Honda's strategy masterclass

posted Aug 12, 2011, 7:27 AM by Loose Tube   [ updated Jan 13, 2012, 8:47 PM ]


Successful strategies often combine the tangible and the intangible with a smattering of complexity, but those that endure are difficult to copy. One of the techniques used by firms to delay pursuit by competitors is obviously secrecy, though sometimes it's impossible to keep all elements of a strategy secret if they fall into the public domain. What if hiding the final piece that completes the picture is enough to prevent the whole image coming into focus until it is virtually complete? When this occurs, it leaves the competition with what appears to be an insurmountable mountain to climb. Honda is credited with manufacturing about 20% of the world's motorcycles, but how can it position itself to maintain or even improve that? Here's an example of how.

Part 1 - Racing

It's 10 years since Honda and the other Japanese constructors phased out there last 2-cycle road bikes in developed markets. This simple fact was enough for them to cajole the FIM (the federation that governs motorcycle racing internationally) into ending the historic 500cc 2-cycle Grand Prix Championship and transitioning to the the 1000cc 4-cycle MotoGP Championship in 2002. As the premier class it garners most attention, but subsequent to that change the 125cc and 250cc classes continued as 2-cycle havens.

The disconnect between the 4-cycle products being manufactured and sold with the 2-cycles being raced became difficult to justify from a marketing point of view for Japanese constructors. Furthermore, in a world ever more conscious of pollution, the reputation of the 2-cycle engines being raced seemed inconsistent with a general drive for a reduction in gas emissions. So together with championship organizers, DORNA (a sports management company), who had their own concerns over the cost of participation and lack of competition, Honda managed to lobby for the end of the 250cc 2-cycle championship in 2009. It was replaced by a 600cc 4-cycle championship called Moto 2 with each entrant using a standard engine provided by Honda, prepared and maintained by a neutral company. No major production motorcycle manufacturers entered the championship as racing with a Honda engine represented a significant marketing obstacle. It was of utmost importance that this was a success for Honda and indeed it was. The racing was close and entrants were many.

2011 will now be the last year of the 125cc 2-cycle championship. In 2012 it will be replaced by a 250cc 4-cycle championship, but with engine supply open to all comers. In advance of this, Honda developed and launched the NSF250R. A version of this bike will be campaigned in the 2012 world championship and at the same time a version will be made available world wide for amateur racers.  

The NSF250R is powered by an all-new liquid-cooled single-cylinder 249cc four-stroke engine specifically designed for racing. Technical highlights include an engine layout with the cylinder tilted back 15 degrees to concentrate mass. To generate strong power throughout the high-rpm range, the NSF250R incorporates titanium valves for both intake and exhaust to reduce friction and lighten the valve train. Furthermore, the design reduces friction between piston and cylinder and improves durability by offsetting the cylinder center line and applying nickel silicon carbide (Ni-SiC) for the cylinder surface treatment. The cassette gearbox design was selected for quick and easy gear set changes for the close-ratio, six-speed transmission, thereby allowing gear selection to be optimized over a large variety of racing circuits. This lightweight, well-balanced machine offers impressive power output and superb handling to achieve a great blend of high performance plus rider-friendly traits well suited to up-and-coming racers. The suggested retail price in the USA is $28,599.

To summarize, the change to Moto GP from 500cc, to Moto 2 from 250 2-cycle and Moto 3 from 125 2-cycle all seem to be compatible with Honda's outlook. After winning the 2011 Moto GP world championship, the next goal will be to popularize 250 4-cycle racing globally and win the Moto 3 championship in 2012 for which they are earnestly prepared.

Part 2 - Market

In 2008 global production of vehicles under 250cc was a least 40 million or 80% of the total. Although many markets have regulations and legislation that favor displacements under 200cc, the 250cc displacement physically resembles smaller vehicles and the segment is destined to grow as regulations change.

Customers in developing markets are now expecting more advanced products that provide an improved riding experience and safety.

Many markets in the developing world enjoy a thriving low cost production based racing scene. Apart from a full event calendar in each of the main markets in Asia, the underbone class is also part of an Asia Road Racing Championship which is sanctioned by the FIM with rounds in Malasyia, Indonesia, India, Japan, China and Qatar.

Part 3 - Product

In November 2010 Honda announced that following the launch of the PCX 125cc scooter in March 2010, Thai Honda would start production of the new CBR250R road sports model. This CBR250R has the largest engine displacement of any vehicle produced by Thai Honda and was its first road sports model. The CBR250R ia a global model for export to a wide range of countries such as developing markets in ASEAN but also Japan, Europe, North America, and Australia from spring 2011. The bike was immediately visible at the winter's International Motorcycle Shows touring the USA.

Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India (Pvt.) Ltd. planned to start production of the CBR250R in spring 2011 and extend sales from India to South America.

The CBR250R is equipped with a newly-developed liquid-cooled 250cc 4-stroke 4-valve single-cylinder DOHC engine that is easy to handle. It uses an electronically controlled fuel injection system (PGM-FI) as well as an O2 sensor and exhaust catalyzer.

The CBR250R incorporates Combined ABS, a world first for a 250cc-class road sports model. In Japan the basic model retails for JPY 449,400 including tax, whereas the class leading Kawasaki Ninja 250R built by Kawasaki Thailand (launched October 27th 2007 at Tokyo Motor Show) retails for JPY 533,000 including tax. That's 15% cheaper.

The Ninja 250R already occasionally features in the Asia Road Racing Championship mentioned above. The Yamaha R15 (150cc) has a one make championship in India and there are many other examples of small displacement bikes being popularized on the track, and although Yamaha are preparing an entrant for the Moto 3 championship, they lack a low cost 250 sports bike. As yet Kawasaki has not announced an entrant into the Moto 3 championship and therefore find themselves unable to promote the Ninja 250R sufficiently. Although the CBR250R is different to the NSF250R, cosmetic changes to the road bike are inexpensive. There's an obvious marketing link to capitalize upon.

Part 4 - Market-in approach

By the the year 2000, Honda manufactured products in 33 countries as part of their self-termed "market-in" approach. The advantages of manufacturing near target markets may include lower labor costs or exchange rate risk mitigation but the primary advantages involve an increased awareness of customer needs and the circumvention of import tariffs, positioning Honda to win cost leadership battles. 

Honda started production in Thailand in 1964 enjoying 36 years of experience before starting the manufacture of the CBR250R. This provides important guarantees in terms of workforce know-how and systems as well as supplier coordination, know-how and reliability. Of course all of the 36 years are not needed to prepare for this step, but the complexity should not be underestimated and by incorporating the CBR250R into their globalization strategy they raise the stakes.


If we count back in time we can see how the pieces fit together. The idea of a Moto 3 championship occurred at least 2 years ago, and with it came the NSF250R. About the same time the CBR250R was conceived. The push for the Moto 2 championship seems like an intermediate step in order to establish Moto 3. Today Honda has the prospect of:

·          A 250cc prototype championship with a truly global appeal and they offer the first competitive entrant

·          A massive 250cc street bike global market

·          An inexpensive but fully featured 250cc road bike with a refined production and supplier platform

·          A 250cc product with global appeal that combines the low-end in developed markets with the high-end in developing markets

The obvious and foreseeable next step is the promotion of rounds in the Asia Road Racing Championship to host Moto 3 races in the World Championship. The targets are Indonesia and India, by which time Honda's virtuous circle is closed.

Those ready and able to compete, please step forward.