Motorcycles The Future Of Harley-DavidsonIt's do-or-die for the bar and shield.
- Words Joe Gustafson
- Images Courtesy of Harley-Davidson
Harley-Davidson has seen tough times. The company narrowly survived the Great Depression and World War II, then made itself whole after near-bankruptcy in the ‘80s. History says Harley-Davidson will bounce back again, but this is an unprecedented time for Harley-Davidson and the motorcycle industry in general.
New motorcycle sales are half of what they were in 2008. HOG stock is flat, overseas tariffs will cost Harley-Davidson $40 million next year, and the company recently recalled almost a quarter-million bikes for a clutch issue, which will cost roughly $35 million. In addition, Harley-Davidson needs new, younger buyers to survive, and those buyers are often burdened with debt and typically have half the wealth their parents did at their age.
It’s do or die for Harley-Davidson, which recently released the first batch of over 200 new models as it looks to attract two million new riders over the next decade under its “More Roads to Harley-Davidson” plan. Major product and dealer transformations are ahead, as is a major shift in mindset.
We aimed right away to make our own version: more organic shapes, no scoops, creases, or crinkles, and no beak. And most importantly, uniquely Harley-Davidson.
Harley-Davidson’s Vice President of Styling & Design, Brad Richards, says, “It’s about doubling down on what made people fall in love with Harley in the first place. For new product, there are no better examples than what we just took the wraps off: Pan America and LiveWire” — an adventure bike and an electric bike, if you can believe it.
Richards describes the Pan America as rugged, utilitarian, and organic; think Jeep, Smith & Wesson, Stetson. “We looked at every ADV bike, and they had nearly the same lines and qualities: a beak and a backbone line from tank to tail. We aimed right away to make our own version: more organic shapes, no scoops, creases, or crinkles, and no beak. And most importantly, uniquely Harley-Davidson.” Some love the Pan America and what it signals, while many others loathe it. “The worst thing you could have is a product that people don’t respond to,” Richards quips.
The LiveWire, Harley’s first all-electric production motorcycle, will definitely make noise. It’s “an authentic Harley-Davidson expression of individuality, iconic style and performance that just happens to be electric,” according to Harley’s marketing department. Since the Project LiveWire prototype debuted for 2014, Richards and his team have worked to transmute Harley-Davidson’s design language for new, emerging segments. This meant exposing the LiveWire’s frame and celebrating, not hiding, its powertrain and charging components; the battery case, for example, now has functional cooling fins.
In addition to expanding its product portfolio to reach more market segments, Harley-Davidson is investing more heavily in engineering and manufacturing, and is leasing a brand-new R&D facility in Silicon Valley in order to develop “lighter, smaller, and even more accessible product options to inspire new riders with new ways to ride.” Harley-Davidson is also reworking its sales network to give more tailored allotments to dealers, improve dealer training, and offer more marketing channels, like a new e-commerce partnership with Amazon.
Forward-thinking products and improved networking will certainly help Harley-Davidson, but the company won’t be saved if it can’t win over a new generation of could-be riders. That’s where the “More Roads to Harley-Davidson” campaign comes into play. “It’s a tonal shift, not a total one,” explains Heather Malenshek, Senior Vice President, Marketing & Brand at Harley-Davidson. “We’ve shifted to be more upbeat and optimistic and international. Rebel ‘for,’ not against, something.”
Harley wants to make a bold statement that reaches a younger, more diverse customer base. But how will Harley-Davidson attract untapped buyers without alienating its traditional customer — who typically isn’t very receptive to change — while also navigating a constantly shifting marketplace full of public relations land mines? It’s daunting to say the least, but there are reasons to be hopeful. For example, there are more women and minority riders than ever before, and used bike sales are surging; the Harley-Davidson Sportster is a perennial best-seller, both new and used.
As 2018 comes to an ignominious end, Harley-Davidson hears it all. Critics roar about Buell and Alta, of oil leaks and “Hardly-Davidson,” and of mistakes made. Harley-Davidson is looking to start a new chapter, to grow, shift, and evolve. The company is changing its outlook and spending a lot of money to adapt and survive.
The Motor Company is again at a crossroads. In 1981, with bankruptcy looming, it faced a similar do-or-die situation: innovate, or stay with what’s known. After investing over $15 million into Project Nova — a water-cooled V-4 engine for medium- and heavyweight touring models — the company shelved the Nova and moved forward with the more traditional, air-cooled Evolution motor. The move worked, but it also solidified Harley-Davidson’s reputation of looking inward to existing customers, instead of outward at what might be.
This time, Harley-Davidson is taking the opposite approach, throwing significant weight behind electric powertrains, youth marketing, international growth, and a new corporate culture. If it wants to succeed, the company will have to be patient and speak honestly with mainstream buyers, existing customers, and unhappy shareholders, doing its best to balance their conflicting desires. It won’t be easy, but Harley-Davidson has no reason not to succeed if it builds engaging motorcycles with unique character and creates a loyal community around them like it has so many times before.
Malenshek is succinct when asked what she would say to critics of these efforts: “Try the bikes, then decide.”