When good icons go bad: Why Harley will struggle in the future

In the USA, motorcycles are only 3% of total road users—but 100% of the population would recognize the brand name Harley-Davidson. Not only that, most would assume that all street/cruisers are Harleys. So it’s no wonder that for well over a decade those in academia and the business br_258-67117c_harley_bar_and_shield_dvdworld are enthralled by how Harley did it and the fanatical customer loyalty the brand inspires. As many Harley aficionados love to brag, who else tattoos a company’s logo onto their skin?

The brand identity became a straitjacket: And that’s exactly the problem; the brand identity became a straitjacket the Motor Company has not been able to escape. Because Harley was unimaginative, fearful and too focused on quarterly results rather than long-term sustainable success, Harley may very well end up courting bankruptcy for the third time in the next decade. But it’s current and future woes will not be because of the choices consumers make as adults but what they experienced as children.

First Encounter of the bonding kind: Marketing consultant and psychoanalyst Clotaire Rapaille is “convinced that a person’s first encounter with an object or idea shaped his or her emotional relationship with it for life.  In large part, he believed, this explained American’s fascination with the SUV.[i] It also begins to explain why men 40 and older love Harleys.

Particularly because research also shows that both men and women who start riding as adults admired an extended family member or a neighbor who rode and rode on the back at least once. Generally, that someone was younger than the child’s parents and, in all cases, that person was admired as “cool”.

From Brand to Iconic Brand Douglas B. Holt in How Brands Become Icons[ii] describes how certain brands tell a “story” that are confluence points of socio-cultural forces–something about that brand sums up much greater and more complicated things such as Apple, Coca-Cola, Nike–and Harley.

Harley the brand became Harley the icon, he wrote because the negatives in the image of motorcycling and motorcyclists were transformed into positives by changing the “story” the brand told:

The positive image of motorcycling The negative image of motorcyclists is such a cliché it needs no discussion. But what Holt failed to note was that there was also a powerful set of positive images associated with motorcycling and their riders in the culture when the then_came_bronson-showcurrent middle-aged Harley rider was young. For example, there were shows like Then Came Bronson and CHiPs which had a powerful influence on young men’s imaginations.

As John G. Hanhardt points out, “In films which the motorcycle features predominately, the biker/hero manifests a desire to control his destiny and expresses his independence from the state, invoking heroic themes that have always been a part of the mythology of the American way of life…the lone rider…was both a fearless and a vulnerable explorer, an independent hero who was confronted with problems he has to solve by himself.”[iii]

It wasn’t just movies such as The Wild One or Easy Rider or Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man but ones like The Great Escape. m1x00124_stevemcqueen

Films and TV, Hanhardt went on to write, showed the motorcyclist was “looking for himself within an increasingly industrialized and homogenized society. Although the motorcycle is occasionally demonized, it is overwhelmingly represented as the vehicle for romance with a youthful yearning for freedom.”

In many ways, that 50s-70s motorcyclist was the reinvention of the cowboy—something many have noted. Holt, though, particularly zeroes in on the gunfighter part of that myth that was later transformed by Reagan into “heroizing [sic] the rough-and-tumble gunfighters as men-of-action who can single handedly save the country.”

That kind of story would resonate with the men who grew up watching not just the bikers in those films and TV shows but westerns and WWII war films that also evoked those themes. Events in society such as the Cold War, JFK’s assassination and other factors also hit these same messages. At the same time, society was going through massive changes in the 60s and 70s. Regardless of whether one shared the political or social views espoused, the radical, the rebel, the one who boldly and publicly lived according to their point of view was lionized by the media. The man-of-action doing something rebellious was admirable—and cool—to the youth of America.

Three stages of Coming To Harley: That cohort grew up and some of them became the working class man in an age when production jobs were disappearing—and rice bikes were kicking up road debris in Harley’s face. The positive gunfighter image of the motorcyclist, Holt says, spoke to these men by giving them a positive “story” that was a counterpoint to what they saw happening in America.

Harley specifically fit that story: the last American made motorcycle was a symbol for these men holding on to American “frontier values against the alien ideals proposed by the middle-class people living on the coasts.” It was also the time of Easy Riders magazine and the rise of ABATE—and the last certainly fit the mold of the independent man fighting alien ideals. These were rebels with a cause.

But some of that age group that had been formed by those images grew up to be white collar professionals—a group that wasn’t affected by the loss of production jobs and so forth. The motorcycle didn’t resonate for them…yet. Things were good for them and then came the Reagan years and the recession.

The next step in the transformation began with Malcolm Forbes. According to Holt, Forbes “crafted the Harley gunfighter [rider] as a distinctly capitalistic figure. Harley riders were warriors championing capitalism and liberty in the face of socialist threats” who had the “virility to reinvigorate society with libertarian values…Being a man meant pursuing the life of a rugged individualist manager, as an entrepreneur willing to take death-defying risks bother professionally and personally.”

But, according to Holt, it was Reagan who, for his own purposes, utilized the American Frontier myth and the man-of-action gunfighter who could save the world—something very appealing to the middle-class (and business people). And, coincidentally saved Harley by instituting the infamous tariff. “Harley symbolized the revitalization of U.S. economic power that was possible….” And it worked—Harley was the embodiment of Forbes’ philosophy and Reaganomics. And the “story” the brand symbolized appealed to the upper-middle and upper class as well as the working and middle class: all men were Terminators, so to speak, astride a Harley. Between Forbes and Reagan, then the groundwork was laid for the Rich Urban Biker.

By the mid-1990s, then greater currents in American culture and the elevation of ideals that resonated with the image of the motorcyclist had created a perfect storm across all socio-economic classes of (white) Baby Boomer men who found that Harleys expressed something about who they were and what they believed in.

Co-Opted not Co-authored: But this transformed more socially acceptable image of the motorcyclist wasn’t the result of effort by the Motor Company. Holt (and many others) say the brand was “co-authored” by those who used it—that the consumer created the brand identity along with the company. It was a classic case of trickle up, however, where customers and culture were the creative ones who made Harleys relevant. Harley brilliantly recognized that and co-opted what consumers did and realized it was selling a dream, a lifestyle rather than just a product and cleverly marketed the dream during those years.

And here’s the thing: for many of the middle-aged riders, it really was the immaterial that they were purchasing—few of these Harley riders actually put many miles on the motorcycles they bought. It was what Harley stood for that they were buying, not the activity.

The very confluence of images and issues that made Harley so successful, however, assured that the brand would reach market saturation at this specific time in history and that  the seeds of future failure had been sown decades before.

The brand identity though was so strong and so set and so integrated with specific cultural forces and appealed so strongly to a specific narrow range of ages that it became inflexible and unable to adapt without the danger of alienating the customer base. Harley’s five-year task force in the mid-1990s recognized that and also identified another problem: the brand identity didn’t attract minorities, women or young men.

Translate to a new time or die: According to Holt, brands must be able to translate the core “story” to meet the new times to continue to be successful. Brands that cannot do it lose market share. But that’s where Harley failed: the very rigidity of the iconic image meant it wouldn’t appeal to minorities, women or young men:

The number of women Harley owners did expand over the past decade to 12%.[iv] However, as Harley said for years, it’s hard to tell how many ride themselves and how many are the owner of record due to a the man in their life’s poor credit record. And, according to Harley’s own demographics, women’s ownership flat-lined in 2005 at 12% and had only risen 1% since 2003—iow, Harley had hit market saturation with women three years before it hit it with (white) men. In 2009, however, the MIC Owner survey found that women were 23% of the riding population in 2008. These women had the same cultural background as the men who grew up to choose Harley. However there was Women’s Lib that influenced these women and there was—and still is—an undeniably chauvinistic and sexist image to Harleys that the Motor Company did nothing to counter even while attempting to attract women riders. This Easyriders Magazine cover “uncovers” alot of that disdain women have towards the Harley lifestyle image. Easyriders_06_84_FC

Much more can be said on why women do not respond to Harleys—but that can wait until another entry.

When it comes to minorities, there has been an vibrant motorcycling culture in the African-American and Latino cultures since at least WWII and it continues to grow.[v] Throughout its history, Harley hasn’t discouraged racial minorities from buying Harleys—however, for most of its existence, it did nothing to encourage them either. And the public perception of a link between Harleys and Hells Angels, who did not allow African-Americans to join, gave an appearance of racism.

Minority participation whether on Harleys or sport-type bikes has been urban-based and segregated—though why that is lies beyond the scope of this essay. The net result is that little is known about non-white Harley riders and the public perception is that Harley owners are overwhelmingly white—which is, in fact, the reality.

img_about_bike_LTR While Harley claims it has worked to increase minority participation, that’s not evident on the official Harley site.  No matter what link one clicks on, there’s photos of white men well over 30 and some women—but there was only one place where there’s and Latino or African-American presence is in the Rider’s Edge section. While three (white) women are heard among the four video clips and the one young (white) man, and one middle-aged Latino, the African-American who is in the class doesn’t nor does the older African-American on the range, which is simply odd.

There’s also one tiny picture of a black couple in the 2008 Annual Report on page 11, and Harley’s official demographics gives five years of data on age, gender and income—but not race.

Harley also intensely pursued a policy of big-box dealerships that moved them away from urban areas and coincidentally to areas with a high population of white residents.

Nor has Harley made an effort to raise the public profile of such African-American Harley-riding clubs or individual riders to the mainstream public. Worse, yet, Harley has even less appeal for young minority riders—and minority young women—than it does for white young adults.

Once again, this is not to say Harley is racist. It just appears that only older white men ride Harleys. By all appearances, then, Harley is a brand only white aging men can love. As the bulk of the Baby Boomer generation is now well over 40, this does not bode well for future company growth.

Short selling the stockholders: Yet according to the US Census, females are just over 50%, Blacks are 12.8%, Hispanic/Latinos are 15.4%. of the population. That’s an awful lot of potential market to fail to reach. Analysts have given more and more attention to Harley’s age problem but have not even noticed how white–and male–the brand identity is nor discussed how both those will affect the Motor Company’s future growth. Nor do stockholders appear to be aware of how inept Harley has been in trying to expand its market–or how blazingly successful other motorcycle manufacturers are at attracting the young, women and minorities.

More critical to Harley’s success or failure in the immediate future and beyond is why it doesn’t attract young men and women. And that’s the subject of the next entry.


[i] Bradsher, Keith. High and Mighty: The Dangerous Rise of the SUV. Public Affairs Press. New York. 2002.

[ii] Holt, Douglas B. How Brands Become Icons. Harvard Business School Press. Boston, MA. 2004.

[iii] Hanhardt, John G.,“The Motorcycle on Screen”, Motorcycle Mania: The Biker Book. Guggenheim Museum. p.13. p. 99.

[iv] Various Harley documents give different numbers but most often one between 4-5% as women owners prior to 2003.

[v] See Black Motorcycle Clubs: http://www.blackmotorcycleclubs.net/ and the list of clubs available on a link there or list at http://www.blackrefer.com/black_motorcycle_clubs2.html but note that almost all of them are either all sports bikes or mixed and few (except those that are directly fostered by Harley) are strictly Harley clubs.

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18 Comments on “When good icons go bad: Why Harley will struggle in the future”

  1. Dave B Says:

    Excellent article. I’ve often wondered why so many people are infatuated with Harleys and the brand name. You did a great job of explaining it.

  2. Dave Jenneke Says:

    Hi Wendy,
    Nice work as usual.
    Monster

  3. LoneStarJeffe Says:

    Hi Wendy.

    Good article. I do not disagree H-D faces real challenges that over time could lead to the company facing bankruptcy.

    They do have some strengths and opportunities such as:

    http://www.mediapost.com/publications/index.cfm?fa=Articles.showArticle&art_aid=54961

    and the Hispanic population will grow significantly. H-D can potentially reverse it’s current trend just by targeting that growth.

    http://pewhispanic.org/files/reports/85.pdf

    Finally, while value drives first time buyers, usually once a person reaches their forties, they also value brand name recognitition. H-D will never win first time buyers. The question they need to answer is can they get enough brand cross over as people reach their forties to survive?

    That said, Honda and Yamaha are well positioned to survive and grow brand ownership. Kawasaki, BMS, and Triumph will face greater challenges. But none of them are as much of a risk to H-D as Victory. Victory’s growth will continue to come directly from H-D.

    Finally, H-D sales are not just affected just by women who ride but also women who ride passenger. I think you discount the power of a wife or GF who has a lot invested in H-D brand clothing to drive brand loyalty.

  4. wmoon Says:

    LoneStar Jeffe, The question is whether H-D can target the Latino/Hispanic population more effectively–and once again, it would be the Boomers and Beyond that would respond to the brand.

    I would disagree on when people value brand name recognition–by the time they are teens it seems that (some) brands are extremely important on name alone–like in fashion and electronics, for example. And H-D attracted plenty of first time buyers back when its prices were less than what some autos cost.

    I think Victory has the same problem as H-D–the styling appears “old” and something their father would ride.

    I don’t discount the passenger quotient–but no matter how brand loyal a wife is and how many clothes and trinkets she buys, eventually the Company has to sell motorcycles. And while fashion is fickle, it’s unlikely that today’s young woman is going to make her SO buy a motorcycle because she likes the clothes–particularly since the clothes are matronly by and large.
    W.

  5. Texas Bob Says:

    WMoon said:
    “Once again, this is not to say Harley is racist. It just appears that only older white men ride Harleys. By all appearances, then, Harley is a brand only white aging men can love.”

    Really? Have you visted south Texas lately? I can’t tell you how many Latinos I see riding Harleys. So what you are saying is that Harley is doomed because ONLY “older white men” ride Harleys? Harley is doomed because they cost too much and the MOCO allows the dealers to inflate the price even more. Period. Why make this into a racial issue?

  6. wmoon Says:

    I have visited Texas–I don’t know if you call El Paso South TX or not. If you read the entry instead of just had a knee jerk reaction (my guess is that you are an aging white man), you’d see that I said there are some Latinos who ride but not near representative of their numbers in the nation. The point as I say over and over is that Harley mismanaged the brand and did not find a way to reach out to create a significant customer base with women, Hispanics/Latinos, African-Americans and Asians. By doing that it shorted the stockholders and doomed future growth.

    While H-D’s are yesterday’s technology at tomorrow’s prices, they aren’t losing market share because of the price. The cruiser/custom/touring market is shrinking period–no matter what marque is trying to sell them. And dealers haven’t been inflating the price for about three years now. in fact, by charging more and having to wait to get the bike, H-Ds were a prestige bike. Once H-D forced dealers to jam their floors with inventory, the prestige was gone.
    W.

  7. Capt Crash Says:

    “Everybody I know…” “Everyone I see…”

    Boy those are a dangerous statements. One of the real issues with viewing Harley’s difficulties is the ability to distance yourself from the brand. Just like everyone’s child is the best, brightest and most attractive it’s difficult for Harley owners (white, middle aged, upper middle class) to look at their brand dispassionately.

    Thank you Wendy for digging up the facts on Harley ownership and it’s stagnation. As the customers get older you have to be able reach new ones–something I believe Buell was starting to do. The challenge for Harley is how to get younger, hip, KIDS to love the brand as much as geezers my age.

    OH an afterthought, if you don’t think brand name is important to teens? Buy one an “mp3 player” instead of an Ipod.

  8. Sleeping Dog Says:

    This and the preceding post contain some of the best analysis of how HD got to where they are today that I’ve seen. Great stuff.

    HD was smart in recognizing a gravy train as it passed and jumped aboard and not surprisingly the they were shocked when the gravy ran out. It happens all the time.

    Regarding your analysis of HD’s difficulty with women, minorities and younger adults. These problems are unintended consequences of unfailing attention on the companies primary focus, baby boomer white males. It is not surprising that those out side that demographic would react with the attitude that HD isn’t for me and seek other brands or interests that feel more open to them. This attitude and HD’s focus are perfectly rational choices that don’t imply any isms.

    Hat tip to Mike at Bikes in the Fast Lane for the link to these post, I’m looking forward to more and will add Moonrider to my reading list.

    Best,

    Jim

  9. wmoon Says:

    Jim, Thanks! I look forward to your comments on other entries. I agree that H-D had a bad case of tunnel vision and that it’s a common failing. I would also suggest H-D was not so different than execs at those mortgage brokers, banks and Wall Street firms. I think that attitude came from a very lamentable trend to focus on quarterly pennies per share and short-term growth that exacerbates bubbles and creates unreal (as in w/o a solid foundation) growth.

  10. Robert Says:

    This conjecture is BS! I’ve been riding for 46 years, and though one of my 5 bikes is a Harley, I don’t ride it or any of the others for ANY of the above reasons. I began riding at 16, because it was an inexpensive transport and fun. I continue to ride for the same reasons, plus it saves fuel, oil, etc. (it’s “green”) and I’m into adventure riding into otherwise inaccessible areas in this country and others. I don’t give a damn what anybody else rides or why they ride, but I respect them.

  11. wmoon Says:

    Robert, I hope you appreciate you proved many of the points in the entries by what you relate about your own riding–you are a Boomer who began riding street at the first point you legally could, you began on the inexpensive end, you are now a multi-bike (and own at least two different marques). I never said that riders care what any one else rides nor that they don’t respect them…though, come to think of it, many riders are judgmental about other riders so I commend you that you are not.

    I’m not sure what conjecture is BS. If you’d like to explain I’d be happy to address it.

  12. Tide Says:

    Interesting article. I don’t fully agree with the gender premise based on the amount of advertising I see from Harley directed towards women, both in terms of motorcycles and merchandise. I’d confirm this anecdotally by the increasing number of women HD riders I see where ever bikers get together. That said, I have to admit that I see few ads if any directed towards, or inclusive of, minorities of any type. The quarterly HOG magazine generally emphasizes one international rally which provides sort of a back-door approach at minority marketing. The author states that there has been much written about HD’s aging demographic and the lack of ability to attract a younger buyer. I agree with this point and believe it can’t be overstated. I also agree that HD will confront some hard times in the near future and believe that the single largest driver is their failure to attract a younger buyer. “Get ’em young and keep ’em hung” on the brand. Cancelling Buell instead of modernizing it with the water-cooled V-rod motor already in their stable was a mistake in my opinion. As the financial picture worsens for HD, I wonder if they will look for major investment/majority buyout by a large industrial concern this time? That would be irony. I currently own HD, Yamaha, KTM, and Honda and ride about 25k miles/year on and off road.

  13. wmoon Says:

    Tide, women’s participation in H-D has risen (I believe I did give the information and link) over the past decade. However, it didn’t rise significantly–and nowhere near what it needed to. I’d be interested in hearing what advertising you’re referring to that’s directed at women as I would be interested in seeing if it turns up places I haven’t been aware of.

    Interesting idea that H-D might sell out to another company. Wonder if AMF would be interested in another go-around? : )

  14. Tide Says:

    HD specific publications (namely the former HOG and Enthusiast magazine which were merged this year) tend to have at least one feature directed towards women. These range from “my epic ride” to “how to do X” and “I never thought I’d be the one to ride” stories. These stories are reinforced with advertising for womens clothing/helmets, etc. HD also tends to offer Riders Edge classes for women only, however this is a more local presentation.

    I don’t see much advertising directed towards women from any manufacturers, HD inclusive. However, I agree that many of the other manufacturers do a better job of being more racially inclusive.

    All that said, I’d figure that whatever HD is spending their advertising budget on is almost surely misdirected these days by definition. Killing Buell was a really boneheaded move IMO, especially when Buell isn’t their problem financially speaking. Not attempting to attract younger people is self defeating as is not trying to overtly attract 25% of the population (in terms of minorities) or women (50%). I don’t get it, these things seem intuitively obvious to me. And don’t get me started on having some type of offering beyond the Vrod that is technologically advanced beyond 1948.

    Sounds like I don’t like HD, but that’s not the case. I love my touring HD, it really is the best fit for my 2 up touring. Other than that or cruisers they have nothing to offer me these days.

    And seriously, looking at the financials, they are approaching the point where they will be ripe for merger, takeover, or a huge cash infusion by someone that’ll also want some control. Think Chrysler. It might not be AMF this time, but how about Honda? Or a Chinese firm? Or in a real twist, Phillip Morris? The accountants seem to be running it to the exclusion of good marketing and good design sense. HD even stated in their own press release that they didn’t know how much Buell was losing/costing (can’t remember which now). WTF? How does that statement and that decision align? They aren’t congruent AT ALL.

    HD made a big deal back in 84(?) about “the eagle flies alone” after they bought themselves back. Well, now the beancounters run the show and the eagle is kept in a cage. I bet the bros. Davidson and Mr. Harley are turning over in their graves.

    Sorry for the length here, I got wound up…

  15. wmoon Says:

    Tide–you’re aware of the same advertising to women that I am–which is, by definition, preaching to the choir as anyone who gets HOG or the Enthusiast is already in the fold. Well, duh, if you can’t get *those* women (who either own or some significant person in their life owns a Harley) then you really do suck at marketing. But then that’s been the problem with all the manufacturers…maybe I’ll write about that next.

    I don’t know if you know this but my first “real” bike was a Harley Sportster and it’s dear to my heart. I do agree that they have placed themselves in a vulnerable position for a takeover–but maybe they don’t care? I LOL with the Phillip Morris (which is now Altria because it sounds “healthy”). It really is too bad that management and the board were far too Harvard MBA and not enough shadetree mechanic–if they had really been riders instead of RUBs they may have been smarter…
    W.

  16. gymnast Says:

    Tide, it is like that the next cash infusion or takeover will come from the same place as the most recent cash infusion, namely, Warren Buffet and Berkshire Hathaway.

  17. George (a.k.a. Sir George) Says:

    Here’s a view from the dutch Harley scene 2010 : on Saturdays the HD dealerships are filled with 90 % men and 10 % women, all looking at bikes and having a good time. However, showrooms are mostly filled with long-staying used bikes plus a few 2010 and 2011 ones. Lots of unsold parts on the walls, lots of unsold clothes on the shelves. But is gets worse : visit a dealership on another day during the week and its almost empty, there are more employees than customers. But stop at a MacDonalds at any day of the week, early in the evenings, and you will se gatherings of larger groups of young guys on japanese or italian streetfighter bikes. Playing with horsepower, smoking tires and making short sprints on the parking lot. This sight makes me think that HD really should build streetfighters to attract younger people, and save them as customers for the future.
    It really wondered me why HD stopped Buell production at a moment in time when they in fact should focuse on building more agressive streetfighters to attract young potential customers. So HD, please fire the trendwatcher you hired because he/she did not do any homework (as I see it) ! And maybe start building streetfighters with a VR1000 engine very soon to correct this failure in trendwatching, thanks !
    Well, I own a 2003 Fat Boy and am a satisfied customer myself but I like to hold on to the remaining HD dealers and shops because we already lost some (official) ones overhere; that’s why I really hope The Factory will read my comment.

  18. wmoon Says:

    Sir George, I, too, cannot understand why H-D shut down Buell. I also think the H-D board have been utter teleopathic idiots. And the senior management.
    W.


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