Super Cub Anniversary
Publicity Was Also Unique
In October of 2017, the Super Cub series surpassed the worldwide production milestone of 100 million units. And in 2018, Honda will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Super Cub’s debut. Here, we’d like to introduce the history and charms of the Super Cub, which has grown to become a perennial favorite around the world since its birth in 1958.
Super Cub Story Vol. 2
“We’re not going to rely on advertising
alone to sell the Super Cub.”
The Super Cub’s first large-scale advertising campaign didn’t start until three years after its debut. Mr. Tsugio Ogata’s Tokyo Graphic Designers was commissioned to formulate a profoundly memorable series of advertisements. Taking Soichiro Honda’s ideas to heart, Ogata and Honda co-founder Takeo Fujisawa formed a new ‘Dynamic Duo’ who conceived a string of advertising ‘masterpieces’ that explored new demand for the revolutionary Super Cub.
Honda released the Super Cub in 1958. Staffed by some 2,700 employees and with 720 million yen in capital, Honda was one of many companies then struggling to rebuild Japan. Only 10 years had passed since the company was established, and founder Soichiro Honda (1906 – ‘91) could often be seen covered in sweat and oil as he led his company together with partner Takeo Fujisawa (1910 – ’88).
By the time of the Super Cub’s release, Honda was already Japan’s No. 1 motorcycle manufacturer. However, the bigger dream of its two founders was to become the world’s most unique and successful manufacturer of every form of transport, whether that be motorcycles, cars or even aircraft. While Soichiro Honda, as president of the company, was a consummate engineer, it was ‘advisor’ and managing director Takeo Fujisawa who provided management guidance for both Soichiro and Honda. Both had experienced many hardships in their struggles on the way up to becoming chief executives who valued people’s sensibilities.
In pursuit of Honda’s quantum leap to greatness, Takeo Fujisawa made plans for a small, convenient and comfortable ‘mobility vehicle’ which could be easily mass-produced and which everybody — regardless of age or sex — could ride. Soichiro Honda developed the Super Cub to be precisely the sort of mobility vehicle Fujisawa had in mind.
When first released, this unique motorcycle became an instant hit, exactly as planned, and sold like nothing ever before. So it would be no exaggeration to say that both Soichiro Honda and Takeo Fujisawa had extraordinary skills and insight into both product development and marketing. In 1958, when the Super Cub was released, 24,000 units were sold in the first five months, and as many as 167,000 units were delivered to customers the following year. This occurred at a time when annual total motorcycles sales throughout Japan was around 300,000 units. Come 1961, fully three years after its release, Fujisawa started giving some thought to commencing advertising activities to promote the Super Cub on an even larger scale.
Three Years After Its Release, the Super Cub's First Major Advertising Campaign Finally Begins.
This was extraordinary to say the least. Why would large-scale advertising activities only begin three years after a product had been put on the market?
Tsugio Ogata (1932 – 2012), president of Tokyo Graphic Designers, who was given sole responsibility for the Super Cub’s advertising activities in those early days, offered the following observation: “Mr. Fujisawa always said he would never rely on advertising alone to sell the Super Cub. Therefore, when the Super Cub was released, he didn’t use any mass advertising, save for a few newspaper ads. He felt strongly that since the Super Cub was such a thoroughly outstanding creation of Soichiro Honda’s, customers who wanted a Super Cub should be dealt with person-to-person at Honda’s many small dealer shops. And if it gained a good enough reputation, sales would automatically follow by word of mouth. Just as he thought, the Super Cub sold tremendously well. Profits earned from those initial sales were invested in quality improvements, as well as construction of Honda’s Suzuka factory to strengthen the company’s base of manufacturing expertise.
“As the next step, Mr. Fujisawa planned to begin a large-scale advertising campaign to help the Super Cub become better known throughout Japan by both men and women of all ages who were not yet familiar with it, so that they could become its next wave of customers.”
As Takeo Fujisawa cultivated human resources within the Honda company, he also consulted a network of ‘brains’ outside the company. One of these was graphic designer Tsugio Ogata, who had previously worked in the advertising department of the famed Takashimaya department store chain. Almost daily, the 50-year-old Fujisawa and 28-year-old Ogata discussed what sorts of advertising they should come up with. These were not formal meetings exactly, but rather brainstorming sessions, occasions where both could talk candidly and share ideas. Leaping at the chance to be at the genesis of the Super Cub’s advertising activities, Ogata immediately set out to become independent with the establishment of Tokyo Graphic Designers.
Newspaper advertisements such as this announcing the Super Cub’s impending release carried Soichiro Honda’s now-famous declaration, ‘The Super Cub is in Production!’ As sales began, people were moved by such clear and powerful advertisements.
“The Super Cub Is Mobility for Our Lives.”
This ad was infused with such feeling that it became a major sensation,
and the Super Cub quickly penetrated new markets.
Fujisawa and Ogata set the course for Honda’s new advertising strategy. Together they made the decision to place a continuous series of advertisements in both weekly general-interest magazines and women’s magazines in order to increase the Super Cub’s visibility among people who were still unfamiliar with motorcycles. Till then, motorcycle ads had rarely been seen in general-interest magazines. However, by extending their advertising activities to include women’s magazines, they managed to attract even wider interest.
But this was hardly enough. In order for the ads to successfully appeal to the audience they were designed to reach, they needed to be fresh and interesting enough to attract the attention of the average person. The first round of advertisements was thus created.
Ogata recalled: “In the final stages of the Super Cub’s development, Mr. Honda told Mr. Fujisawa, ‘This is a bike that a soba noodle delivery man can ride with one hand and a stack of noodle trays balanced on his shoulder.’ Mr. Fujisawa then quickly decided that our first round of ads should be a soba noodle shop series. We drove off to the Tama River, which we often used for background when shooting commercial films, rushed into a soba shop named ‘Heitai-ya’ where we used to go for lunch, and asked the 16-year old shop boy there to be the model in our photos.”
The result was the first round of Super Cub ads, which included the “Soba-mo genki-da, Okkasan!” (The Soba is Good, Too, Ma!) advertisement. This was based on the concept of a young lad having come to Tokyo from the countryside to study and train at a local soba shop in the making of good soba noodles. While there, he sends letters and photos to his mother in the remote countryside to let her know how he spends his days, which readers could see just as the mother would upon opening the envelope. The first letter read, “There’s no question that this shop’s biggest sales point is that it has a Super Cub. It makes deliveries so much quicker, which keeps the noodles from getting soggy. Our customer numbers have really taken off. The Super Cub also delivers great performance and lets me to ride with one hand, so I really feel like my job has become meaningful.”
The ad offered a witty sketch of the lives of common folk infused with a touch of humor, and was accompanied by advertising copy written in small type which read: “Quiet engine, world’s top 50cc, 4.5 horsepower.”
Soichiro Honda was delighted whenever he saw the ‘The Soba Is Good, Too, Ma!’ ad, and used to exclaim, “Great! A soba delivery boy with a good attitude always makes me happy.”
It was ads like this that really stuck in people’s minds, and soon came to symbolize Honda at a time when the company was striving to be a maker of easy-to-use mobility vehicles that could take the drudgery out of common people’s lives and make their days more convenient and easy.
Ogata remarked, “’The ‘Soba Is Good, Too, Ma!’ ad was an instant hit. Mr. Fujisawa was overjoyed, telling me that Honda suddenly received a rush of orders for 4,000 Super Cubs from restaurants and soba shops throughout Japan. Since it did so well, we rushed to develop more ads in quick succession.”
Tokyo Graphic Designers, lead by the young Tsugio Ogata, used its brains and wits to come up with novel ideas. It wasn’t easy. They needed to be ads that grabbed the hearts of men and women of all ages to remind them that the Super Cub was mobility created just for them. Takeo Fujisawa didn’t approve of easy ideas, or those that were merely eccentric.
Showing Innovative Thinking, the 2nd and 3rd Shots Also Prove Popular.
The second ad, “Fune-wa ro-makase, Riku-wa Cub!” (Leave the Boats to Their Oars; on Land It’s the Cub!) was thus created. Over a photo showing the Super Cub loaded aboard a river ferry, which were common throughout Japan at the time, was the copy, “When you’re in a hurry, the Honda Cub might ride slowly and easily over the water, but once you hit land, it’ll run like the devil.” As bridges were few in those days, river ferries were often people’s sole mode of transport across the water, so being easy to load onto a small boat was a big sales point for the Super Cub.
“This second ad also soon became a major sensation. During the photography, we loaded a Super Cub onto a ferry as passengers were boarding. Everybody in the boat eyed it with great interest, as if saying “What’s this, then?” or “That motorbike fits in a small river ferry just like a bicycle!” The response we got this time was so strong that we based our ideas for the third ad on that experience,” Ogata recalled.
The third ad was titled, “Kyō-mo wadai-wa Kabu-ga saratta!” (Cub Grabs the Headlines Again!) Its photo showed people on a river ferry gazing admiringly at the Super Cub.
Just as Fujisawa envisioned, the Super Cub’s weekly magazine ads instantly became the main topic of conversation among the people it was aimed at, resulting in an almost virtuous circle of Ogata and his staff releasing one advertising masterpiece after another as this friendly little motorbike penetrated the hearts and minds of the populace.
Such advertising masterpieces included the “Tsuritengu-no ashi-mo Kabu” (The Cub Also Gives Legs to Master Anglers!) ad for fishing fans who enjoy riverbank fishing, the “Nikku-nēmu-wa Honda-sensei” (His Nickname is Professor Honda) ad in which a college professor commutes to school by Super Cub, “Tsūkin-rasshu-ni sayonara” (Say Farewell to the Commuter Rush), in which the Super Cub is ridden by a salaried worker in a business suit, “Tōkute chikakiwa.. Inaka-no michi” (So Distant Yet So Close… Country Roads), in which the Super Cub is ridden down an unpaved rural road, and “Haikingu + Doraibu” (Hiking and Driving), which showed the Super Cub being ridden on a forest trail. These masterpieces of advertising were too numerous to enumerate, but their impact can be seen from these examples.
The best of these ads expressed what a delight the Super Cub was, and how useful it was in daily life. Prominent among them was the ”Nichiyō-to Getsuyō!” (Sunday and Monday!) ad, which featured two photos side-by-side of the Super Cub being ridden by a man wearing a necktie, and the same rider dressed to go fishing.
Unprecedented: Super Cub ads also appeared in women's magazines!
As the Super Cub’s continuous stream of weekly magazine ads began to enjoy a surge of popularity, the time had come to at last start developing advertisements for women’s magazines. Ogata described the impact these ads had on people at the time:
“Motorcycle ads were simply not seen in women’s magazines in those days. People in other advertising and publication companies were astounded when we ran them. However, those advertisements are now kept in the collection of a print museum as testament to how revolutionary they were for the time.”
One prominent feature of the Super Cub ads that Fujisawa and Tokyo Graphic Designers developed for women’s magazines was the elegance and beauty of their photography. Ads developed for the weekly magazines were mostly single-page advertisements, often using snapshot-style photos. However, the advertisements used in women’s magazines were all double-page spreads employing modern color photography. The young women who appeared in them were depicted as representatives of a new era enjoying active, independent lifestyles. These ads exhibited a remarkable sense of innovation and could almost be considered pioneers of feminism.
The “Dainamikku-na seishun-no kūkan” (Dynamic Space of Youth) ad featured an aerial photo of a girl riding the Super Cub along a sandy beach washed by white waves. “Chotto kōgen-e” (Short Trip to the Highlands) showed a young woman in the woods, lounging in a hammock reading a book. “Taiyō-ga ippai” (High Noon) depicted a woman enjoying a sand bath on a beach. “Kabu-de chokkō!” (No Detours on a Cub!) depicted a female skier being pulled along by the Super Cub. “Sanpo-no oshare” (A Fashionable Stroll) showed a woman on a Super Cub and the man accompanying her reflected on water. “Tsui, sasowarete” (Invitation to Temptation) showed a woman riding the Super Cub along a springtime river bank, and “Suzushisa-ni noru” (Cool Riding) featured people playing in a swimming pool in summer. These indelible images of life were immortalized in a stream of advertisements created in quick succession.
Most impressive of all was the “Rokugatsu-no hanayome” (June Bride) ad in which a young lady in her wedding dress leans on the shoulder of her man, both seated on the Super Cub’s tandem seat with the pastel shades of a pink-clouded sky in the background. This ad was accompanied by the catch copy, “Let the happy couple ride! To the soft sounds of an engine…” and indeed the words ‘June Bride’ themselves were in vogue at the time.
Ads Revealing the Super Cub’s Essence Were Also One of Its Pioneering Strengths.
Ogata recounted an interesting story behind the development of the women’s magazine ads. “Whenever a woman wanted to buy a Super Cub, she’d have to visit a local Honda dealer. However, the shop would usually smell of dirt and oil, and there would invariably be a surly old man running the place. Although he might be a reliable dealer who also provided riding instructions for his mostly male clientele, he rarely knew how to handle the situation when a female customer came through the door. The female customer would also be shocked and possibly frightened by his gruff manner, and soon would run away after a hurried chat with the owner.
“Mr. Fujisawa said such situations seemed to take place with disappointing regularity, and he was at a loss as to what to do about it. So, we tried to think of a way to solve this problem. As a result, we made up some pretty aprons printed with heart marks, flowers and birds, and distributed them to our dealers throughout the country. The idea being that the wife of the shop owner or dealer could wear the apron and deal more effectively one-on-one with the female customers.”
Such large-scale advertising activities turned out to be enormously successful, and the Super Cub sold well throughout the country, eventually coming to play such an integral role in people’s daily lives and work routines that every household seemed to have one. In 1960, the third year after its release, the number of units sold rapidly increased to 564,000 units, easily exceeding the monthly sales goal of 30,000 units first laid out by Fujisawa. The following year, Honda became the world’s No. 1 maker in terms of a single manufacturer’s motorcycle production volume, and the Super Cub accounted for by far the largest percentage of that volume. By 1966, the 8th year after its release, Honda reached the 5 million units mark in total aggregate sales. The Super Cub had successfully become ‘mobility’ for the people, as well as a regular fixture seen throughout Japan.
Looking back at the mass advertising activities carried out in that third year after the Super Cub was released, one can clearly see the incredible prescience and sensitivity to the changing times. Ads placed in the weekly magazines appealingly showed that a single Super Cub could enable more efficient use of time in both work and daily life, and expand one’s range of activities, thus making lives all the more enjoyable. This also easily corresponds to the ‘work-life balance’ concept that often turns up in today’s language. Additionally, many of the activities of women, which functioned as the core of advertising development in women’s magazines, are now considered genderless or ‘unisex’ if translated into today’s language, suggesting that the Super Cub was offering a more diverse new form of mobility.
In other words, these advertisements show that over half a century ago the Super Cub represented a form of mobility that could be accepted today and well into the future.
This can be seen clearly in the Super Cub advertising conceived and produced by Takeo Fujisawa and Tsugio Ogata. Although most people generally attribute Honda’s phenomenal growth to the market’s quick acceptance of its mobility products, Honda’s innate ability to more effectively and efficiently convey the essence of its products in advertising was another important factor that is liable to be lost to the mists of time.
There’s one more legend surrounding the Super Cub ads. And this involves the famous ‘Nicest People’ sales promotion campaign that was carried out in the United States in 1963, three years after the Super Cub was first released on the American market. Owing to the success of this promotional campaign, the Super Cub soon became an enormous hit in the United States as well. However, not so well known is the fact that a series of these original advertisements created by Tsugio Ogata was first sent to American Honda as reference materials illustrating the main concept of the campaign—and subsequently went on to become the fundamental idea behind the US campaign. Not only did the Super Cub successfully cross cultural borders, so did its advertising.