St. Louis, MO
Posted - 02/28/2011 : 10:46 AM
In the USA, motorcycles are only 3% of total road users-but 100% of the population would recognize the brand name Harley-Davidson. Not only that, most would assume that all street/cruisers are Harleys. So it's no wonder that for well over a decade those in academia and the business world are enthralled by how Harley did it and the fanatical customer loyalty the brand inspires. As many Harley aficionados love to brag, who else tattoos a company's logo onto their skin?
The brand identity became a straitjacket: And that's exactly the problem; the brand identity became a straitjacket the Motor Company has not been able to escape. Because Harley was unimaginative, fearful and too focused on quarterly results rather than long-term sustainable success, Harley may very well end up courting bankruptcy for the third time in the next decade. But it's current and future woes will not be because of the choices consumers make as adults but what they experienced as children.
First Encounter of the bonding kind: Marketing consultant and psychoanalyst Clotaire Rapaille is "convinced that a person's first encounter with an object or idea shaped his or her emotional relationship with it for life. In large part, he believed, this explained American's fascination with the SUV. It also begins to explain why men 40 and older love Harleys.
Particularly because research also shows that both men and women who start riding as adults admired an extended family member or a neighbor who rode and rode on the back at least once. Generally, that someone was younger than the child's parents and, in all cases, that person was admired as "cool".
From Brand to Iconic Brand Douglas B. Holt in How Brands Become Icons[ii] describes how certain brands tell a "story" that are confluence points of socio-cultural forces-something about that brand sums up much greater and more complicated things such as Apple, Coca-Cola, Nike-and Harley.
Harley the brand became Harley the icon, he wrote because the negatives in the image of motorcycling and motorcyclists were transformed into positives by changing the "story" the brand told:
The positive image of motorcycling The negative image of motorcyclists is such a cliche it needs no discussion. But what Holt failed to note was that there was also a powerful set of positive images associated with motorcycling and their riders in the culture when the current middle-aged Harley rider was young. For example, there were shows like Then Came Bronson and CHiPs which had a powerful influence on young men's imaginations.
As John G. Hanhardt points out, "In films which the motorcycle features predominately, the biker/hero manifests a desire to control his destiny and expresses his independence from the state, invoking heroic themes that have always been a part of the mythology of the American way of life...the lone rider...was both a fearless and a vulnerable explorer, an independent hero who was confronted with problems he has to solve by himself."[iii]
It wasn't just movies such as The Wild One or [i]Easy Rider or Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man but ones like The Great Escape.
Films and TV, Hanhardt went on to write, showed the motorcyclist was "looking for himself within an increasingly industrialized and homogenized society. Although the motorcycle is occasionally demonized, it is overwhelmingly represented as the vehicle for romance with a youthful yearning for freedom."
In many ways, that 50s-70s motorcyclist was the reinvention of the cowboy-something many have noted. Holt, though, particularly zeroes in on the gunfighter part of that myth that was later transformed by Reagan into "heroizing [sic] the rough-and-tumble gunfighters as men-of-action who can single-handedly save the country."
That kind of story would resonate with the men who grew up watching not just the bikers in those films and TV shows but westerns and WWII war films that also evoked those themes. Events in society such as the Cold War, JFK's assassination and other factors also hit these same messages. At the same time, society was going through massive changes in the 60s and 70s. Regardless of whether one shared the political or social views espoused, the radical, the rebel, the one who boldly and publicly lived according to their point of view was lionized by the media. The man-of-action doing something rebellious was admirable-and cool-to the youth of America.
Three stages of Coming To Harley: That cohort grew up and some of them became the working class man in an age when production jobs were disappearing-and rice bikes were kicking up road debris in Harley's face. The positive gunfighter image of the motorcyclist, Holt says, spoke to these men by giving them a positive "story" that was a counterpoint to what they saw happening in America.
Harley specifically fit that story: the last American made motorcycle was a symbol for these men holding on to American "frontier values against the alien ideals proposed by the middle-class people living on the coasts." It was also the time of Easy Riders magazine and the rise of ABATE-and the last certainly fit the mold of the independent man fighting alien ideals. These were rebels with a cause.
But some of that age group that had been formed by those images grew up to be white collar professionals-a group that wasn't affected by the loss of production jobs and so forth. The motorcycle didn't resonate for them...yet. Things were good for them and then came the Reagan years and the recession.
The next step in the transformation began with Malcolm Forbes. According to Holt, Forbes "crafted the Harley gunfighter [rider] as a distinctly capitalistic figure. Harley riders were warriors championing capitalism and liberty in the face of socialist threats" who had the "virility to reinvigorate society with libertarian values...Being a man meant pursuing the life of a rugged individualist manager, as an entrepreneur willing to take death-defying risks bother professionally and personally."
But, according to Holt, it was Reagan who, for his own purposes, utilized the American Frontier myth and the man-of-action gunfighter who could save the world-something very appealing to the middle-class (and business people). And, coincidentally saved Harley by instituting the infamous tariff. "Harley symbolized the revitalization of U.S. economic power that was possible...." And it worked-Harley was the embodiment of Forbes' philosophy and Reaganomics. And the "story" the brand symbolized appealed to the upper-middle and upper class as well as the working and middle class: all men were Terminators, so to speak, astride a Harley. Between Forbes and Reagan, then the groundwork was laid for the Rich Urban Biker.
By the mid-1990s, then greater currents in American culture and the elevation of ideals that resonated with the image of the motorcyclist had created a perfect storm across all socio-economic classes of (white) Baby Boomer men who found that Harleys expressed something about who they were and what they believed in.
Co-Opted not Co-authored: But this transformed more socially acceptable image of the motorcyclist wasn't the result of effort by the Motor Company. Holt (and many others) say the brand was "co-authored" by those who used it-that the consumer created the brand identity along with the company. It was a classic case of trickle up, however, where customers and culture were the creative ones who made Harleys relevant. Harley brilliantly recognized that and co-opted what consumers did and realized it was selling a dream, a lifestyle rather than just a product and cleverly marketed the dream during those years.
And here's the thing: for many of the middle-aged riders, it really was the immaterial that they were purchasing-few of these Harley riders actually put many miles on the motorcycles they bought. It was what Harley stood for that they were buying, not the activity.
The very confluence of images and issues that made Harley so successful, however, assured that the brand would reach market saturation at this specific time in history and that the seeds of future failure had been sown decades before.
The brand identity though was so strong and so set and so integrated with specific cultural forces and appealed so strongly to a specific narrow range of ages that it became inflexible and unable to adapt without the danger of alienating the customer base. Harley's five-year task force in the mid-1990s recognized that and also identified another problem: the brand identity didn't attract minorities, women or young men.
Translate to a new time or die: According to Holt, brands must be able to translate the core "story" to meet the new times to continue to be successful. Brands that cannot do it lose market share. But that's where Harley failed: the very rigidity of the iconic image meant it wouldn't appeal to minorities, women or young men:
The number of women Harley owners did expand over the past decade to 12%.[iv] However, as Harley said for years, it's hard to tell how many ride themselves and how many are the owner of record due to a the man in their life's poor credit record. And, according to Harley's own demographics, women's ownership flat-lined in 2005 at 12% and had only risen 1% since 2003-iow, Harley had hit market saturation with women three years before it hit it with (white) men. In 2009, however, the MIC Owner survey found that women were 23% of the riding population in 2008. These women had the same cultural background as the men who grew up to choose Harley. However there was Women's Lib that influenced these women and there was-and still is-an undeniably chauvinistic and sexist image to Harleys that the Motor Company did nothing to counter even while attempting to attract women riders. This Easyriders Magazine cover "uncovers" a lot of that disdain women have towards the Harley lifestyle image.
Much more can be said on why women do not respond to Harleys-but that can wait until another entry.
When it comes to minorities, there has been a vibrant motorcycling culture in the African-American and Latino cultures since at least WWII and it continues to grow.[ v] Throughout its history, Harley hasn't discouraged racial minorities from buying Harleys-however, for most of its existence, it did nothing to encourage them either. And the public perception of a link between Harleys and Hells Angels, who did not allow African-Americans to join, gave an appearance of racism.
Minority participation whether on Harleys or sport-type bikes has been urban-based and segregated-though why that is lies beyond the scope of this essay. The net result is that little is known about non-white Harley riders and the public perception is that Harley owners are overwhelmingly white-which is, in fact, the reality.
While Harley claims it has worked to increase minority participation, that's not evident on the official Harley site. No matter what link one clicks on, there's photos of white men well over 30 and some women-but there was only one place where there's and Latino or African-American presence is in the Rider's Edge section. While three (white) women are heard among the four video clips and the one young (white) man, and one middle-aged Latino, the African-American who is in the class doesn't nor does the older African-American on the range, which is simply odd.
There's also one tiny picture of a black couple in the 2008 Annual Report on page 11, and Harley's official demographics gives five years of data on age, gender and income-but not race.
Harley also intensely pursued a policy of big-box dealerships that moved them away from urban areas and coincidentally to areas with a high population of white residents.
Nor has Harley made an effort to raise the public profile of such African-American Harley-riding clubs or individual riders to the mainstream public. Worse, yet, Harley has even less appeal for young minority riders-and minority young women-than it does for white young adults.
Once again, this is not to say Harley is racist. It just appears that only older white men ride Harleys. By all appearances, then, Harley is a brand only white aging men can love. As the bulk of the Baby Boomer generation is now well over 40, this does not bode well for future company growth.
Short selling the stockholders: Yet according to the US Census, females are just over 50%, Blacks are 12.8%, Hispanic/Latinos are 15.4%. of the population. That's an awful lot of potential market to fail to reach. Analysts have given more and more attention to Harley's age problem but have not even noticed how white-and male-the brand identity is nor discussed how both those will affect the Motor Company's future growth. Nor do stockholders appear to be aware of how inept Harley has been in trying to expand its market-or how blazingly successful other motorcycle manufacturers are at attracting the young, women and minorities.
More critical to Harley's success or failure in the immediate future and beyond is why it doesn't attract young men and women. And that's the subject of the next entry.
[i] Bradsher, Keith. High and Mighty: The Dangerous Rise of the SUV. Public Affairs Press. New York. 2002.
[ii] Holt, Douglas B. How Brands Become Icons. Harvard Business School Press. Boston, MA. 2004.
[iii] Hanhardt, John G.,"The Motorcycle on Screen", Motorcycle Mania: The Biker Book. Guggenheim Museum. p.13. p. 99.
[iv] Various Harley documents give different numbers but most often one between 4-5% as women owners prior to 2003.
[ v] See Black Motorcycle Clubs: http://www.blackmotorcycleclubs.net/ and the list of clubs available on a link there or list at http://www.blackrefer.com/black_mot..._clubs2.html but note that almost all of them are either all sports bikes or mixed and few (except those that are directly fostered by Harley) are strictly Harley clubs.