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An electric bike? What is Harley-Davidson thinking?

An interesting experiment in brand image

There are at least two of the Redstate contributors, including myself, who own and ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles.  When I bought my Softail Slim, the salesman said “Welcome to the family.”  And that is what it is.  It’s a family, a culture, and in some cases a lifestyle.  Harley owners spend many thousands of dollars for their bikes and thousands more to customize them…new (louder) exhausts, custom seats, bags, highway bars, fairings, chromed engine parts, custom paint…by the time an owner is done, sometimes the original bike isn’t recognizable.

And Harley owners are patriotic.  A significant number of riders are military vets.  They participate in POW events.  They help protect military funerals from scumbag groups like the Westboro Baptist Phelps clan and their “God Hates Fags” nastiness.  While some riders may look a little rough around the edges, they are generally wonderful people who are much different than popular culture has portrayed them/us.  Harley riders are Americans who ride American bikes and they’re damned proud of it.  We’re loud and proud of the massive internal combustion engines that have a distinct sound and image.

But about that sound….apparently Harley-Davidson has decided that it’s not as much of a signature as we thought.  Last month Harley introduced an all-electric bike, via “Project Live Wire”.  Right now it’s just a prototype, but the manufacturer is doing a nation-wide tour of this bike, showing it off and giving test rides.

harley-davidson-livewire-electric-motorcycle-01

Rather than the throaty rumble of the 103/110 V-Twin, the Live Wire sound is…different.  Some describe it as “like an airliner taking to the air” (of course that comes from “Harley brass”), but others have a bit less complimentary description: “sounds more like an oversized vacuum than a vehicle” or, as Maxim describes it, “sounds like a turbine winding up, but isn’t loud enough to hear over the sounds of midday Manhattan. That’s both dangerous and disappointing. Harleys are supposed to announce their presence, not cough politely while standing by the door.”  Most Harley owners want the loud… “loud pipes save lives”, as some say.  Now I haven’t taken off the stock exhaust from my bike, as I value peaceful coexistence with my neighbors, but I think I’m in the minority (and I’m still looking for those perfect V&H pipes that add at least a LITTLE bit of personality…)  That sound – and the brand image it brings with it – is a key, interesting aspect of this new creation.

This isn’t the first time H-D has strayed from the norm with an apparent eye towards a different buyer.  Harley builds cruisers – mostly.  In other words, most Harleys are the large, heavy motorcycles that are intended for recreational road riding and not the kind of ultra fast turning crotch-rocketry that one gets from Japanese sports bikes.  I say “mostly” because a few years ago H-D strayed from the cruiser/bagger model with their V-Rod, a sort of hybrid between cruiser and crotch rocket.  The obvious appeal is to potential customers such as my younger son, who would love to buy one.  Now I am about as anti-sport-bike as anyone you’ll find, so I find even the V-Rod a bit of a turn-off.  The Live Wire is even more of a sport bike style, with the same kind of performance profile.  As an electric bike, the acceleration of the Live Wire is incredible…just like a Tesla sports car.  Electric vehicles generally don’t have transmissions, so like an electric car, you turn on the Live Wire, turn the throttle, and it takes off, no shifting required.  The thing allegedly does 0-60 in 4 seconds.  That’s fast.  But like most electric cars, the battery life isn’t all that great…somewhere between 33 and 50 miles to a 3.5 hour charge.

This is clearly a branding exercise.  Harley’s primary audience has been traditional bikers and “middle aged Caucasian males“.

Harley-Davidson is a brand whose sales depend disproportionately — almost exclusively, in fact — on middle-aged Caucasian males. Riders younger than 40 generally lack the time, interest or the bankroll to buy a Harley. But by the time they get into their 60s or older, the noise and joint pain have begun to make riding lose its allure. You might still ride in your 60s, but you’re doing it less frequently and you probably aren’t buying a new bike.

The sweet spot is the mid-40s to early 50s. And with the Baby Boomers — the largest and wealthiest generation in history — now largely aged out of this key demographic bracket, Harley has a serious problem. Generation X — my generation — is not nearly large enough to pick up the slack, and Generation Y (aka “the Millennials” or “Echo Boomers”) are decades away from being in the demographic sweet spot for Harley, and this assumes they take to riding like their dads did. The number of American men aged 40-49 is set to decline through the early 2020s and won’t reach its old 2010 peak until 2035.

So you can sort of understand why they’re reaching for something new, especially considering the flattening revenues they’ve seen in the last few years (of course that can be partially blamed on the Obama economy).  Time describes it this way:

It’s bike night at the Harley-Davidson Museum near downtown Milwaukee. Outside this Modernist cathedral of chrome, hundreds of riders have parked their Harleys to admire one another’s bikes, swap stories and enjoy a perfect May evening. Anyone from a corporate marketing department happening on this scene might have been horrified, because it would not suggest a growing market. Bike Night in Milwaukee sure looks like Old White Guys’ Night. The only diversity among this group of aging boomers is in the beer brands in the cozies they carry. But Mark-Hans Richer, who is indeed Harley’s marketing boss, isn’t bothered. “We love old white guys,” says Richer, who is not quite one. “Our old white guys are great customers, we love them, and we never want to walk away from them.”

That said, Harley is in the midst of a complete reimagining as it increasingly tries to appeal to African Americans, Hispanics and women, not to mention riders in China and India, all of whom have become target customers. Global demographics–more young people with less money to spend–are forging big changes at the iconic firm. Harley still sells the rebellious, hell-raising, American free-spirit ideal that it rode to fame in the 1950s and ’60s. But that isn’t a strategy for running a company in 2014.

In another big shift, Harley says it has become customer- and dealer-led. Worth says the listening is real. “It used to be lip service,” she says. “‘Let’s sit down and have a beer.’ They’d fix onesie-twosie things. Now they handle it as business. We don’t sit around drinking beer with each other anymore.” Oddly enough, for an outfit with such a devoted following, Harley used to build products based on its managers’ gut feelings, which was fine when the customers were mostly white boomers. But now the customers could be newly wealthy Chinese looking for style, city-dwelling millennials who need utility and affordability or retirees who want a trike that doesn’t embarrass them.

So apparently H-D has become another company/organization/group that has seen fit to cater to “millennials”.  I find that interesting, considering that Harleys aren’t cheap, millennials are hardly a crowd with a load of money, and the job market has hardly been kind to the 20-something generation.  But apparently the company believes that’s where the future – and the money – is headed.

I guess I don’t blame them.  They’re in it to make money and that’s where they see it coming from. But Harley-Davidson is an American icon…heck, even the Library of Congress says so.  They are (until now) all about the loud, powerful internal combustion engine.  America is all about loud and powerful.  But even cars like the Tesla seems to be moving from a toy of the rich and powerful to something that regular people could like.  It’s a fast, flashy, new vehicle that will soon be affordable for a lot more people.  There’s no denying that the Live Wire bike is fast and sexy (at least to the young’uns).  And electric vehicles do seem to have a future.  But – the sound!

Maybe I’m just old.  Maybe this is a good thing and an electric Harley will be The Next Big Thing and movies will be made about cool dudes (dudettes?) riding electric Harleys. Maybe.

Or maybe not.  Now get off my lawn, kid.  I’m going for a ride.

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