Road Forever: Harley’s Young Old Guys

I can recall going back at least 15 years ago and reading about the coming demographic disaster for Harley- Davidson. For at least that long Wall Street and pundit-types have been on the Motor Company concerning the fact that they rode guys of the Baby Boomer Generation (born 1946-1964) to sales growth that finally peaked in 2006 at 349,196 units. The recession accelerated a crash to 223,023 units in 2009, and although sales have inched their way back to 260,839 in 2013, that is still  down over 25% from the peak seven years ago. Yes, despite the company’s increase in foreign sales and out-reach to women and minorities, they are “back” only an additional 4% per year from the disastrous 2009. Looked at another way, in seven years of effort, they’ve gained back about 30% of the unit sales they lost. Is that really good enough?

Just a thought: Why couldn’t Harley try taking as much interest in the health and well-being of its aging core customer base as they do their employees? Although they stopped reporting the average age of their buyers in 2008 when it was 48 years, it is now estimated to be very close to 50. Unfortunately, when I recently asked ten people (non-riders) who were in their 20’s and 30’s what they pictured in their mind’s eye when I said, “Harley rider,” the images did not quite match up with recollections of James Dean and Easy Rider.

The whole Harley-Davidson mystique is as iconically American as you can get; unfortunately, that iconic image includes the fact that Americans in general are in tough physical condition and are not aging as well as they could be. The fact that HD’s core customers are aging out of the market is especially problematic in that they were the very nature of the market. As these guys turn frail and wither and die, I’m afraid that too many younger prospective buyers see the market wither and die with them. The boomers are taking the appearance of fun and adventure with them…they just too often don’t look the part.

I don’t think this post in jsonline by “abillmann” is completely unfair; indeed it seems fairly typical of what I see in various forums and in listening to the relatively small percentage of younger buyers that might afford an expensive cruiser: Harley’s got a huge problem. Their true core customer base left the brand a long time ago, taking a lot of Harley cred with it. Now, Harley (the brand) represents aging boomer weekend-warrior wannabes. There’s nothing wrong with that, but consider: The bad-a$s aspect of the brand is gone, there are no obvious market segments for growth, and the existing base will soon be too old to ride. (And if they DO keep riding, the brand evolves even further into Grandpa/Grandma territory.) Has Harley’s own trip to brand hospice already begun?

To an important degree, Harley has to rebrand from an inadvertent but perhaps inevitable old and typically out of shape, to fun and active; from couch potato on two wheels and all too representative of a creaky and aging demographic, to people who take control and have the most fun they’ve ever had in their lives! How do they accomplish that? By simply describing and then implementing A New Paradigm. The Motor Company already shifted in that direction with the way they look at the fitness of their employees. They have worked hard to appeal to women, minorities and to increase their foreign sales. However, think of what they could do with their unnecessarily excessively aging customers. By acknowledging that the rate at which their customers become infirm and have to give up riding is not the inevitable consequence of aging, but rather is the result of lifestyle choices, Harley could reclaim thousands of buyers. In doing that, they would be showing younger generations of potential buyers that HD is all about taking control, having fun and kicking ass for real!

(As an aside, the feeling that comes from this is what Harley-Davidson sells. If you don’t feel the connection between the bike, the song, and the name of the band, than you just don’t get it. That’s ok….not everyone will.)

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