Harley’s lost generations: Failure to reinvent loses the After Boomers

The After Boomers—Gens X and the older Ys grew up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Knight Rider and Star Trek and X-Men on TV and Star Wars and Matrix in theaters. They began by playing Sonic the Hedgehog and ended by playing Grand Theft Auto, Gran Tourismo and Wii Sports. Athletes and Rock Stars were their heroes. While their parents listened to hard rock, they listen to rap. The Boomers had Easy Rider where the (extensively customized) Harley is ridden by the hero. The After Boomers had Biker Boyz where the Harleys are ridden by the villains and The Long Way Round where the heroes rode BMWs.

Same Themes

Rap and hip hop seems a world apart from heavy metal—but Buddy Holly rocked his generation—and Swing rocked that generation.

In current affairs, instead of JFK’s assassination, this group had 9/11. Instead of Vietnam, they have Iraq. Instead of the Cold War, they have terrorism and terrorists give the entertainment media the same class of “bad guys” as the old Soviet regime.

The way motorcycles are used in movies including the two mentioned above are not essentially different than the way their parents and grandparents saw motorcycles in movies: There’s still the lone hero fighting against a world organized against him in which s/he alone had to solve the problems and achieve glory. For example: the Mission Impossible movies (and MI II had that prolonged motorcycle chase/battle); the Matrix trilogy with its use of motorcycles;  and Laura Croft riding a motorcycle through her house fighting the bad guys. And it’s still about freedom and finding yourself and being comfortable being unlike others: Boomers had the ultimate road movie—Easy Rider. But The Long Way Round is a road movie as documentary with two young men taking that search globally with a lot more acceptance and a lot less drama.

Iow, it’s the old “the more things change, the more they remain the same”. The same kind of influences and forces that make motorcycling naturally attractive to a given percentage of people in each generation are still present today as it was in the past. This suggests that there is a substantial number of After Boomers that are primed to ride at some point in that life cycle discussed in the last entry.

But Different

But what did change changed everything: Instead of The Donna Reed Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Wonder Woman and Supergirl culminating with the television series Charlie’s Angels, this time there was a plethora of women starting with Cagney and Lacey and women like Laura Croft and Xena and Trinity of Matrix fame—and Charlie’s Angels again. The After Boomers grew up with women—as well as men—being the lone hero.  African-Americans had plenty of highly visible role models who were the lone hero in pursuit of personal freedom as well—and some of them like—Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan—rode motorcycles.

And while their parents suffered the loss of production jobs and outsourcing, these generations grew up in a service industry where globalization was the norm and their homes are filled with products with foreign brand names made overseas by multinational companies.

Fast, flexible, speed is valued—and expected: In other more essential ways when it comes to motorcycles, it’s a different—digital, wireless—age. Now communication is instantaneous and global—internet, cell phones, texting, wii—all these things emphasized speed, responsiveness, dexterity and flexibility. And that’s the same theme in both movies and television—and in business and current affairs.

And that underscored what they learned from video games—even ones like Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario Brothers as children: the prize goes to the aggressive, the one who can decide and act with speed and daring and take risks. Iow, the qualities Forbes associated with the Harley had spread to even childhood games.

Risk Perception: At the same time understanding of risk had changed in two polar opposite ways:

This is the bicycle helmet generation: Boomer parents were schooled to believe danger is everywhere and real or perceived risks were to be both avoided and protected against. After Boomers, as a general rule, been sheltered from risk and even discomfort. For example, they’re been strapped into infant seats, youth seats then seat belts from birth.[i] They’ve been  driven to school to avoid taking the bus; few play outside unsupervised and they’ve been taught to look at strangers with fear. And when it comes to educational and other achievements, failure is negated and everything is awarded.

On the other hand, video games teach them to take extraordinary risks to win—but the risks are unreal. They erase failure with a reset button and get ahead by finding shortcuts. And while the “risks” seem to be enormous—extreme violence and speed—there are no real consequences to them; they emerge unscathed no matter what they do.

As a general rule, then, After Boomers have been protected from the consequences of their choices and actions by their parents and the culture while being encouraged to take extraordinary risks that have no real consequences.

Primed to ride—but not Harleys

Iow, the stage is set for a future boom cycle in several essential ways while attitudes towards risk and consequence have changed in negative ways.[ii]

The only problem is that it wasn’t Harleys that were the iron stars in these movies or on television or video games. Instead it’s the sport bike that’s lionized—and it was men and women on sport bikes that these After Boomers saw doing courageous man-of-action things at speed.

Otoh, cruisers and street bikes were ridden by villains—and the one percenter image was still regularly employed. Or they were ridden by middle-aged (staid) (white) men—the most recent example being the oncologist on Brothers and Sisters who’s idea of risk is to date Sally Field’s much older character. Iow, Harley’s entertainment media presence is either the outlaw or the RUB.

Sport bikes, then, are associated with the young, lone hero out to change the world and the cruiser/street bike with the middle-aged, upper-income male—one who is almost always white.

Take a look at the Motorcycle Riding Celebrities list and the sea change in celebrity riding Harleys is overwhelming: Celebrities like Schwarzenegger, Axel Rose, Billy Ray Cyrus and David Hasselhoff do have H-Ds. But more high-profile celebs like George Clooney own an H-D but own one or more other marques.

However, more and more contemporary celebrities don’t own a Harley at all. Like Bono on a Ducati, Jessica Alba on a Kawasaki, Michael Jordan on a BMW, Sheryl Crowe on a KTM. Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Ewan McGregor are like many younger celebrities and are multi-brand owners: M-V Augusta, BMW, Triumph, Honda, Suzuki or Ducati. The range of marques is quite impressive—as is the absence of Harleys for younger owners.

In fact, it’s startling how old most of the H-D celebrity owners on the list are—and it’s also surprising how many Harley celebs are now in the  “Huh, I thought they were dead” list or “People You Expect to See on Dancing With the Stars” list.

Whether H-D didn’t pursue a product placement strategy or whether it did and were turned down, the net result is that Harleys are associated with a kind of bike that the young associate with the old and irrelevant. Nor did Harley get hot young game designers to create an exciting video game. In no way did Harley engage young men—and women—in the ways that they found exciting and fresh.

No dirt bike Since dirt biking as children and teens is one of the ways new riders enter into street riding either as young adults or as middle-aged people, marques that have dirt bikes built brand memory—and perhaps brand loyalty—in Gen X and Y. Harley did not develop a dirt bike and surrendered a rich branding opportunity. Perhaps it was twice-burned, quadruple shy after its lamentable efforts to expand into snowmobiles and lawnmowers, but it was a regrettable marketing mistake.

Harley is the motorcycle Oldsmobile A few years ago Oldsmobile found itself in the same position as H-D: the young avoided the make like the plague. In an attempt to counter that, Oldsmobile ran a series of commercials that bluntly said it “wasn’t your father’s car” anymore. And that’s the problem with Harleys: a great many After Boomers identify the marque with their parents. In urban areas, at least, it just ain’t cool for someone under 30 to ride a Harley.

Fashion forward rather than fashion backward Nor does the classic cruiser/street/custom style of motorcycle appeal to most After Boomers. Harley specializes in motorcycles that do not look significantly different than those of decades ago. Otoh, sport bikes are much closer stylistically to what’s contemporary in electronics. Harleys, otoh, are so last decade and of a piece with a camera that uses actual film, or phones with a corded handset, desktop computers and land lines.

The After Boomers’ image of Harley is neatly summed up in the South Park episode “The F Word”.

Where the word “fag” is redefined to stand for Harley riders: “Fag. n. 1. An extremely annoying, inconsiderate person most commonly associated with Harley riders. 2. A person who owns or frequently rides a Harley.”

And that’s really bad news for Harley’s short and long-term prospects. As I wrote about in a prior entry, brands have life cycles and unless brand managers can reinvent it for a new age, it suffers.[iii]

Harley thought the V-Rod and then the Street Rod was reinventing the brand—but the styling was still too much like Old Harley. Harley completely missed why even middle-aged women want to ride and how to attract them let alone offer a compelling image to younger women. And it failed to offer a way for other minorities to feel comfortable in what appeared to be a very white—and very exclusive—world of fellowship.

Research also indicates that brands do have generational baggage.[iv] As a Seeking Alpha entry said, “…in the U.S. the number of consumers will continue to grow until at least 2025 thanks to Generation Y…. We believe this supports our view that the U.S. economy is not ending, but changing. Companies that became fat and happy catering to Boomer demand from 1980 to 2000 need to understand that in many cases this demand is no longer there. Why? Because the generational landscape has changed and will continue to change between now and 2025.”

The writer went on to say, “We strongly suspect that those companies that are aware of this shift in demand, and are catering to it, will become the next “Stock Market Darlings.” As opposed to those whose executives are scratching their heads and wondering where their customers (the Boomers) have gone. Currently, for example, “Value” teenage retailers are enjoying the increasing demand of the price-conscious Generation Y, who are flocking to their stores, while car manufactures keep trying to design, or in most cases re-design, the perfect car for the disappearing Boomer.”

Substitute Harley for “car manufacturers” and perfect motorcycle for “perfect car” and that describes Harley for the past decade and in the future. And Seeking Alpha agreed:  “And among those which seem to be unaware of any generational shifting in the U.S. consumer base would have to include: General Motors Inc.,Harley Davidson Motorcycles Inc. (HOG), Wal Mart (WMT) and Wendys/Arby’s Group Inc. (WEN).”

Whether it was fear of losing the base or being unimaginative, Harley-Davidson has failed the challenge for the past decade by delivering basically the same bikes year after year while ignoring what was exciting and attracting After Boomers. It did not reinvent the brand—and unless it finds a way to do so, it has doomed itself to an increasingly shrinking market until someone in Milwaukee figures out how to do so—or years down the road, consumers find a way to reinvent this particular style of motorcycle.

Otoh, it did have Buell—while it had the negative of being “half a Harley” with its engine, it had innovative and cutting edge technology and styling. It is a sport bike and it had the right kind of styling—and as reported before—it was growing even as Harley shipments were shrinking. So Harley’s best chance of capturing After Boomers has been “discontinued” in one of the most blundering, short-sighted and idiotic management decisions in USA corporation history.

It is doubtful, then, given all the reasons above, that Harley will bounce back once the recession is over. While the Motor Company was already facing the difficulty of producing too expensive motorcycles when the majority of new riders would be in their cheap bike stage, the definitive H-D styling is unappealing as is the lifestyle of the H-D rider. In every way, then, the next 20 years of riders will not find Harley’s a natural choice in their natural riding life cycle. Unless Harley finds a way to reinvent itself and make the iconic brand speak in fresh exciting ways to these digital, wireless, social networking generations.

[i] And since they grew up with car seats, seat belts and bicycle helmets, motorcycle helmets don’t have the same meaning it does to the 40+ cruiser rider. It is likely that the future boom riders, like the current crop of sport/sport-tourer/adventure riders, will wear helmets. Which is not to say the death toll will rise any less precipitously nor as high next boom cycle.


[ii] Except Gen X and Yers, having been strapped in since birth and used to wearing helmets may be more likely to choose to wear motorcycle helmets.

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

[iv] “The Future of U.S. Consumer Spending: It’s a Generational Thing”, Seeking Alpha. Posted, October 22, 2009. http://seekingalpha.com/article/168342-the-future-of-u-s-consumer-spending-it-s-a-generational-thing?source=yahoo.

Explore posts in the same categories: Culture, Harley-Davidson, Media, Motorcycle Industry

18 Comments on “Harley’s lost generations: Failure to reinvent loses the After Boomers”

  1. Dave B Says:

    Interesting and informative pieces. So HD shot themselves in the foot by discontinuing the Buell line?

    I wonder how much of the Buell sales were attributed to the Rider’s Edge program?

    Would you say HD is looking for markets to sell their motorcycle line rather than develop motorcycles for the new emerging markets?

    It also seems that people of all ages buy HD’s because it’s a status symbol – a sign that they are successful.

    BTW, try riding Patrick Ewing’s HD. It had to be customized for his very long legs.

  2. John Says:

    I agree with a most of this article especially the short-sighted Buell shut down.

    I disagree with the remarks of HD “white” exclusivity. I’ve been to many open rallies such and BMW rallies and the percentage of whiteness is definitely much higher at BMW rallies. At the BMW national rally last year I saw ONE black rider during my many treks through the rally grounds and demo rides.

  3. CaptCrash Says:

    An intriguing thing for me is how quick HD was to respond to the public outcry when the XR1200 was going to be “European only”. I’d be curious to know the sales numbers on the XR and the Demo info as well. As a 46 year old white male I’ve heard a lot of “that’s one Harley I WOULD buy” when my friends see one around.

    That said I wonder if the XR is a harbinger that HD will ignore.

  4. wmoon Says:

    John, H-D has admitted that it’s been unable to effectively market to minorities and has only in the past three (iirc) tried to reach out to African-Americans. That BMW is as white or whiter than H-D isn’t the issue–it merely points to the problems that BMW will have on top of it’s line of mostly too-expensive bikes for the pre-family/career rider.

    That you are the second person to get–seemingly–defensive about how white Harley is speaks to the problem we have as a country. I brought it up as a strictly business issue: there’s a large market and a growing market among minorities and it’s one that any company that’s responsible to its stockholders is obligated to win. That people get defensive that it’s even mentioned that a market segment is ignored is sad. I suggest you look at the issue in terms of business. Harley is.

  5. wmoon Says:

    CaptCrash, H-D doesn’t break down the Buell shipments by model on its investor relations site until the end-of-the-year SEC filings. However, you can find them, irrc, in past filings (and older reports).

    H-D has decided to discontinue Buells already so I guess it is a harbinger that H-D will ignore…

  6. wmoon Says:

    Dave B, From what I understand, the vast majority of RE students were in the process of buying a Harley and not a Buell. Nor do many young riders take RE–especially if money is an issue and they can take the class (if they do) through a cheaper state-run program.

    I would definitely say that H-D got it backasswards and tried to sell what they had to new markets rather than develop product that those new markets desired. It’s a common business mistake. For example, Harleys do not sell well anywhere but Canada. But H-D has tried to push Harleys in Europe, for example, and bragged about double-digit increases–but in reality that translated to a 1,000 or so more bikes. The Harley image is the problem overseas because it doesn’t mean there what it means here. Once again, they might have done better to invest in Buell in Europe–but they never knew how to market it even here.

  7. Gunslinger Says:

    Interesting indeed. There was an article in Tuesday’s paper regarding GM and the progress made since its entry and exit from bankrutcy. The progress was evidenced by the acceptance of new products one of which is the Camaro. Its a name in the Chevrolet line dating back to 1967 however it enjoyed a bit of time off. The new/old one resembles the 1969 edition.

    After reading it I conducted my own data gathering and started counting freshly minted Camaros while I drove my daily routes. I counted twelve. At the same time the counting was going on I tried to determine who was driving said vehicle. Don’t you know the age group mirrored that of HD. Hmm I suppose American companies spend more time catering to the aging than the young. I also from time to time look to see what the ‘kids’ drive. Don’t you know they run around in two door Honda Accords, Toyota manufactured Scion TCs and entry level Acuras.

    If ‘kids’ go for that type of car then it stands to reason they will lust after a sportish bike. Your work is valid so stick with it. One merely has to look around themselves to see what’s going on.

  8. blkharleyrider Says:

    I’ts funny that people talk about Harleys when every motorcycle company tries to make a copy of there bikes. Victory and Star has new models out that resemble the Harley Streeet Glide. My cousin sold his Hyabusa for a Street Glide. Now don’t get me wrong, I think Harley should modernize it’s bike overall with modern styling and better engines. I think they need to take cadillacs approach. Honda who sells everything from lawnmowers to sportbikes to Goldwings sells are down worse than Harleys. Honda introduced a new model called the Phantom to compete with the Harley Nightster, I run into a lot of metric riders that tell me someday I want to get a Harley.

  9. gymnast Says:

    Perhaps the single most significant development in the adoption of the automobile was the invention of the electric starter which opened up marketing opportunities for the automobile industry that would have otherwise remained untapped. The electric starter did the same for motorcycling, however it took another 50 years for the motorcycle industry to catch on.

    Motorcycling “took off” during the early 60s with the advent of small displacement Japanese motorcycles equipped with electric starters.

    Harley Davidson introduced the Electric starter with the “Electra Glide” model in 1965. And the company was almost immediately purchased by AMF. Unfortunately, AMF was far to insulated from the HD dealer network, and motorcycling in general to pay much attention to possible future scenarios. Some of the senior execs at HD bought out the firm from AMF, knowing it it’s problems and potential. Virtually all of the persons who guided the firm on it’s rise to it’s highest success are now gone. For HD, the times are surely going to prove interesting as well as challenging and the “issue of the Motor Companies survival” as currently organized is in my opinion, in doubt.

    The coming year will be challenging for the entire motorcycle industry from top to bottom regardless of country of origin of the products.

    The challenges may extend beyond unit and products and come to encompass training program availability as well as well as more and more states run into economic realities.

  10. Sleeping Dog Says:

    Racial sorting in the participation at events is the choice of the participants. Sturgis and Daytona are heavily attended by whites while Myrtle Beach is overwhelming attended by black motorcyclists. That’s life. The break down of sales by race is factual the interpenetration of the data is where bar brawls begin.

    A note, while Buick has a geezer problem, the “It’s not your Father’s…” ad campaign was the late, unlamented Oldsmobile’s If ever a brand name defined a market…

  11. wmoon Says:

    Sleeping Dog, Right! man….senior moment on the Oldsmobile thing–and good point, the name alone is a drawback.

  12. wmoon Says:

    Interestingly, electric starter for motorcycles was invented by Honda–and only because of Fujisawa insisted that would open up huge markets–and it did.

    I agree that the next year (or so) will be challenging (to put the best face on it). But there’s been challenging times before and they generally result in a shake-out: some firms disappear and some will come out of this with a bigger market share. It will be interesting to see if both H-D and Polaris (in its motorcycle division) make it.

  13. blkharleyrider Says:

    The botttom line is i’ts hard to turn around a big ship, but in the near future you will start seeing the results. I think that this will eventually make Harley a more competitve company.

  14. wmoon Says:

    bklharleyrider, True–if the board and management are able to rise to the challenge. It’s not like this hasn’t happened before. It has–back in the 60s when rice came to America. At that time, it wasn’t Harley’s potato-potato that suffered so much at that time–of course it was different more than a decade later. It was the Brits’ that didn’t take it seriously and then didn’t rise to the challenge and many British manufacturers–and great bikes–went under.

  15. gymnast Says:

    This is interesting, Harley to cut York workforce in half, gets $15 million plus from State of Pennsylvania.


  16. Leslie Says:

    I was searching for “Harley Davidson Market Saturation” and came across your articles.

    I read all three articles related to Harley (including the Life Cycle of a Male Motorcyclist) and am completely blown away!
    My feeling has been that the wave Harley has been riding was going to crest and I think it has.

    Concise, accurate and well written articles.

    Great Job! Kudos!!!

  17. wmoon Says:

    Thank you very much! I appreciate your kind words.

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