It was not long ago that Royal Enfield motorcycles were only meant for a chosen few. People with a specific personality and psyche were seen as the rightful suitors of the Royal Enfield. Today, it is only a chosen few who do not aspire to ride one.
This transformation of public perception was key to unlocking the brand’s potential and burgeoning sales figures. The brand facilitated the transformation by blurring the sacrosanct personal characteristic protocol to ride the Royal Enfield. The earlier perception of Royal Enfield was that riders either comprised of muscular men with strong physiques, had links to powerful people with political clout or had an association with the police force. People fulfilling all the aforementioned requirements were few and far between, limiting the growth of the brand. In addition to the niche profile of the rider, the riding method of the Royal Enfield motorcycles itself also kept the brand from the masses.
As a result, the brand decided to shun its “exclusive” (niche) image for a more general (mass) image, much to the dismay of the thoroughbred Royal Enfield consumers, who considered this strategic shift by the brand as blasphemous. However, the common-man embraced the change in stance with open wallets, which was reflected in the subsequent sales and profit figures of the brand.
The brand was able to pull of this strategy with well-timed tactical changes such as creating a more fuel-efficient engine conforming to the pollution norms and reducing the seemingly heavy weight of the bike. But the game-changer turned out to be the decision to change the gears from the right-hand side of the bike to the left.
Most Indian bikers were habituated to the left-sided gear system employed by the more mass Japanese bikes such as Hero Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki. These brands were leaders in terms of sales figures and market share. There was sense of familiarity and control with any bike with a similar gear system. However, Royal Enfield favoured a more “European” right-sided gear system that was seen as different or alien, and, therefore, too much of a risk, bearing in mind the size of the bike. Royal Enfield motorcycles were seen as heavy units with lots of power to tame coupled with an unfamiliar gear system, adding to the anxiety and affecting sales. Therefore, the left-sided gears in the Royal Enfield bridged the gap in the journey from aspiration to ownership for the potential Royal Enfield riders by making the bike more familiar and subsequently giving consumers a sense of control.
The massive effect of this gear shift led to a polarisation of the Royal Enfield riders. At one extreme were the “purists” who swore by the good old values that the old right-sided Royal Enfield stood for and lamented the company’s decision to switch gear sides and do away with the cast-iron engine (which is seen as holy grail for them). Rationally, they claimed the inferiority of the engine and the machine as a reason for the agitation. But subconsciously, this agitation was seen as waning of their power of exclusivity on the road.
At the other extreme, were the flirters who did not swear by the brand, but rather swore by the image boosting qualities of the bike and the brand. These flirters would not pledge loyalty to Royal Enfield and would jump ship if another brand promised a feeling of power and signals the riders’ accomplishment or success amongst their peers better than the Royal Enfield. This group is not fazed by the claims of mechanical inferiority or loss of legacy. Instead, they hang on to the more pragmatic positives of the new Royal Enfield such as efficiency, performance and style in comparison to the emotional values of the brand.
Clearly, the rapid adoption of the Royal Enfield motorcycles across the country vindicated the brand’s decision to go mass at the expense of purist values. This also highlighted the tremendous latent loyalty that was generated by the brand even when it was seen as an alien system.
The brand’s decision to alter strategy coincided with the larger transformation of the general code of masculinity from the traditional patriarchy to a more globalised and pragmatic template. The two Royal Enfield bike systems, the right-sided and left-sided epitomise the rapid shift in masculinity from raw, purist, ruggedness to a more pragmatic and subtle code.
Today, the Royal Enfield is not limited to a particular age-group or life-stage. For some, the brand appeals to the explorer in them, for some older consumers it appeals to the ruler within them, whereas, for others, it appeals to the jester within them. Hence the impressive arsenal of bikes from the Royal Enfield stable. The Thunderbird connects with the more older/mature mindset who seek an escape from their mid-life crisis. The Classic and the Electra is mainly for the larger set of consumers who buy into the machismo and legend of the brand. The Continental GT is for the high-octane adrenaline rush seekers who want to do stand out from the crowd while doing so.
The current range of bikes do not appeal to the purist Royal Enfield loyalists, who stand firm on their notion of mechanical superiority of the older machines. This has led them to go look further back in time and rejuvenate a market for the “vintage” bikes such as BSA, Yezdi, Jawa and Norton.
Purists aside, Royal Enfield has successfully maintained the older tradition of bike tours for their new consumers and created a point of differentiation over other brands, unique to Royal Enfield. As a result, Royal Enfield remains the conspicuous asset that it used to be before the change in strategy.
Today, Royal Enfield is at the forefront of the Indian two-wheeler market. They have managed to outpace most of the major brands in a short span of time by successfully implementing their strategy and creating relevance for the brand in consumers’ lives across life-stages, geographies and mindsets.
WORDS: AAMIR SIDDIQUI