Recently, Harley-Davidson announced plans for multiple different electric vehicles: three motorcycles, three scooter-category bikes and even an electric-assist bicycle. Most of these are supposed to be on the road by 2022. It won’t help the company. It has serious brand issues that it must overcome, and it’s hard to see how it will.
But first, a little bit of context.
Harley-Davidson sells the vast majority of its bikes and paraphernalia in the USA. Canada is a bit of a rounding error, and included fully in US marketing and branding efforts. Outside of the USA and Canada, Harley-Davidson’s go-to market branding is a little different as jingoistic Americanism doesn’t play as well elsewhere.
And it’s in decline. It has been for a long time. It can’t overcome the demographic cliff it’s facing. The best current assessment of the average age of an HD owner is 51. This older trend line shows that it’s been heading in that direction a long time.
HD turned its marketing in the early ’80s to a toxic stew of machismo and white nationalism dog whistles. It fostered a culture of ugly male entitlement.
The Sons of Anarchy TV show is emblematic of this branding, with the criminal gang all riding Harley-Davidsons as they kill people, make porn, violently intimidate people and generally act like misogynistic jerks. As Salon points out:
“SOA” follows club President Jax Teller as he leads his all-male clan of hardened Harley-riding, gun-toting criminals around the sleepy town of Charming, California – a fictional city steeped in violence and corruption. Women are present in the show, but are mostly there to provide sexual gratification, take the fall when the men get into legal jams, and at times be their human punching bags – all with the hopes of proving their worth to possibly become an “Old Lady.”
And it got a lot of white, middle-aged accountants and lawyers to buy into being weekend assholes, regardless of how careful they were to be useful members of society the rest of the week. The demographic of Harley Davidson riders are proud of having inefficient, incredibly loud and hideously expensive bikes. Wretched excess. Strong overlap with the rolling coal demographic.
That brand is the antithesis of electrification of vehicles. Harley-Davidson fans love the stench, they trend very strongly to being climate change deniers and they want to make a lot of antisocial noise with their bikes. Their demographic are the ones who claim electric bikes aren’t masculine, and that the only good bike is a very, very noisy one.
Electric motorcycles, in other words, are completely off-brand for their current demographic. They aren’t going to sell a lot of electric bikes to their current owners, most of whom ride perhaps a thousand miles a year as it is and have aged out of motorcycle trips.
Electric motorcycles are completely appropriate for millennials, however. But that’s where 40 years of turning your brand into one that celebrates toxic masculinity and global warming denial fails. The Harley Davidson brand is toxic to most millennials.
They won’t buy an electric Harley. They’ll buy an electric Zero or Energica. If BMW, Yamaha, or Honda actually got off their butts and brought good electric bikes to market, millennials would buy them. Or they’ll avoid motorcycles entirely for years as they enjoy the much lower entry-requirement electric bicycles that are increasingly dominant.
But not a lot of Harleys. That company may or may not survive, but it will be badly diminished. It might be able to grow in foreign markets where it isn’t so toxic. But not in the core market it sells most of its product in today.