Like all the motorcycle companies, Harley Davidson had a rough year in 2009. But not totally.
The company did manage to bring in record levels of young consumers, per Mark-Hans Richer, SVP and CMO of the Milwaukee motorcycle company. Richer spoke at this week's New York meeting of the International Motor Press Association (IMPA) to tease the company's latest product, a retro naked bike called the 48. The company is pitching the bike, part of Harley's Dark Custom line, to twenty- and thirty-somethings as an about-town motorcycle, or "bar bike."
If Richer is the first officer of a motorcycle company to speak at IMPA, there's some justification. Richer used to head up marketing for General Motors' defunct Pontiac brand. He left in 2007 to take the marketing helm at H-D, a company with the biggest share of the bike market in the U.S. -- a rabidly loyal owner base -- but a brand that hadn't been replacing an aging fan base with new buyers.
Since then, Richer has pitched H-D with a young-rebel-with-tats ethos through attitude-enhanced ads, social media efforts, and lifestyle programs around counterculture happenings.
The company's response to the economy, he says, came from the core attitude of the brand, with ads that elaborated on the "Screw it, Let's Ride" theme introduced in 2008 and text that flips the bird to the establishment with phrases like "The other end of Wall Street connects with a million other roads," and "If it was all a casino, where are the complimentary cocktails?"
"Harley-Davidson is not a discretionary purchase to our [loyalists]," says Richer, who adds that while boomers are Harley's sweet spot, "the challenge is to think about who are those other customers we might enjoy a relationship with?" Well, they are younger and multicultural, says Richer. "It transcends age, gender and race; we are a counterculture brand, so our strategy is to have more relationships with more people and more different kinds of people."
The company launched the Dark Custom sub brand in 2008 with black-paint, stripped-down versions of its bikes to appeal to younger people, and Richer says Harley-Davidson is doing more new-motorcycle sales to young adults than it did a generation ago. He adds that although young adults are coming to the brand through the pre-owned side of the business, which saw double-digit increases last year, they vow to stick with the brand.
"We asked them what motorcycle they will buy next; 96% say the next bike they get will be a Harley versus 15% for the next choice." Per Richer, the median age of Harley-Davidson owners has been 47 for the past three years, while the Iron 883 Dark Custom model has the youngest buyers in the brand.
The next Dark Custom bikes will go back to an earlier look, with less chrome and a more naked-bike appearance. The latest, to be revealed at this weekend's New York Motorcycle Show, is called the 48 (named after the year H-D introduced the so-called peanut gas tank).
With a throwback look, the bike has thick tires, underslung mirrors, and a one-person saddle. Richer says the company is addressing the idea that H-D bikes are too expensive with ads that juxtapose the daily price to own a new 48 with other things the idealized buyer might be spending that $6 or $7 a day on, like a new tattoo or some new black T-shirts.
He says the company will be doing grassroots efforts to get the bikes in front of consumers at such events as the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, and the traveling Mayhem rock festival.
"We will make it easier for people to get the feel of it. It needs to be very deeply experiential." As far as product placement goes, the key is counterculture programs, he says, such as FX's "Sons of Anarchy" about a gang of motorcycle zealots willing to take on big business, drug dealers and the jerk who wants to build a mall in your backyard. "But," says Richer, "you are not going to see Harley-Davidson on 'American Idol'; never, as long as I'm alive." Ride on.