Is this the end of the road for Harley Davidson? Or perfect timing for a new generation?

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I’ve always dreamed about owning a Harley Davidson, ever since Arnold Schwarzenegger jumped off a bridge in Terminator 2.

It’s just one of those evocative American brands that says, freedom, individualism, and rebellion. As well as a brand that claims to offer a sense of community, where all riders are equal.

So why is the brand struggling to attract younger individuals who are looking for adventure, experiences and a way to express themselves.

Is the problem really just a generation gap and lack of affordability? Or is there something much deeper going on?


For me, there are three big factors affecting the brand.


Spending power

There is no doubt that the recession has had a huge impact on the spending habits of 21 – 35 year olds. This audience can barely afford to get on the housing ladder, let alone buy a car or a bike.

And that could get even worse for Harley Davidson, if the European Union imposes new tariffs on American products, making them even more expensive.

Thankfully that has not happened yet, and it is possible to buy a Harley Davidson, Street Rod, from just £99 per month with a £1000 deposit.

Surely the 2.8 million people still living at home can afford that. So what else are they spending their money on?

 Status symbols today

Owning a car or bike used to provide a sense of freedom for young adults. Giving them ways to connect with friends, establish their own independence and give them a decent amount of distance from their parents.

These day’s 21-35 year olds don’t need cars or bikes to achieve this.

• They have grown up with computers, mobile phones and the internet.

• They can connect with friends 24/7.

• They can now develop their own identities and express their individualism through social media.

• They can even become a different version of themselves online with free roaming computer games like Dynasty Warriors and Kingdom Come.

In fact what some brands have failed to realise is that the cars and bikes are no longer the only vehicles to freedom. Technology has changed how a whole generation define their personal identities.

This is why we are now seeing so many car brands, integrating technology and apps into their cars, enabling people to stay connected.

A recent study by Mintel found that 41 percent of people aged between 21 – 35 say that they are interested in having the newest technological innovations in their next car. With 70 percent saying they are willing to pay extra for an infotainment system, in comparison to 30 % of baby boomers.

This doesn’t make it any easier for Harley. I mean, there isn’t exactly any space on the drag style bars for a touchscreen. But it does gives us a way to reach and engage the audience like never before and drive more consideration for the brand.

And then there is the Trump effect

This audience didn’t grow up with big American brands like Ford or Harley Davidson. So they have less affinity and less loyalty to them.

And even if they were to buy a bike are they going to choose a big, loud, chrome Harley-Davidson or a high-tech Ducati? Given their appetite for technology.

Go one step further, are they going to buy an American Bike over a British made Triumph Bonneville? Which David Beckham proudly shows off on Instagram.

Harley Davidson built it’s brand on freedom, individualism, and rebellion. Is this promise still credible from a country, led by a man who wants to build a wall. I hope it still can be.

But if UK visitor numbers to the US are anything to go by I would certainly be worried if I worked in Harley Davidson’s marketing department. According to the data from Kayak – Brits are falling out of love with America in a major way. Searches for flights to key US destinations have fallen off a cliff when it comes to holidays in 2017. Down over 58% in some places.

So what does this mean for a brand who embody the American way? That is being eroded with every Trump Tweet?

What should the brand do to win the hearts and minds of new younger individuals, who have no affinity to the brand.


How can Harley Davidson turn it around?


Stand for something for millennials

Firstly, this fantastic brand needs to stand for something again and create a credible role our lives. And to do that it needs to re-define what freedom really means in a technology driven world.

The brand doesn’t need to compete with technology and social media, by asking people to switch it all off and hit the road.

The brand should become the enabler to do more of it.

Helping our freedom loving individuals to go to more places, have more experiences, create more content and share it. Just imagine how much more interesting their instagram feeds will be.

Extend the idea further and the brand could consider creating it’s own autonomous drones for riders to create amazing shots or even placing cameras on roads that recognise Harley number plates, sending pictures to their Instagram feeds.

At the very least the brand should create an app that maps out how much of the UK someone has explored and reward those people who have made the most of their individual freedom. And bringing riders together as groups. Something that has worked well for Strava.

The brand need to use Brexit to their advantage

In an era where walls are being built. And the freedom of movement is being restricted. The brand also has a huge opportunity to connect emotionally with 21 – 35 year olds.

75% of which voted to REMAIN in the European Union. And are still at odds with their parents and grand parents who decided to vote LEAVE

But when you actually think about it. The Brexit situation is perfect for a brand like Harley Davidson, because it gives us something new, to rebel against.

And when you read Harley’s positioning statement it actually talks about ‘joining a gang of cowboys, in an era of decreasing personal freedom’

So, if I was Harley Davidson I would be far more vocal about the fact that you can rent a Harley Davidson. And take on even more of the zip-car sharing approach.

Or else they could just wait for the ‘inheritance boom’ to hit in the UK, where a whole generation will be left record sums of money from their parents and grandparents who voted to LEAVE.

It would certainly be a lot of fun coming up with a finance deal, based on spending the inheritance money to get our freedom back.

We just need to make sure the brand is top of the consideration list when that happens.

Creating an experience that creates consideration

If you step inside a Harley Davidson showroom the experience is pretty good. If you step inside one that is. The truth of the matter is that Harley is not high on the consideration list. So it is unlikely to be a destination. Instead the brand and local dealers should interrupt the shopping experience by creating experimental retail and artistic pop ups in areas that freedom loving generations hang out.

The brand should make it feel exciting and inclusive and create a sense of community, where all visitors feel like equals. Much more like social media platforms and their own community.

Because there is no doubt the product looks and sounds amazing. The brand feels authentic. And if anything else, just getting up close to this brand will plant that seed in your head that freedom awaits.


So what would I do if was Harley?


The brand has two choices. It can either stick to its guns, stay traditional and hope that the ‘inheritance boom’ kicks in soon, Trump doesn’t start a trade war, and University fees are scrapped. And maybe the baby boomers will even pass on the keys to the next generation.

Or this amazing brand, with an incredible brand history, can decide to re-define what freedom really means in a technology driven world. And find a new way to create an emotional connection with the next generation of riders.

Who lets face it have just had their freedom restricted by the LEAVE vote, and I sense are ready to rebel.

I hope its the latter. Let’s ride.


About the Author:

Guy Bradbury is founding and creative partner at creative agency Atomic London.

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