As I believe Mark Twain once famously said, “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated” and likewise the decline of Harley Davidson, because of one reason or another, may be grist for another news story but how much is true and how much simply tantalizing speculation?
Harley Davidson, like any other company, has a customer base with certain similarities, in their similar taste in bikes if nothing else. But the story now being promoted is the male baby boomers are aging enough, the first wave moving into their sixties, that buying a new Harley may not on their list of things to do. News stories suggest hip and knee replacements are pervasive and make you think once you hit sixty, the whole world falls apart. (I think a few of those writers haven’t been paying attention to the advances in health recently)
Obviously, most sixty plus riders aren’t going to be putting their knees down unless they’re changing their oil, but is that a problem for HD? That sounds like the huge baby boom generation won’t be buying sportbikes as often but you can ride a big Harley just as well as a Gold Wing and I don’t see any suggestions of Honda losing touring bike sales in an aging market. Some older riders will eventually stop riding and younger riders will pick it up. But, still, is this aging market a problem?
It could be if you focus on serving only the male, primarily white, baby boomer market but recently Harley has been trying to attract more women riders, just like all of the other companies and motorcycle accessory manufacturers, too. Everyone seems to be coming out with riding gear aimed specifically at women, which is a good thing as comments we’ve received indicate, and they’ve also been looking to ethnic markets where HD has been a bit weak. Blacks and Hispanics are not seen as often in the Harley crowd and HD wants to change that. This is exactly like the auto manufacturers who are more recently targeting cars and trucks to those groups.
Harley has promoted a “Harley Davidson lifestyle” for a long time, a semi fictional series of images that play in the minds of potential customers to get them to walk into the local HD dealer so they can join in. Does this lifestyle fit the needs or desires of the groups they want to attract? Probably not without a little tweak here and there or even some major revisions and maybe that’s what they need to do. Maybe there isn’t one story or image that will appeal to enough customers to keep things going and they may have to diversify that image to fit smaller groups. Someone interested in the urban biker scene is unlikely to find a Harley to his liking which is where some Buell derivation might fit. The Vrod family is more likely to attract the drag racing or horsepower and performance crowd. The big Harley Touring rigs always have a market for long range riders and the softail or FXR models appeal more to the chopper or custom type of customer.
Although Honda used to have their “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” campaign many years ago, no one tries to fit everyone into a Honda lifestyle because there isn’t one. Honda covers all the bases and as a result sells a lot of bikes. Harley can appeal to most of those same riders, too, as long as they don’t try to force a “one size fits all” strategy on those riders.
Harley may have to adapt in the future but not simply because their primary market is aging but because there are fewer homogenous markets for anything anymore and if you think about it that way, all companies have the same worry, not just Harley. I expect to see Harley around for a long time, not quite the same Harley we’ve seen over the years maybe, but they’ll be around, nevertheless.
A few more thoughts: Harley’s recent decisions to push into China may be an example of the “one size fits all” strategy instead of targeting groups with focused products. The Harley lifestyle in China? The market is changing for everyone and trying to do more of what you did before because it worked here so it will have to work there, too, isn’t thinking long term and ignores your potential customers. Hard as it may be for Harley to admit, not everyone wants to be an American Harley rider, China has no movie history like “The Wild One” and “Easy Rider” and no Sturgis or Bike Week. Dropping big chrome V twins on their market may just result in a dull thud when they hit. Looking at the huge number of Chinese people doesn’t mean they’re going to be HD customers. The HD appeal here in the US has to change and developing those other target markets in this country may make it easier to sell Harleys worldwide.