Harley-Davidson Brand Needs to Build New Riders, Not New Bikes

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Millennials are killing everything, including America’s most iconic motorcycle brand. Or at least that’s an alluring headline. Are Harley-Davidson’s recent woes because of millennials? Or is it something else, or a little of both? And what’s the legendary brand doing about it?

How Harley-Davidson Is Reaching Out to Millennials While Still Appealing to Boomers” and “Harley-Davidson cracks the millennials’ code with bikes, events” were headlines from 2015 and 2016, respectively. But now it’s “Millennials could be a problem for America’s most iconic motorcycle brand” or the less subtle “Millennials don’t like motorcycles, and that’s killing Harley’s sales.” The statistics behind the warning are that Harley-Davidson, representing half the US motorcycle market, missed recent sales projections, a 1.6% slide in YOY sales. Analysts warned that “younger Gen Y population is adopting motorcycling at a far lower rate than prior generations.”

Harley-Davidson’s response was swift. In an interview after the news with The Street, Harley-Davidson CEO Matt Levatich said, “There are plenty of millennials riding motorcycles.” He cited the fact that the used motorcycle market has more than twice the turnover of the new market.

Some blame a Millennial consumer group shellshocked by the Great Recession and unwilling to commit to luxury purchases like a Harley. And then there’s the simple fact that Millennials are far less interested in driving motor vehicles of any kind. In 1983, practically 99% of those between 20 and 24 had a drivers license. It’s now dropped to 77%. Motorcycles require drivers licenses just like four-wheeled cars, so it would stand to reason this simple lifestyle change would adversely affect motorcycle sales on the whole.

The truth is that millennials aren’t so much killing America’s heritage brands as forcing them to evolve. Harley’s CEO acknowledged this in The Street interview, saying “We have to shift from we build bikes to we build riders,” meaning the brand doesn’t just have to build the motorbikes millennials want but that it needs to build millennials that want motorbikes.

At least one expert at motor publication The Drive echoed this analysis, laying the blame not on millennial tastes but on Harley’s brand stigma “of putting heritage before innovation.” The piece ends with a scathing challenge to Harley-Davidson: “Harley can’t sit around and wait for millennials to get older, hoping we’ll suddenly like their bikes when we hit 40-years-old. We don’t like them now and we still won’t like them when we’re old unless a major brand overhaul takes place.”

Harley has made recent overtures to younger riders, including its participation in the X Games.  And one product that might help overhaul the Harley brand with millennials is the much hyped “Livewire.” The brand’s electric super-bike made its dramatic Hollywood debut in The Avengers franchise. The Livewire looks more like a sleek Ducati bike than a “Hog” and Harley maintains that it will eventually be available. But there is no hard date or timeline. Until then, Harley-Davidson will likely have to endure headlines like the most recent ones.

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