2009 Marks Ninja's 25th Anniversary

Publish Date: 
Jun 9, 2009

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Kawasaki’s "Ninja" brand name, a name that has become globally synonymous with sport bikes.

Industry icon and Dealernews columnist Mike Vaughan led the Ninja revolution as director of marketing for Kawasaki Motor Corp., USA from 1979 to 1990. Dealernews recently talked with Vaughan to learn how the Ninja name became a mainstay in the motorcycle marketplace.

Here's the story Vaughan has to tell:

"The Ninja, as I recall, was sort of a surprise for us, in that we hadn't really asked for it — not that everything we had to sell was something we'd asked for, but the Ninja, or what was to become the Ninja, really bowled us over.

"In 1979, they showed us the first GPzs, and I suggested then that we call them 'Ninja.' The Japanese blew it off, and frankly my colleagues weren't crazy about it either. So the name retired to a folder until the GPz900 was revealed to us (by us, I mean the guys who were on the 'product planning' committee).

"We probably saw the first examples of the bike maybe in late '82. It seemed to me that this really was the Ninja, and I began campaigning for the adoption of the name.

"At about the same time, we switched advertising agencies. The old agency, which had had the account for a number of years, was on my side with regard to the name. But the new agency, wanting to establish their creds, proposed calling it the 'Panther.'

"Anyway, there ensued a battle between mostly me and the agency over the name. In the meantime, the U.S. Kawasaki guys began to see how appropriate the name was for the bike and also become advocates ... I think by this time it was Bob Moffit, Gary 'Jet' Johnson and Dave Dewey.

"The Japanese argument against the name was that the Ninja were outlaws and the name would somehow be shameful. I had collected a bunch of names of Japanese motorcycles, from one of my trips to Japan, like Carrot, Gorilla, etc., and explained to them how ridiculous these names would be to Americans, and tried to convince them that because the Ninja concept was unknown to most Americans, the name's image would be whatever we made it.

"About this time I stumbled across a Japanese windsurfing magazine, with a bunch of young Japanese men and women on the cover standing with their boards and giving the camera the finger. It was explained to me that this was how the Japanese expressed number one, and that windsurfing was the No. 1 sport in Japan. I tried using this imagery to convince them that Americans and Japanese viewed things differently ... but to no apparent avail. Anyway, to make a long story brief, almost right until the time the bike was officially released, I and the rest of us assumed it was going to be called the Panther — although I don't recall seeing a logo for it, but there must have been.

"I had left the office for an ad shoot or something when I got a call from Mr. Henry Noda, my boss and VP of marketing, that Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI) had agreed to call the bike 'Ninja.' As I understand it, the last hold-out for naming the bike was the president of Kawasaki Motors Corp., USA, Mr. Tazaki. Jet Johnson, God bless his soul, had gone in at the last moment and lobbied Tazaki to agree to the Ninja name and had won.

"It's interesting to note that everywhere else in the world, the bike was the GPz900 — no other country adopted the name, and some still haven't, I believe.

"The bike was introduced to our dealers in January of '84 at a meeting in Honolulu, and of course, it was a hit. The name was still an iffy, and we didn't survey the dealers about it. If we had, I think we'd have lost. We did the world press launch at Laguna Seca, and its first public showing was at the Chicago consumer show in mid-February. I was anxious to get consumer reaction to the name, so I hovered around the display for quite a while; most people examined the bike, checked the name and walked away. Finally, a couple of guys came up, eye-balled the bike's name plate and said 'Nina! What the heck is a Nina?' I just about died. I thought my career was over.

"We then launched our advertising campaign involving images of a Ninja. I have to say, once the decision was made, the agency really got on the bandwagon and the bike became a roaring success ... not necessarily because of the name, but because it was so good. The name was the frosting on the cake. My proudest moment was when Honda ran a TV ad with the line, 'Even a Ninja fears a Hurricane!' Yeah, right, thanks for the recognition.

"I guess the rest is history — 'Ninja' has become like 'Kleenex' for sportbikes, a kind of all-encompassing name."

—Submitted by Guido Ebert