More women -- and more younger women -- are riding

When I started riding 50 years ago I never thought much, if at all, about the gender of other motorcyclists. I just assumed they were men. In the 1980s, when I began my stint as Kawasaki’s director of marketing, I began to see more women riding and participating in events across the country. Still, marketing to women as a discrete segment had never occurred to me.

Sometime in the mid-’80s, Bob Moffit, my then-boss who was in charge of market research, shared a document that listed the percentage of women who either rode or owned motorcycles at that time and broke the percentage down by brand. I don’t remember the source of that document or what the exact percentage was, but I suspect it was part of a readership study done by one of the major motorcycle magazines, which would account for the difference between a 1990 Motorcycle Industry Council number of 6 percent, and the earlier, larger percentage from this report.

I think the gross percentage from that report was around 10, which surprised Moffit and me. But more surprising was that Kawasaki was second in brand popularity among women riders, behind Harley-Davidson.

Admittedly, we were pretty far behind, but we were way ahead of everyone else. So we started placing ads in magazines and on TV that featured women as owners and primary riders rather than as just passengers. The ads featured two models we felt would be most attractive to women riders, the Ninja 250 and Vulcan 1200. I don’t know if the ads increased our sales to women, but we did get feedback on them, positive and negative.

The participation of women as owners or riders of motorcycles kind of slipped off my radar for a number of years. I would have seen the numbers when I worked at Triumph, but our focus then was on building a brand and a dealer organization, and there was little money for advertising. In any case, I felt that whatever advertising appeal was made would apply equally to both sexes.

For the past 24 years we’ve seen the percentage of women riders grow slowly, to an estimated 12 percent in 2012, according to the MIC. But what does that percentage mean, and how is that number derived? There’s no requirement for gender on the registration application, nor (to the best of my knowledge), is there a little box that dealers check when they forward the paperwork to the DMV, OE, or finance company (though that may have changed). I was able to clear all this up with a recent call to the MIC.

For 24 years, in roughly five-year increments, the MIC has conducted an extensive market study asking both motorcycle-owning and non-owning households about such things as reasons for ownership or non-ownership, buying influences, other interests and demographics. Which leads us back to the subject of this month’s column.

This MIC report was a real eye-opener for me. I can’t say I ever sat down with a pencil and tried to figure out what 12 percent, let alone the percentage of females who ride without owning, meant to the market as a whole. Obviously, many of them who aren’t listed as owners probably “own” motorcycles in the sense that a motorcycle was purchased with the idea that they would be the rider.

According to the study, the number of female owners has inched up from 8.2 percent in 1998 to 12.5 percent in 2012. At the same time, the number of operators, which include not only female owners but female riders of motorcycles that might be registered to someone else, has grown at almost twice that rate.
Combined, they equal almost 25 percent of all riders on the road -- close to 7 million enthusiasts.

Generationally, I would have guessed that baby boomer women lead the pack. But in recent years the Gen Y women have stepped up and now constitute close to 20 percent of women owners. Male and female boomers still command almost 50 percent of the motorcycle market as a whole, but we should note that women owners are, on average, younger than their male counterparts by 11 years.

As a one-time marketer of motorcycles, the other activities in which motorcyclists participate has always been of interest to me, and here the MIC report provides a list of more than 30 recreational activities or hobbies in which people engage. Women dominate in just about every category, with the exceptions of hunting and fishing, cars and auto mechanics, and boating and sailing. They absolutely crush the men in the personal fitness category. (No surprise here: in my tri-weekly exercise class of more than 20 participants, only three are men.)

So here’s the takeaway: The outerwear brands and dealers who have recognized the potential of catering to women riders likely will be the biggest beneficiaries of this slowly rising tide. Whether a person owns a motorcycle or not, if she is going to spend any time on, or off-road, either as a rider or passenger, she will need gear. And if you’re a savvy dealer, you’ll be able to fill that rising tide of demand.