that gets Russian names like Svetlana and Katarina from its owners. A sidecar bike alone comes with its own personality, and one built in a Soviet-era factory Siberia should carry its own biography, but the Ural practically screams with individualism.
"You can fix it. You can touch. You can drill a hole in it. You can do whatever you want with it. You can really fix it in the middle of nowhere with a hammer and sickle, as they say," Madina said. "It'll take you anywhere, anywhere you want to go. Around the world. Across the country."
OEMs typically go after different buyer segments by offering a quiver of different bikes. The industry's modern lineup includes a motorcycle for just about any purpose. Short of painting it a fat metal flake green, installing hydraulics and doing a tuck-and-roll job on the upholstery, the Ural is still just going to be a singular metal sidecar motorcycle.
How do you rebrand a bike that's practically tattooed with its own history? This is the challenge the company now confronts with a new marketing effort that doesn't go after any particular buyer with any particular motorcycle. Rather than tell a group of riders that this is the bike they need for XYZ-style riding, Ural is asking its customers to find their own reflection in the product. (With a little help, of course.)
It's also hard to talk about specs or horsepower or numbers or weight, when none of those are the product's selling point, said Jon Bekefy, Ural's director of marketing. The company has retired the Soviet/military theme of the motorcycle and turned toward the then-nascent ADVRider/dual sport market. This is where the two-wheel drive became a strong selling point.
Some of the other options, such as selling its retro or vintage nature, don't really work, either, as Ural doesn't have the kind of scratch to compete in these growing segments, Bekefy noted.
"We can't market it to any one group with alienating the rest of the groups because we don't have a second bike, a second tool unless we try to market colors and kits," Bekefy said. "So we market one bike to everybody, create environments for the bike [in advertisements] and let people imagine their place in those environments. We're talking adventure or escape, which I think can bridge that gap to younger generations.
"You know, we're not selling track experience or wrenching experience, any of those things that people relate to, just pure escapism," Bekefy added.
Ural has created partnerships with the adventure travel publication Overland Journal and collaborated with Triple Aught Design, a San Francisco-based company that offers high-end outdoor adventure clothing and equipment, for a Fall 2012 Look Book. It also supplied a bike to ICON for a catalog, video and photo shoot and supports custom-bike design house Hammerhead Industries.
The social media push includes a presence on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest — all free forms of marketing. The new website has already resulted in an increase of the amount of time visitors are spending on the site — from less than a minute to now nearly five minutes on average, Bekefy said.
"I'm trying to be really new media about this whole thing and get in front of everyone with exploiting anyone or pandering. I typically put journalists on it when they're willing to get with the vibe and ride it the way our owners do," he said. "When I shot the new catalog, I used a lot of urban settings, just to try and play off that Indiana Jones duality of a bow tie and dress shirt from the waist up and dirty khakis and boots from the waist down. Thats the Ural and it's what I'm trying to show people."
A new ad campaign is geared toward reaching a younger demographic without taking hipster or vintage route, he explained. It's an attempt to feature the bike in the kind of timeless, adventuresome environments that call people to the road. The feedback thus far has been supportive — except for the handful of complaints from some old timers and miscellaneous cranks, Bekefy said.
For those Ural fans who fear the company is losing some sort of historical flavor, Bekefy said he knows that the heritage is there, that it can't be forgotten. But he suggests beyond that Stalin-esque background, the Ural is simply a great functional motorcycle, one that functions just a bit differently than anything else on the market.
"When people talk about losing the spirit or complain about the bike changing, we're not trying to maintain some sort of 1940s vignette," he said. "We're trying to build a motorcycle with a sidecar that's made of metal.
"We don't want to obsess with it being an 'old' bike. It is what it is. People who buy Urals, when they discover what hey can with one, it's about functionality, what they want to make out of it."
DEALER DEVELOPMENT. This marketing push is part of an overall campaign aimed directly at consumers with the idea of creating some pull-through demand for the product at the dealership level. This, in turn, feeds the drive by dealer development director Chuck Schram to sign up more Ural dealers.
One new dealership, Southern California's San Diego BMW, has been carrying Ural for a little less than a year now, and dealer principal Gary Orr says the whole experience has been a blast. He added the line to his dealership, he said, because no other stores in his area were offering sidecar motorcycles and he wanted to add something to his showroom that was just a bit different.
"The main thing that attracted me is that it's a sidecar motorcycle and it's unique and different. There's also some history that I can appreciate," Orr said. "Retrofitting sidecars onto BMWs, while you can do it, it's expensive."
Orr noted that customers who either purchase a Ural or just come by to look at them really appreciate the bike's quirky, fun aesthetic. "You can take someone who knows nothing about motorcycles and you can have them enjoying the ride in a short time. People are looking for them for recreation," he said. "It's something fun, something different and unique and something they can personalize."
Dell and Ginger Zehm have been selling Urals since 1994, back before Madina and Ilya took over the brand, out of their St. Croix Harley-Davidson dealership in New Richmond, Wis. Dell Zehm remembers the early bikes as being "terrible" motorcycles that still attracted a devoted following who liked the simple mechanics of a carburetor and a kickstart. "That was the appeal, there were kickstarters and you could work on them yourself," he said. "The downside is that you had to work on them yourself."
Zehm said that once the bikes were upgraded, he started selling more of them — about 15 to 20 a year starting in 2006. They've been doing similar business every year since and have even sold a handful of bikes to repeat customers.
"It's kind of a niche. The people usually have a BMW or a Ducati or some kind of imported bike in their history," he said. "Right now they're as good as the late '80s, early '90s Harley-Davidsons."
There seem to be big plans coming out of Redmond, Wash., in the lush, green office park where Ural's new headquarters are located. The dealer push. The new marketing and branding. The efforts at international distribution. There's even talk about upgrading the machinery and manufacturing process at the factory in Irbit. But that might be a ways off. For now they'll still be machining the bike's crankcase through a line of more than 60 machines that are manned by three people, with each machine performing just one operation such as threading the drain hole or boring the space for the camshaft bearing.
"You won't see this type of process on the modern factories," Ilya said. "All of these huge machines can be replaced by a just one CNC machining center, operated by one person. This is something we're working on right now."
So onto the larger stage goes the motorcycle developed in isolation from the rest of world, a bike now loved by many for its quirks and oddities. Behind it are Ilya and Madina, running a company that seems to exist far outside the powersports industry norm. And it seems to be working for them.
"We're weird. We're different," said Madina. "We're Russian."