St. Louis, MO
Posted - 03/01/2011 : 8:29 AM
The After Boomers-Gens X and the older Ys grew up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Knight Rider and Star Trek and X-Men on TV and Star Wars and Matrix in theaters. They began by playing Sonic the Hedgehog and ended by playing Grand Theft Auto, Gran Tourismo and Wii Sports. Athletes and Rock Stars were their heroes. While their parents listened to hard rock, they listen to rap. The Boomers had Easy Rider where the (extensively customized) Harley is ridden by the hero. The After Boomers had Biker Boyz where the Harleys are ridden by the villains and The Long Way Round where the heroes rode BMWs.
Rap and hip hop seems a world apart from heavy metal-but Buddy Holly rocked his generation-and Swing rocked that generation.
In current affairs, instead of JFK's assassination, this group had 9/11. Instead of Vietnam, they have Iraq. Instead of the Cold War, they have terrorism and terrorists give the entertainment media the same class of "bad guys" as the old Soviet regime.
The way motorcycles are used in movies including the two mentioned above are not essentially different than the way their parents and grandparents saw motorcycles in movies: There's still the lone hero fighting against a world organized against him in which s/he alone had to solve the problems and achieve glory. For example: the Mission Impossible movies (and MI II had that prolonged motorcycle chase/battle); the Matrix trilogy with its use of motorcycles; and Laura Croft riding a motorcycle through her house fighting the bad guys. And it's still about freedom and finding yourself and being comfortable being unlike others: Boomers had the ultimate road movie-Easy Rider. But The Long Way Round is a road movie as documentary with two young men taking that search globally with a lot more acceptance and a lot less drama.
Iow, it's the old "the more things change, the more they remain the same". The same kind of influences and forces that make motorcycling naturally attractive to a given percentage of people in each generation are still present today as it was in the past. This suggests that there is a substantial number of After Boomers that are primed to ride at some point in that life cycle discussed in the last entry.
But what did change changed everything: Instead of The Donna Reed Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Wonder Woman and Supergirl culminating with the television series Charlie's Angels, this time there was a plethora of women starting with Cagney and Lacey and women like Laura Croft and Xena and Trinity of Matrix fame-and Charlie's Angels again. The After Boomers grew up with women-as well as men-being the lone hero. African-Americans had plenty of highly visible role models who were the lone hero in pursuit of personal freedom as well-and some of them like-Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan-rode motorcycles.
And while their parents suffered the loss of production jobs and outsourcing, these generations grew up in a service industry where globalization was the norm and their homes are filled with products with foreign brand names made overseas by multinational companies.
Fast, flexible, speed is valued-and expected: In other more essential ways when it comes to motorcycles, it's a different-digital, wireless-age. Now communication is instantaneous and global-internet, cell phones, texting, wii-all these things emphasized speed, responsiveness, dexterity and flexibility. And that's the same theme in both movies and television-and in business and current affairs.
And that underscored what they learned from video games-even ones like Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario Brothers as children: the prize goes to the aggressive, the one who can decide and act with speed and daring and take risks. Iow, the qualities Forbes associated with the Harley had spread to even childhood games.
Risk Perception: At the same time understanding of risk had changed in two polar opposite ways:
This is the bicycle helmet generation: Boomer parents were schooled to believe danger is everywhere and real or perceived risks were to be both avoided and protected against. After Boomers, as a general rule, been sheltered from risk and even discomfort. For example, they're been strapped into infant seats, youth seats then seat belts from birth.[i] They've been driven to school to avoid taking the bus; few play outside unsupervised and they've been taught to look at strangers with fear. And when it comes to educational and other achievements, failure is negated and everything is awarded.
On the other hand, video games teach them to take extraordinary risks to win-but the risks are unreal. They erase failure with a reset button and get ahead by finding shortcuts. And while the "risks" seem to be enormous-extreme violence and speed-there are no real consequences to them; they emerge unscathed no matter what they do.
As a general rule, then, After Boomers have been protected from the consequences of their choices and actions by their parents and the culture while being encouraged to take extraordinary risks that have no real consequences.
Primed to ride-but not Harleys
Iow, the stage is set for a future boom cycle in several essential ways while attitudes towards risk and consequence have changed in negative ways.[ii]
The only problem is that it wasn't Harleys that were the iron stars in these movies or on television or video games. Instead it's the sport bike that's lionized-and it was men and women on sport bikes that these After Boomers saw doing courageous man-of-action things at speed.
Otoh, cruisers and street bikes were ridden by villains-and the one percenter image was still regularly employed. Or they were ridden by middle-aged (staid) (white) men-the most recent example being the oncologist on Brothers and Sisters who's idea of risk is to date Sally Field's much older character. Iow, Harley's entertainment media presence is either the outlaw or the RUB.
Sport bikes, then, are associated with the young, lone hero out to change the world and the cruiser/street bike with the middle-aged, upper-income male-one who is almost always white.
Take a look at the Motorcycle Riding Celebrities list and the sea change in celebrity riding Harleys is overwhelming: Celebrities like Schwarzenegger, Axel Rose, Billy Ray Cyrus and David Hasselhoff do have H-Ds. But more high-profile celebs like George Clooney own an H-D but own one or more other marques.
However, more and more contemporary celebrities don't own a Harley at all. Like Bono on a Ducati, Jessica Alba on a Kawasaki, Michael Jordan on a BMW, Sheryl Crowe on a KTM. Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Ewan McGregor are like many younger celebrities and are multi-brand owners: M-V Augusta, BMW, Triumph, Honda, Suzuki or Ducati. The range of marques is quite impressive-as is the absence of Harleys for younger owners.
In fact, it's startling how old most of the H-D celebrity owners on the list are-and it's also surprising how many Harley celebs are now in the "Huh, I thought they were dead" list or "People You Expect to See on Dancing With the Stars" list.
Whether H-D didn't pursue a product placement strategy or whether it did and were turned down, the net result is that Harleys are associated with a kind of bike that the young associate with the old and irrelevant. Nor did Harley get hot young game designers to create an exciting video game. In no way did Harley engage young men-and women-in the ways that they found exciting and fresh.
No dirt bike Since dirt biking as children and teens is one of the ways new riders enter into street riding either as young adults or as middle-aged people, marques that have dirt bikes built brand memory-and perhaps brand loyalty-in Gen X and Y. Harley did not develop a dirt bike and surrendered a rich branding opportunity. Perhaps it was twice-burned, quadruple shy after its lamentable efforts to expand into snowmobiles and lawnmowers, but it was a regrettable marketing mistake.
Harley is the motorcycle Oldsmobile A few years ago Oldsmobile found itself in the same position as H-D: the young avoided the make like the plague. In an attempt to counter that, Oldsmobile ran a series of commercials that bluntly said it "wasn't your father's car" anymore. And that's the problem with Harleys: a great many After Boomers identify the marque with their parents. In urban areas, at least, it just ain't cool for someone under 30 to ride a Harley.
Fashion forward rather than fashion backward Nor does the classic cruiser/street/custom style of motorcycle appeal to most After Boomers. Harley specializes in motorcycles that do not look significantly different than those of decades ago. Otoh, sport bikes are much closer stylistically to what's contemporary in electronics. Harleys, otoh, are so last decade and of a piece with a camera that uses actual film, or phones with a corded handset, desktop computers and land lines.
The After Boomers' image of Harley is neatly summed up in the South Park episode "The F Word".
Where the word "fag" is redefined to stand for Harley riders: "Fag. n. 1. An extremely annoying, inconsiderate person most commonly associated with Harley riders. 2. A person who owns or frequently rides a Harley."
And that's really bad news for Harley's short and long-term prospects. As I wrote about in a prior entry, brands have life cycles and unless brand managers can reinvent it for a new age, it suffers.[iii]
Harley thought the V-Rod and then the Street Rod was reinventing the brand-but the styling was still too much like Old Harley. Harley completely missed why even middle-aged women want to ride and how to attract them let alone offer a compelling image to younger women. And it failed to offer a way for other minorities to feel comfortable in what appeared to be a very white-and very exclusive-world of fellowship.
Research also indicates that brands do have generational baggage.[iv] As a Seeking Alpha entry said, "...in the U.S. the number of consumers will continue to grow until at least 2025 thanks to Generation Y.... We believe this supports our view that the U.S. economy is not ending, but changing. Companies that became fat and happy catering to Boomer demand from 1980 to 2000 need to understand that in many cases this demand is no longer there. Why? Because the generational landscape has changed and will continue to change between now and 2025."
The writer went on to say, "We strongly suspect that those companies that are aware of this shift in demand, and are catering to it, will become the next "Stock Market Darlings." As opposed to those whose executives are scratching their heads and wondering where their customers (the Boomers) have gone. Currently, for example, "Value" teenage retailers are enjoying the increasing demand of the price-conscious Generation Y, who are flocking to their stores, while car manufactures keep trying to design, or in most cases re-design, the perfect car for the disappearing Boomer."
Substitute Harley for "car manufacturers" and perfect motorcycle for "perfect car" and that describes Harley for the past decade and in the future. And Seeking Alpha agreed: "And among those which seem to be unaware of any generational shifting in the U.S. consumer base would have to include: General Motors Inc.,Harley-Davidson Motorcycles Inc. (HOG), Wal-Mart (WMT) and Wendys/Arby's Group Inc. (WEN)."
Whether it was fear of losing the base or being unimaginative, Harley-Davidson has failed the challenge for the past decade by delivering basically the same bikes year after year while ignoring what was exciting and attracting After Boomers. It did not reinvent the brand-and unless it finds a way to do so, it has doomed itself to an increasingly shrinking market until someone in Milwaukee figures out how to do so-or years down the road, consumers find a way to reinvent this particular style of motorcycle.
Otoh, it did have Buell-while it had the negative of being "half a Harley" with its engine, it had innovative and cutting edge technology and styling. It is a sport bike and it had the right kind of styling-and as reported before-it was growing even as Harley shipments were shrinking. So Harley's best chance of capturing After Boomers has been "discontinued" in one of the most blundering, short-sighted and idiotic management decisions in USA corporation history.
It is doubtful, then, given all the reasons above, that Harley will bounce back once the recession is over. While the Motor Company was already facing the difficulty of producing too expensive motorcycles when the majority of new riders would be in their cheap bike stage, the definitive H-D styling is unappealing as is the lifestyle of the H-D rider. In every way, then, the next 20 years of riders will not find Harley's a natural choice in their natural riding life cycle. Unless Harley finds a way to reinvent itself and make the iconic brand speak in fresh exciting ways to these digital, wireless, social networking generations.
[i] And since they grew up with car seats, seat belts and bicycle helmets, motorcycle helmets don't have the same meaning it does to the 40+ cruiser rider. It is likely that the future boom riders, like the current crop of sport/sport-tourer/adventure riders, will wear helmets. Which is not to say the death toll will rise any less precipitously nor as high next boom cycle.
[ii] Except Gen X and Yers, having been strapped in since birth and used to wearing helmets may be more likely to choose to wear motorcycle helmets.
[iii] Holt, Douglas B. How Brands Become Icons. Harvard Business School Press. Boston, MA. 2004.
[iv] "The Future of U.S. Consumer Spending: It's a Generational Thing", Seeking Alpha. Posted, October 22, 2009. http://seekingalpha.com/article/168...ource=yahoo.