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Trash and Trumpery – what does “modern” mean in marketing?

August 18, 2010
Ariel Motorcycles Brochure from 1953

Ariel - the Modern Motorcycle. Despite the dubious double entendre, Ariel made motorcycles which were not only contemporary, but visionary


Many years ago I had an interesting conversation with a fellow product manager at a publishing company we worked for. It centred around the use of the word “modern” and whether it could be used with any conviction in a marketing piece. 

Firstly, what does it mean?  A quick scan of the web dictionaries shows that modern means “of or relating to the present” or “characteristic or expressive of recent times”. This is interesting. The implication of using the word “modern” in your marketing is that you are assuming that your customers want to be seen to be in tune with the times. 

But today, marketers focus less on the here and now and more on the vision for the future. Modern fashion is obsolescent by its very nature. Today’s slinky catwalk siren is already touting tomorrow’s cheapjack side street imitation clothes to be sold down the local market. 

And that’s not all. In marketing, to have a modern view of marketing techniques and tactics is insufficient. You need to view future methodologies. You need to think ahead of the curve and not use outmoded methods. It’s just not good enough to know about email marketing, or SEO, or e-PR. You need to know about what consumers will be doing as much as what they are doing now. 

It’s a scary world out there. But here’s an interesting thing. Scouring my extensive archive of old motorcycle brochures, I came across a piece for Ariel Motors of Selly Oak, Birmingham, UK. For many years, this august factory churned out a number of machines under the strapline “Ariel – the Modern Motorcycle”. 

I took a look at their range of machines and, curiously, alongside their range of “grey porridge” cooking 350cc and 500cc machines (built to compete against other purveyors of similar machines) is a vein of striking modernity. 

In the 1930s they created the revolutionary Ariel Square 4 motorcycle – a machine so advanced that contemporary commentator “Ixion” was not allowed to reveal who made it. In the 1950s, Ariel – under the visionary Val Page – created the ground-breaking Leader motorcycle which was a face-slap to the complacent British industry of the time. Indeed, so bold was Page that he even developed an in-line flat-four 600cc motorcycle that pre-dated BMW’s revolutionary K-series “Brick” by 30 years. 

So Ariel, the “modern motorcycle”, in a strange way was modern. In actual fact, they were more than modern, they were visionary. What a shame they were taken over by the over-bloated and backward thinking BSA motorcycles who shamefully made the last Ariel – the Ariel 3 – as a badge engineered Dutch design of spectacular unattractiveness. A design the Lincolnshire fenmen of the Sixteenth Century might well have described as all “Trash and Trumpery”. 

But along the way, Ariel made some great machines (with some interesting marketing material to boot (see illustration for how to get a double entendre into a motorcycle brochure)). They had a vision – and vision means a lot to business. We could learn a lot by looking at the past – but what we must never forget is that hope lies not in where we’ve come from. But where we’re heading. 

By way of a postscript: 

I  have been working with the publishers of a book called the New Optimists about how scientists see the future. On their blog, they have an interesting article about a brown field site in Selly Oak now being over-run by motorcyclists. I wonder if those same motorcyclists have any idea of the history of that district – and what became of Ariel, the Modern Motorcycle? How times change when vision is not matched by delivery.

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