“You Meet The Nicest People On A Honda” is perhaps the most iconic motorcycle sales slogan ever created, and it certainly is among the most effective. Sales of all motorcycles imported to America in 1959 accounted for approximately 6,300 units. That same year, Honda Motor Co. founded its U.S. distributorship — American Honda — in Los Angeles. By the end of 1963, the first full year that the Nicest People ad appeared in magazines and newspapers across America, total motorcycle sales in the U.S. had soared to about 148,000 units, and, according to author Tetsuo Sakiya in his book Honda Motor (The Men the Management the Machines), those record numbers were “due primarily to Honda Motor.”
No doubt, Honda Motor Co. had acted rather boldly when the fledging company decided to go global. Initially Kihachiro Kawashima, who headed Honda’s Special Planning Division in 1958, recommended that Honda initiate its global march into the predictable Southeast Asian market. But Takeo Fujisawa, who steered Honda Motor’s marketing and finance and who was Soichiro Honda’s business partner and right-hand man, denied the request, stating the target market would be America. That same year Honda introduced a new model, the Super Cub featuring a stout 50cc engine with a 3-speed semi-automatic transmission. That bike was to play a major role in the company’s success in America as well as the world.
By year’s end Mr. Fujisawa embarked on a fact-finding mission to meet with an American import distributor to consider marketing logistics. As the story goes, Fujisawa mentioned that Honda intended to send 7,500 units to these shores. The distributor scoffed, saying that most companies don’t sell that many motorcycles in a year, to which Mr. Fujisawa politely informed his host that Honda’s intent was to sell that many bikes in a month!
However, early sales were disappointing, and for the first couple years American Honda’s sales pace, while comparatively good when positioned alongside other brands in the U.S. market, didn’t meet Mr. Honda’s nor Mr. Fujisawa’s expectations. The solution was to alter marketing tactics, including a $5 million investment by Honda. Enter Grey Advertising, one of the leading ad agencies in the world.
By chance a Grey executive knew a UCLA business school professor who mentioned an assignment written by one of his marketing students. The student’s theme: “You meet the nicest people on a Honda.” Simple and straightforward, and with that Grey acquired rights to the slogan before pitching it to American Honda. Mr. Kawashima, who oversaw American Honda, liked the proposed ad campaign and so took it to Mr. Honda and Mr. Fujisawa. Few people know their immediate response, but eventually they gave it their blessing, the ad campaign got rolling, sales skyrocketed and the rest, as they say, is history.
The multi-year ad campaign was so good that it spawned another slogan, “The Nicest Things Happen On A Honda!” More than 100,000 Hondas — spearheaded by those spunky Super Cubs — sold in 1963, and the following year Honda commanded more than 50 percent of the U.S. market. (Full disclosure: I bought my first bike in 1965 — a new Honda S90.)
— Dain Gingerelli