History of the Brand: FIRSTGEAR

Publish Date: 
Jul 27, 2012

The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a "name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller's good or service as distinct from those of other sellers." We’re all familiar with brands, and every product we buy or use is some kind of brand. Brands are like the job-seeker’s elevator speech; hearing or seeing the brand name of a product paints an instantaneous picture in our minds about the brand’s quality, reputation and position in the marketplace.

As an example, the brand name Yugo probably makes you burst out laughing. Yugo was the little rebranded Fiat 124 built in Yugoslavia and imported to the United States in the 1970s, and it was definitely not up to the needs of American drivers. Its reputation for unreliability soon surpassed its advantage of economy and was it shortly relegated to the graveyard of unsuccessful brands, alongside the corpses of New Coke, Excelsior-Henderson, and the nation's classic brand failure, Edsel.

Successful brands are built upon a foundation of quality, innovation, and consumer service. Tucker Rocky’s Firstgear brand meets all of these requirements.

This is Firstgear's story, courtesy Dealernews' Mike Vaughan.

WHEN YOU ARE A MANUFACTURER'S PRIMARY DISTRIBUTOR for a leading brand of high-end leather goods, and one of your largest customers calls you and tells you they can no longer carry your product because of their inability to compete with phone and mail-order sales, what do you do?

Some companies just might continue to trudge along and hope that their business isn’t hurt too badly by the situation. Others might figure that wholesale is wholesale, and what’s lost in brick-and-mortar defections will be made up by mail order sales. After all, the wholesale price is the same.

In 1989 Denis LaBonge, then president of Intersport Fashions West (IFW) and the U.S. licensee for Hein-Gericke, got exactly that call from one of his best customers, Terry Vance, who at the time owned a chain of successful retail outlets. According to Vance, customers would come into his shops, try on a jacket and then return home to order from a phone or mail-order retailer. Sound familiar?

From a legal standpoint, there wasn’t much IFW could do to stop the practice as there were no clauses in the existing sales agreement that prohibited it, and by law, a retailer can set its own price for the products it sells.

In reaction, LaBonge asked his legal counsel about a restriction on mail-order selling prior to a dealer accepting its first order. Their attorneys indicated that this would be legal, and as LaBonge puts it, “Bingo! We had a solution.”

A solution to the mail order/phone dilemma maybe, but no product. It was unlikely that a dealer would take on Hein-Gericke under the new contract as long as the existing provisions remained in place. Plus, there was no way to legally void the then current sales agreements, and perhaps worst of all, no alternative product that they were aware of could replace Hein-Gericke.

It was obvious to LaBonge that the only solution to the product side of the equation was to develop something new. He assembled his brain trust, consisting of Paul Golde, Eric Anderson, his partner Rick Miller, and Amy Gaitano. They were tasked with the job of coming up with a product line, name and a sales and marketing strategy that would differentiate them not only from their competitors, but from Hein-Gericke as well.

It was determined that the new product would not only be high-quality, but also stylish and innovative. Golde, who had extensive experience riding all kinds of motorcycles in all kinds of weather on all kinds of roads, was given the task of product development. The rest of the team began working on the “soft” side of the business. Anderson would need to develop a sales presentation that would compel dealers to stock the brand and if they did, to solidly reinforce the fact that they wouldn’t be competing against phone and mail order retailers. Gaitano’s assignment was to develop a comprehensive advertising and marketing platform. Miller, LaBonge’s partner and a 50 percent owner of the company, would work with Golde on styling and design. The entire team worked on developing a meaningful brand name.

Many creative sessions were held to come up with a new brand name. Top Gear was considered and subsequently rejected; it was an old Triumph name that had fallen into disuse. It did, however, lead to suggestions of 5th Gear, or 6th Gear? Then, “I said, Why not Firstgear? Bingo!” LaBonge said.

“My logic was twofold," he said. "‘First’ is an adjective implying the very best, and ‘gear’ implied equipment used in activities that required specialized clothing. From this effort came the best tagline ever: ‘Great Rides Start in Firstgear.”

The driving force behind the year-long project was to develop a brand that would be innovative, technologically advanced, competitively priced, and not available via mail order or telephone. Anderson’s sales pitch drove the point home graphically: “To make my point I beat the crap out of a mail box,” he said.