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Motorcycle News, Editorials, Product Reviews and Bike Reviews

  • April 21, 2011
  • Gabe Ets-Hokin
  • Harley-Davidson

Harley-Davidson Courts the Youth Market; Seems Confident About Future

There’s a pantheon of motorcycle mythology in our culture, and some of these stories are heard so often they must be true, right? One of these—oft repeated by posters to the MD chatboards—is that Harley-Davidson is living on borrowed time, selling the same overpriced, under-performing products to the same aging buyers…and when they die, so will die H-D, as a singularly brainwashed pack of Baby Boomers are solely responsible for the MoCo’s undeserved success. That the same predictions were made in 1971, 1981, 1991 and 2001 makes no difference to the doom-criers.

So if that’s true, what’s the best-selling brand of streetbikes to 18-34-year-old buyers? Honda, with its CBRs? Kawasaki, with its friendly Ninja 250R and race-winning ZX-6R? Surely, then, it must be Yamaha, because what red-blooded 21-year-old wouldn’t want to blast off down the road on the svelte and sexy YZF-R6?

Wrong, wrong, and wrong. The correct answer is actually Harley-Davidson. According to H-D’s Director of Youth Market Outreach Mike Lowney, Harley is the market leader with what it labels “Gen Y” buyers, folks born between 1978 and 1994. They’re after the “Gen Xers” and before the “Millennials,” children and grandchildren of that important Baby Boom demographic. I asked if that was an arbitrary age range, picked to make H-D look good, but no, it’s a “standard industry metric,” often used to conveniently describe the group for marketing or demographic purposes.

Is it just a blip, an aberration picked up for one year in an unstable market? Not at all, said Lowney—H-D became number one with young adults in the heavyweight (650cc and bigger, and yes, it includes dual-sports) category in 2006, and added all street models to its trophy case starting in 2008. Incidentally, I can’t confirm any of this data with the Motorcycle Industry Council, as it’s not generally available for public dissemination, so we have to take the MoCo’s word.

Lowney and Communications Manager Paul James described to me a sort of three-legged stool that’s supporting this surprising popularity. The first leg is marketing—getting the word out. That’s achieved by looking for new media and ways to get the attention of those 18-34 year olds. Younger buyers tend to listen to people they know more than media or marketing, so outlets like Facebook are important, and H-D has been no slouch there—there are 2.2 million “like” votes on its FB page, up from one million a year ago. H-D claims the majority of these users are young adults. This is called “relevance,” according to Lowney, “engaging with them on their turf and their terms.” Motorcycle shops and dealerships are intimidating, especially Harley dealers, what with all the black leather, tattoos, and big, heavy boots. It doesn’t scare you or me, but it’s intimidating to those outside the sport. Go to them, where they feel comfortable, and they’ll be more receptive to your message.

That’s why a program called “Jumpstart” seems particularly effective. It’s a setup that allows aspirational consumers to “ride” a fully-functioning motorcycle strapped down to a stationary frame. They can start it up, shift the gears and gun the throttle without being tossed down the road. The rigs are in dealerships, but H-D’s people also take them to events like concerts, Ultimate Fighting Championship matches, or other extreme sporting events. Lowney describes how Jumpstart draws in people who are “new to motorcycling, but their eyes light up and we see a big smile…they’re lined up around the corner.”

Another leg is the Dark Custom lineup, which seems to have been successful. Since 2007, these stripped-down, blacked-out and lower-priced models have proven popular with younger buyers, and many H-D dealers I’ve talked to mention Dark Custom models like the 48, 883 Iron or Cross Bones when I ask which bikes younger shoppers gravitate towards. According to James and Lowney, the appeal isn’t just in the tough-guy, rattle-can look of the bikes, but also the suggestion that owners can customize and make the bikes unique. Gen Ys and Millennials “want to be different and part of a crowd as well…they want to customize the way they want it to look cool.”

Yet another boost has been younger buyers snapping up used Harleys as prices fall. These sales don’t help the MoCo directly (unless they use H-D financing), but used buyers are more likely to buy a new Harley next time around.

Still, this must all be a matter of too little too late, right? I asked if there were enough Xers, Ys and Milenials to keep H-D going. My theory is that young people have too many choices—snowboards, mountain bikes, whatever—to flock to motorcycling the way Boomers did in the ’60s and ’70s, but I’m wrong, according to H-D’s data, which shows the number of 18-34 year-old riders is actually growing. Good news for everybody.

It doesn’t make sense. After all, aren’t Harleys antiquated, slow, heavy relics that are unsafe to ride in modern traffic conditions? No, they are not—I’ve ridden enough Milwaukee metal to tell you it is  competitive (and growing European market share proves this), with performance and reliability that rivals  similar products. But still, why would a 700-pound, 60-horsepower machine interest a young man or woman who could get a 400-pound, 170-horse machine for less dough?

That’s easy to answer if you’ve actually ridden an H-D. Riding a Harley is a unique experience that can’t be precisely duplicated on another brand. Whether that experience is a better one is, of course, much more subjective, and that will be debated endlessly. But if you want to cruise on a Harley you have to buy, well, a Harley, and that will never change, no matter what you call the generation that’s doing the cruising. As long as Americans buy motorcycles, a large number of them will be made by Americans.

And how can that be bad?