Harley Davidson is one of the most venerable brands in motorcycles and in marketing, but it's had a bumpy ride over the last few years. While its business has long been fueled by a loyal following of baby boomers, recent shifts in strategy to lure a new generation of Millennial riders have met with less success. Now, with new leadership, we're learning that Harley is about to shift gears once again, abandoning its long-term Millennial growth strategy in favor of the short-term wins that will come from revving up its diehard boomer fan base.
Like the many other brands that are being disrupted by evolving generational preferences, Harley seems to be stuck in the horns of a dilemma, believing that no one generation can deliver short and long-term growth at the same time. They're making an "either/or" decision when they have actually have an "and/and" option.
While Harley Davidson has been around since 1903, the irreverent iconography that it enjoys today was popularized with the baby boomer generation when the film Easy Rider was released in 1969. As Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper crossed the country on their Harley choppers, the film rapidly captured the imagination of boomers and became a counter-cultural touchstone for a generation that was seeking its own identity. Harley rode this momentum with an enduring outlaw reputation that led to record motorcycle sales and hefty licensing revenue from brands that wanted some of its macho, working-class imagery, e.g. Harley Davidson Ford Trucks. When a brand has equity as potent as this, it has options. It has the ability to appeal to differing cohorts with their own unique desires and values.
Here are three ways Harley and all marketers can rev up business with boomers:
1. Market to a balanced portfolio of consumers.
Harley has shown a pattern of overinvesting in one target audience when it would be better served by diversifying its prospects. Wall Street investment advisors don't load up on one stock; instead, they structure diversified portfolios as a way to maximize gain and mitigate loss across a broader position.
There's no doubt that Millennials are the consumers of the future, but most are still 5-15 years away from their peak earning and spending years and are ill-equipped to buy the expensive, non-essential toys that Harley sells. By contrast, the boomers represent up to 80% of the net worth of the U.S. economy, and in their zeal to live better, longer lives, they're spending that wealth on things that bring them pleasure.
In light of this disparity, Harley needs to find a more balanced approach: to identify the leading-edge Millennials that have more discretionary income than their peers and to continue to appeal to the boomers who have always loved this great brand. Regardless of your age, there's never been a better time to escape to the open road on a Harley, to hear the distinctive rumble of that V Twin engine and to feel that refreshing blast of wind in your face.
2. Leverage strong brand equity.
Harley will always have a place in the pantheon of great brands that have built enduring brand equities. As they have proven by successfully licensing their equity across a broad range of categories, it's also very elastic. With equity as potent and transferable as this, Harley has the ability to expand its offerings across a range of product sectors and consumer cohorts.
In response to emerging trends and the preferences of younger generations, they've entered the e-bicycle business while also experimenting with electric-powered motorcycles. Leveraging your brand equity successfully requires that you not only apply it to new or emerging desires (like environmentally friendly mobility) but also that you define it correctly.
For years, Harley defined its equity as being all about big, loud motorcycles for the irreverent middle class. But here we are in 2020 and many -- Harley included -- seem to be speculating that the relevance of this equity may be running out of gas. In my opinion it's not at the end of its road, but it has reached a fork in the road. The times are changing and it's time for them to define their equity differently. To go beyond products -- motorcycles and bicycles -- to promise meaningful, multi-generational experiences like the pride of belonging to the Harley clan and the exhilaration of pursuing "the open road." Now is the time for timeless (and ageless) expressions of what's possible when you own the right ride.
3. Make the trend your lifetime friend.
The COVID pandemic is obviously having a profound effect on how we live our lives, and while many of our compensating behaviors may go away when the virus does, just as many are here to stay -- notably, our growing interest in spending time outdoors. This was a trend that was already gathering momentum before the outbreak, driven by our interest in new types of physical activity and a desire to escape the intrusion of omni-present technology.
While Harley's flip-flopping generational preferences are what's making the news, they're masking a deeper and more favorable tail wind that will benefit the brand going forward, i.e. our growing desire to experience more of the great outdoors in new ways. Harley has always stood for freedom and escape and it is extremely well positioned to innovate for a new legion of weekend enthusiasts or traveling vacationers that will eschew crowded airports in favor of a DIY journey with a camper trailer in tow.
The pandemic is many things but it's undeniably a reset event that will shape consumer behavior for many years to come. Harley would seem to be on the favorable end of this change and has been given a rare chance to kick start its business in a new direction.
It has always been the tendency of marketers to look to the future by embracing the next new generation. There's no doubt that the world's two billion digitally native Millennials represent enormous potential going forward, but for many brands like Harley, that future isn't here yet. As the old investment adage goes, you've got to trade the market you've been given, and if that means prioritizing baby boomers, so be it. Smart marketers realize that the boomers continue to be an incredibly valuable cohort and that targeting them is not a concession to failing to win with Millennials.
With more boomers living longer, better lives, they're still in the driver's seat and there's a lot of road ahead. If you're still waiting for the next generation to come into their own, then it's a good time to rev up your business by being the best brand for boomers who are going places.
Photo courtesy of BoomAgers.
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