Rants and Raves: Snowmobiling's Number Ones
Ski-Doo, Yamaha, Polaris and Arctic Cat juggle history
Everyone’s been #1 at least once. Since the beginning of snowmobiling, every one of the currently existing snowmobile manufacturers has been Number One in market dominance at least once.
Ski-Doo, which effectively created recreational snowmobiling with its 1959 Ski-Doo, is once again leading the sport through innovation. Seems that innovation is the key to market leadership.
Prior to the front-engined and lightweight Ski-Doo, most snow vehicles either were extremely heavy work-type units with engines in the rear or rather cumbersome devices that moved slowly.
Polaris Sno-Travelers of the mid-1950s were heavy affairs with off-the-shelf, four-stroke power mostly provided by commercial Kohler engines. The Eliason models had engines mounted forward of the rider. A limited production of Indian motorcycle engines provided power for some Eliason models. We saw a few of these at a New Hampshire vintage sled roundup a few seasons back. They are quite unique.
While there were a few manufacturers building commercial snow vehicles for trappers and utility workers, it wasn’t until J-Armand Bombardier developed his light and nimble Ski-Doo models that snowmobiling took off.
It wasn’t merely the arrival of the Ski-Doo that created an industry. It also happened that Ski-Doo benefited from the adroitness of Bombardier’s son-in-law, Laurent Beaudoin. A bean counter by trade, Beaudoin would prove to be an extremely adept business man, leveraging Ski-Doo from snowmobiles to jet airplanes.
Whether it was Beaudoin or another Bombardier soldier, the people who produced Ski-Doo recognized the value of a marketing program to make Ski-Doo a household name. By the mid-1960s Ski-Doo was one of a horde of snowmobile manufacturers. How would the company separate itself from the pack, which would eventually number more than a 100 builders—big and tiny!
While Beaudoin managed and grew Ski-Doo into being the leader in the snowmobile industry, he quickly foresaw problems ahead that needed to be addressed. Confident in his product’s ability to retain and grow its market share, he undertook a number of challenges. In the early 1970s he proposed SnoPlan, an initiative to identify and create a network of snowmobile trails. Enlisting the aid of Quebec—his native province and home to Ski-Doo and thousands of diehard snowmobilers— he underwrote development of a unified trail system.
Let’s not pretend that a system of snow highways did not have a benefit for Bombardier Ski-Doo. It did. First, because snowmobiling was popular, there was a great demand for organized trails. Second, there was a demand for trails because so-called “rogue” snowmobilers seemed to be attracting unwanted attention from the media as they rode rampant through their neighbors’ property. Third, organized trails would likely result in more sled sales—and as the #1 selling brand, Beaudoin would see sales climb. Fourth, a trail network needed to be groomed and Bombardier made grooming equipment for ski areas that could be easily converted to groom miles of unified trails. Lastly, if there were no trails there would be few sales and snowmobiling could easily disappear as quickly as it had appeared.
SnoPlan was a boon for Quebec. It was the prime example for trail development and organization. It served as the role model for all other states and provinces wanting to develop trail systems of their own.
Manufacturers Join Together
At this same time other snowmobile manufacturers had joined together to create a manufacturers’ association which could work toward common goals and solve common problems—trail development programs, fashioning statewide grass roots clubs and associations, and keeping tabs on potential threats to land usage that could stymie the use of snowmobiles.
During this period of incubation, Beaudoin recognized the value of positive public relations. Bombardier forged an alliance with a Chicago marketing firm and the allegiance formed between Beaudoin and the marketing man, George Eisenhuth, would serve to keep Ski-Doo Number One for more than a decade.
Eisenhuth was an old-school PR man. A former sports reporter, loud and brash, cigar-chomping stereotype, Eisenhuth proved to be the right man for the job. While always working on behalf of Ski-Doo he also managed to portray snowmobiling in a positive light. He would arrange for journalists from magazines and newspapers to cover the sport in a variety of ways. He was never above a little arm-twisting, but he always helped snowmobiling move forward, being certain that at snowmobile-related events his client’s product was always visible.
When the media attacked, Eisenhuth and Ski-Doo fought back. Positive press would be used to offset negative stories. He would showcase snowmobiling families in America’s heartland enjoying winter. He created heroes of snowmobilers.
Whether snowmobiling was truly a family sport or not, family was the face of the sport. Families—moms, dads and kids—enjoying on the trail wiener roasts. It was a young sport with young families.
Ski-Doo was Number One. Bright, colorful snowsuits befitting the colorful age of the 1960s and bell bottom styles of the 1970s were readily available at Ski-Doo snowmobile dealerships.
But then the times began to change and gasoline lines appeared. The economy was a challenge. And there were a few low snow seasons. Snowmobiling began to suffer and snowmobilers looked for features in their sleds that would give them better ride, more performance.
Innovation Changes Demand
Innovation began to flourish as consumers sought new features. Innovation came from Thief River Falls, Minnesota. The Arctic Cat Panther featured a new parallel rail slide suspension that handled bumps much more smoothly than Ski-Doo’s bogie wheel suspension. Cat had lightweight riveted aluminum chassis and the engines were mounted over the skis to give the sled better turning capabilities.
Ski-Doo fought it out with Arctic Cat. Just as Ski-Doo recognized the value of positive public relations and used it to grow, Arctic Cat saw a need for aggressive marketing to showcase its features.
Where a PR guy had helped with Ski-Doo’s growth, a young and creative advertising firm would create an image for Arctic Cat that would instill such loyalty among Cat owners that many would rather give up snowmobiling than not ride an Arctic Cat snowmobile.
As Ski-Doo dropped to second place behind Arctic Cat’s innovative new machinery, Arctic Cat’s advertising set the brand apart with clever slogans and top notch creative photography.
Cat Leads And Falters
As the snowmobile industry slowed and sales numbers shrunk in the late 1970s, Arctic Cat overextended itself by purchasing boat building companies and private labeling equipment like lawn mowers and outboards. Finally Cat had key loans called in and the company was shut down and liquidated by 1981. Arctic Cat was not only no longer Number 1; it was no longer in the snowmobile business.
But, by 1983 and thanks to its loyal following, Arctic Cat snowmobiles reappeared. That clever advertising had inadvertently saved Arctic Cat sleds.
Incredibly Arctic Cat had been such a strong Number 1 that surveys of snowmobilers showed that nearly half of all snowmobilers either owned or had owned an Arctic Cat brand snowmobile! So it was in 1983 that Arctic Cat snowmobiles began the long road back under a new corporate umbrella created by former Arctic Cat employees for loyal Cat snowmobilers.
Cat Out, Yamaha In
When Cat dropped out of the picture, Yamaha popped in. The company had seen steady growth and offered great products like the Phazer, a lightweight machine that was priced right and attracted many buyers. One feature was its unique Torsion Spring Strut suspension. By the mid-1980s this was the best selling snowmobile on the market.
Unlike the previous snowmobile market leaders, it wasn’t really Yamaha’s goal to be Number One. In fact, unless you were a snowmobiler tuned in to the industry, you might not know that Yamaha was the leader. Yamaha, like Gerald Ford, became leader by default.
Yamaha proved to be a very responsible leader, attempting to broaden the snowmobile market with unique products for non-snowmobilers like the toy-sized Snoscoot, which proved to be a failure.
At the same time Polaris, which had undergone its own near-death experience in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was now under new management with an innovative new snowmobile that was catching the snowmobiling public’s attention. The Polaris Indy with its trailing arm suspension and excellent handling was proving to be a homerun for the company.
As the snowmobile market softened and it was left to serious veteran snowmobilers, Polaris gained marketshare among this group thanks to the Indy. Polaris was astute enough to expand the Indy concept to more than just performance sleds. The Indy became its own line with models for trails, mountains, touring and racing. It also became a top selling model as Polaris management priced it aggressively and promoted it using the same advertising agency that had made Arctic Cat Number One years before.
Ski-Doo REVs Up Again
As the Indy showed its age and Polaris innovation was brought to bear on ATVs, the Polaris marketshare suffered. For 12 years Polaris enjoyed being Number One in sales. Then came the Ski-Doo REV with its totally unique riding style and its reintroduction of the rider into the “fun” of snowmobiling. The REV was light and nimble. Unique and fun to ride, the Ski-Doo REV appealed to the savvy snowmobiler. Soon it would edge Ski-Doo to a position that it hadn’t held since the 1970s.
And we are back to the beginning as each snowmobile manufacturer has been Number One at least once! That’s the history of who’s been Number One in sled sales since the rise of the recreational snowmobile. From here on out, every Number One will be repeating its own history. But from where we stand it seems that innovation plays a big part in making one brand Number One before another. Snowmobilers are savvy enthusiasts and enjoy their innovative rides!