We picked this up from the news feeds recently. It’s an excellent interview with Harley-Davidson’s Anoop Prakash on attracting the next generation of riders to the brand.
If you don’t know the back story,Harley-Davidson motorcycles had been imported into Canada for the past 42 years via a third-party company called Deeley Harley-Davidson. That all changed this year when Harley opted to not renew the agreement with Deeley and take on the Canadian market directly.
They appointed Anoop Prakash to head the new subsidiary, who came to the company in 2009 to establish the brand in India. Having done just that, Prakash’s new challenge is to attract the next generation of riders to the brand and to bolster the company’s presence in Canada, where sales are down nearly 4% year-over-year, despite the company’s introduction of the more entry level Street 500 and 750.
We thought that this would be a good topic to put to the CMG panel of three, which this time includes Insider Michael Uhlarik, News Editor Zac Kurylyk and CMG Test Rider & Harley aficionado Costa Mouzouris. Here are their thoughts on the subject:
Question : Harley Davidson is a landmark brand for North Americans, seen by the general public as the giant in the room of motorcycling. The reality is that in terms of number of bikes sold around the world it is tiny compared to Japanese and Asian brands. With new entry-level bikes like the Street 500 and 750, and the recent successful expansion into India and China, can Harley keep its image as the ultimate go-to motorcycle brand for Canadians and Americans?
CM: Harley sales are tiny in comparison to small-displacement Asian bikes sold abroad, but the company is still at, or near, the top of the rostrum when it comes to large-displacement motorcycles. There will always be the haters, and there’s absolutely nothing the company can produce to swing them. So it’s no surprise that the iconic American motorcycle has found its way to China and India, where it has the biggest potential to grow.
I don’t think the entry-level thing will work for Harley here in North America, though. People here want a Harley, which for most is either a Big Twin or a Sportster, even those who are unfamiliar with the brand, but are aware of its stature (read new riders in the right age range). Anytime Harley swayed from its traditional formula, sales just never took off—just look at the V-Rod.
ZK: I agree 100 per cent. Harley-Davidson has had to introduce “premium” versions (like the Seventy Two) of even its Sportster to retain public interest here, which is too bad. For some reason, the MoCo faithful are only really interested in big displacement. So yeah, I think they’ll lose some market share — they already are — but they will continue to be a top-tier brand.
MU: I think Harley will keep that image because North Americans largely have no idea what the motorcycle universe is like in the rest of the world. Harley could sell rebranded mopeds from Vietnam and it would make no difference to the brand’s base over here. Remember how all the pundits said that the liquid cooling and Porsche designed motor of the V-Rod would erode the Harley image? Well it didn’t. Same goes with the Street.
Question : With the recent introduction of affordable motorcycles from many exotic European heritage brands (think Ducati Scrambler, BMW 350, Benelli Leoncino and TRK502, etc.), added to already successful retro street bikes such as the Enfield Continental GT and Triumph Bonneville, can the Harley Street family compete in this increasingly crowded, price sensitive marketplace?
MU: I don’t think the Street will be strong against the Scrambler and retro Triumphs because they are superior in quality (fancy castings, brakes, forks, etc) and the marketing of them has been so strong in the under 30 segment. The Street is too vanilla looking in stock form. Not American enough. If they allowed for more of a statement, perhaps going after the uniquely American themes of dirt track or even (gasp) a chopper look, it might get more traction.
ZK: I could be reading the market wrong, but the trend I see is younger buyers wanting affordable, maneuverable bikes with classic styling. Unless someone is dead set on owning a Harley-Davidson, the competition probably has better options. And, if you really want a Harley, are you going to settle for a Street? A Sportster isn’t that much more expensive, and has a lot more history behind it.
But don’t forget: the Harley dealer network is strong, and they have a lot of marketing behind them, so a new buyer is more likely to encounter the Street than a Triumph or Royal Enfield, which helps their sales.
CM: Wait. What? The Enfield Continental GT is successful?
Harley is a premium brand, but that perception is getting diluted by the Europeans, who are introducing excellent retro designs at affordable prices. The Street isn’t the machine that can compete with the Scramblers, Bonnevilles, and V7s; that’s Sportster territory.
I do believe, however, that people are getting saturated with just more variations of the Sporty. The bike needs some cornering capability and it needs to be lighter, something that cannot be achieved with the current design. As for the Street, maybe it’s time to introduce other, sexier models with its engine, which although simple, is superb.
Question : What changes, if any, would you make to either the brand positioning or the Street 500/750 if you had the power to do so?
ZK: They could take that platform into a lot of interesting places, making street trackers, scramblers, desert bikes — these machines are in the company’s history. RYCA Motors has done a lot of cool stuff with the Suzuki Savage, and I think Harley-Davidson could build a similar model and capture the public’s attention. The coolest, most desirable machines I see built on the custom blog sites are all along these lines.
I don’t see the Street lineup filling that niche. I know they are trying to build race series around the bike, and there’s talk of a performance version of it coming (looking something like the V-Rod). I think the Street will do well overseas, but here in North America, people want something else. If they wanted a heavy liquid-cooled middleweight cruiser, they could have bought a Honda Shadow.
What bothers me is that they never seem to think outside that box, because I think it would be a smash hit if they re-thought their devotion to the V-twin and forward controls. They don’t have to build a sportbike, just something that aligns with North America’s history of flat track racing and the like. Victory is aiming at this, with Project 156. I’d be interested to see if Harley-Davidson could beat them at this game.
CM: Hmmm… I think I answered this one in my last response. I disagree with Zac’s response to this one, namely because of what I said above: If Harley sways from its established formula, it just doesn’t work. If Harley does do what Zac suggests, I could only see it working if it rebranded the bikes, à la Ducati Scrambler. And they’d need to be twins. Singles, regardless of the brand, just don’t sell unless they’re KLRs.
I do, however, think that Project Livewire has marginal potential for future success, if bike makers don’t drop the electric thing altogether, which I think is likely.
ZK: You’re right, in that Harley needs to follow an established formula. I’m just saying they need to go to the formula they used before Easy Rider, when function was important, not form, and make those sorts of machines again. And I disagree on the singles — KTM still sells a lot of them, although their premium machines are V-twins.
MU: If it is going to be low cost, and come with generic, low performance chassis components, then that needs to be reflected in the price. It is not a matter of good value versus a Sportster. Most people have absolutely no idea what market segments are, and when they go into a showroom they just shop for 1) look, and 2) price. From that standpoint, the Street is not canibalizing Sportser sales, it’s the other way around. Not enough differentiation.