion, on Saturday offered dozens of rapt listeners a broad overview of the marketing, heritage, racing and product development that made the foray into the United States so successful.
Honda co-founder Soichiro Honda, an AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer, "was a gearhead from Day One" and a dreamer who encouraged his employees to dream big, as well, Schnieber said. Honda's first foray into motorized two-wheelers involved attaching a 50cc surplus Mikuni generator motor to a bicycle in 1946.
Co-founder Takeo Fujisawa "didn't know tech, but he was great at sales, marketing and accounting," Schnieber said. "It was said that the men were like the two wheels on a motorcycle. Without one, the vehicle couldn't move forward."
One key to the success of the company is that the top executive is always an engineer, "not a bean counter or a marketing guy," Schnieber said.
The Honda company came to the United States in 1959 with three motorcycle models—the Super Cub, the Dream and the SS—and eight associates.
"We left the bikes on consignment with non-motorcycle outlets," Schnieber said. "A friend of mine went to his surf shop, and there was a Honda motorcycle. We used hardware stores, dry goods stores and other outlets."
Reliability issues with the Dream and SS models—which were not engineered for American highways and continuous high rpm operation—left Honda with just the Super Cubs to sell. And Americans bought them ... a lot of them.
"Frankly, without the Cub, I don't know if we'd be hanging out here today talking about American Honda," Schnieber said.
In 2017, the Cub sold its 100 millionth unit, "double the number of Model Ts and VW bugs sold worldwide," Schnieber said.
In addition to selling motorcycles, Honda asked its dealers to teach people to ride. And the company helped state the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, well known for its Basic RiderCourse and other training for motorcyclists.
The classic "You meet the nicest people on a Honda" advertising campaign in the 1960s countered the rough biker stereotypes of the time andmdash;coupled with advertising outside of motorcycle magazines and buying a TV spot on the Academy Awards broadcast—Honda sales shot up 500 percent.
Schnieber said Honda's future includes remaining "agnostic on alternative fuels."
"Whether it is electric, hydrogen or another fuel, we can make whatever the consumer demands," he said.
As for the company's self-balancing motorcycle, Schnieber offered this: "Who needs a self-balancing motorcycle? Well, my parents rode well into their 80s, and they kept downsizing their bikes. You don't want to be riding two up on a 600-pound motorcycle when you are in your 80s. They could use a self-balancing motorcycle."