Sunday, August 22, 2010

You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda

If you have any interest in Japanese culture and business history, then I hope you caught Sunday’s episode of Mad Men. In the episode the boys at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce have an opportunity to bid on the account for Honda motorcycles. To get everybody in the right frame of mind, all agency staffers are given a copy of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Ruth Benedict’s seminal book describing Japanese culture that was the authority on Japan for many, many years. Creative director Don Draper also takes in a meal at Benihana to further explore the mysteries of the Orient. The episode ends with the agency instead being awarded the account for Honda’s forthcoming car, which the gang ridicules as a “motorcycle with windows.” Well, I hope SCDP held on to the Honda car account because, in reality, it probably made a lot of people a lot of money!

And now it’s time to separate the “reel” story from the real story. As the end of the episode intimates, Honda was never serious about leaving Grey Advertising. And why would it be? By 1964, Honda had become the world leader in motorcycle sales.

On the creative side, Grey churned out the iconic campaign “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda.” The campaign not only introduced Honda to American consumers, it started to re-brand the entire motorcycle industry, which had been taken over by leather-clad biker gangs and virtually ignored by respectable, suburban, middle class consumers. The “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda Campaign” brought motorcycles back into the mainstream.

To wit, in 1964 the Beach Boys released “Little Honda,” and, with two short lyrics, did as well as any ad campaign in explaining the essence of Honda:

“It’s not a big motorcycle,
Just a groovy little motorbike.”

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