My love for motorcycles started when the older kid down the block came home with a badass bike when I was in middle school. He had a black leather jacket, and just looked so cool on that bike. I decided that when I came of age, I had to have one, too.
Fast-forward to college. Not only do I not have a cycle – I don't own a car. And in Michigan, you can count the number of months when a motorcycle makes sense.
But I remember the moment. A group of us went to the movies to see the much-talked about film Easy Rider, starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, along with exciting newcomer Jack Nicholson. I'm a sucker for “drop-out movies,” and this low-budget film very much summed up the mood in 1969.
But it was the opening credits with a soundtrack featuring Steppenwolf that had me from the very beginning of the film:
Every time, I hear “Born To Be Wild,” I flash back to the movie. And I wonder how many other Baby Boomer guys saw Easy Rider and walked away smitten just like I was, wanting to jump on a chopper and discover America.
Perhaps enough to provide a sense of adventure and romance for an entire industry, especially its most well-known brand, Harley-Davidson.
In any case, I ended up getting a Dodge Dart instead, but never forgot the power of a chopper, the open roads of America, and a great soundtrack. Easy Rider was a statement of rebellion, and no brand had that market cornered better than Harley-Davidson.
For decades, its motorcycles have been brand leaders, a symbol of American know-how. From Sturgis to Daytona Beach, the hog makes a statement about its owner.
But in recent years, the Milwaukee-based company has watched its sales slide. And like so many other downturns in 2020, COVID has only served to accelerate a trend that was already well underway.
According to Bloomberg, Harley-Davidson posted rugged sales again last year, and the forecast is for only flattish growth through the next four years – not at all what Wall Street wants to see.
As I thought about Harley's fall from grace, it struck me its predicament resembles broadcast radio's challenges in the new millennium. After ruling the audio roost for decades, increased competition and technological innovations by other companies have pressured radio broadcasters. And of course, the pandemic hasn't helped.
Along with a story in TheThings.com by Michael Weyer, I'm listing Harley-Davidson's problems that have clear radio overtones. In fact, I've listed a 6-pack of issues the Wisconsin motorcycle manufacturer is facing that echo radio's challenges.
1. Harley-Davidson didn't keep up with technology – The company has that reputation for building big, heavy “old school” bikes in a moment when more people are seeking lighter, more economic, and ecologically friendlier rides.
Now Harley is scrambling, hoping new investment in electrification is enough to help the company make the transition. As the Bloomberg story points out, the company will now have to pay heavily to catch up.
Harley's inability to recognize the coming of electrification is analogous to the digital denial traditional media companies exhibited for many years. And to this day, there are broadcasters who still see digital media tools as second class citizens.
2. Harley-Davidson has failed to serve young consumers – In true Evel Knievel style, the most famous motorcycle brand of all time may be jumping right into the demographic cliff of doom.
Back to reason #1, younger consumers are more interested in commuting than they are interstate travel. And according to Weyer, they're looking at lighter, less costly bikes.
On top of that, Harley-Davidson has image problems. Those rebels at Sturgis and other biker festivals and the “hog” lifestyle are not congruent with how Millennials and Gen Z's want to be perceived.
Beyond the biker dudes, Harleys are also associated with aging boomers like the dudes at the top of this blog post, trying to recapture their “Easy Rider” youths. (Yes, maybe a tad like me.)
Not unlike radio's near complete abandonment of young demographics, Harley-Davidson is “aging out,” with bleak prospects for turning its image around among up-and-coming generations.
3. Harley-Davidson became complacent and satisfied with its success – Weyer submits the company got too comfortable with its iconic image. Nearly, 20 years ago, Matt Ragas and B.J. Bueno wrote a book, The Power of Cult Branding, and Harley was one of their poster boys.
While tattoos are highly popular displays of self-expression these days, you'd be hard-pressed to find a whole lot of Harley ink on those under 30.
As Weyer notes, Harley “was too busy building themselves into a ‘brand' with stores in airports and malls to concentrate on making better bikes than the competition, and that's come back to bite them…”
Yes, it's about content. In this case, the quality, style, and economy of its bikes.
That sounds a lot like radio in the '80s and '90s, the go-go days where station valuations were through the roof, and ownership was “a license to make money.” As they used to say, even a 1-share in LA or NYC would yield impressive profits. And GMs could achieve their lifelong dream of ownership by focusing on medium and small markets for automatic profits.
Not anymore. Brands that Boomers loved – whether a radio station or hog – mean very little to their kids and grandkids.
4. Harley overpromised…and failed to deliver – It's one thing to see yourself as a venerable brand that will never lose its hallowed place in the minds and hearts of consumers here in America, and around the world. It's another to make good on your promises.
And HD's new CEO, Jochen Zeitz, recently admitted to investors, “In the past years, we've over-committed and under-delivered; we are now committed to setting realistic goals.”
Zeitz is the first non-American head of Harley, a branding expert from Germany who is credited with turning around Puma. Bringing in an outsider who doesn't drink the Harley Kool-Aid is a strategy the company shareholders hope can reinvigorate a tired brand.
5. Harley failed to do its homework – In today's transportation economy, companies need extensive research to keep up with changing trends – like electrification.
The company's failure to do research and investment in its future are big reasons why profits are projected to be so lackluster over the next few years.
The good news is that HD's new Hardwire initiative supports both its traditional bike line as well as its electric future. But the plan has a hefty price tag – a whopping $190-250 million every year to get in the tech game. As Cycle World put it, it's “like balancing classic with cutting edge.” (Sounds like a radio format, doesn't it?)
It's exciting to have a blank slate – especially to help redesign a shopworn brand. And it can be stimulating for a team to “whiteboard” new projects, to innovate and think “out of the box,” and to participate in brainstorms where “no idea is a bad idea.”
But in our fast-moving pop culture world, playing from behind is a dangerous game. And the glow of reinvention wears off quickly, especially in this pandemic-fueled economy.
6. Harley needs a new symbol – Yes, it's about the bikes you make – the content you create. There's no room for bad products, clunky technology, or a bad user experience. Consumers are smarter than that.
But it's also about branding and the pop culture icons that capture our imaginations. In the '50s, it was James Dean. In the '60s, Fonda and Hopper in Easy Rider seized the image.
And a few years later, it was Arthur Fonzarelli – better known as “The Fonz” – who glorified Harleys and Triumphs in the hit sitcom, Happy Days, for years and years.
Set in Milwaukee, the show was a weekly mass appeal video showing America just how cool cycles truly were. (It turns out, by the way, that Henry Winkler who brilliantly played the part could barely ride a motorcycle.)
Today, there are no “influencers” or YouTube stars showing off their hogs.
I did, however, find this guy on TikTok. Maybe it's a start:
@1juanjo5##harleydavidsonmotorcycles ##biker ##bikerlove♬ Золото – Rakurs & Ramirez Remix – KARTASHOW & Мари Краймбрери