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Is Harley-Davidson Growing the Brand, or Killing the Mystique

Harley-Davidson releases new video of their electric motorcycle You can’t say the boys from Milwauke ain’t tryin’.

Harley-Davidson has been faced with criticism since the beginning of time. To quote Fuzzygalore:

Harley-Davidson seems to be one motorcycle brand that many people are very vocal about their love or dislike of.

There are the die-hard brand loyalists who buy and proudly wear their branded gear, bandannas, t-shirts from dealers afar. Some riders get tattoos of the company logo, have stickers on their cars or trucks and seem to see Harley-Davidson as a facet of the American dream.

And then there are the people who are pretty vocal about hating everything HD stating reasons such as – outdated technology, poor performance and peddling a lifestyle above all else.

I cannot think of another brand of motorcycles that divides people so clearly.

– Fuzzygalore, Girlie Motorcycle Blogger

Harley has been bashed for everything from poor performance to backwards mentality, and a knack for making motorcycles that are no longer feasible for the average rider.

Harley-Davidson V-Rod

When Harley-Davidson unveiled the V-Rod, made with a Porsche-developed engine, it was considered revolutionary for the brand in 2001.

So they seem to be turning their entire business model in a more sustainable direction. From Project Rushmore and the Street series to liquid cooling and an electric motorcycle, we’ll say it again: you can’t say the boys from Milwaukee ain’t trying’.

Harley-Davidson Water-Cooled Cylinder Heads

Harley-Davidson finally went watercooled, but only for the cylinder heads of their big twin deckers… for now.

But here’s the thing, Harley-Davidson is a bit of legend in the industry. The brand is legendary. Evel Knieval, Easy Rider, The Malborough Man, you name it. Harley-Davidson is a living symbol of Americana. And we like it. A lot. You’d be hard-pressed to find even the purest of supersport racerboys not willing to jump out of his or her leather onesie in order to take a brand new hog out for a romp.

As a marketing student I studied the brand. Amicably called “The MoCo”, Harley is shrouded in nostalgia, history, attitude, symbolism, and spectacular failures. We can’t mention Harley’s trying to patent their distinct and globally-recognized sound – while Japanese clones tried to mimic it – without also mentioning the AMA days.

But that’s all old news now.

Even the Sportster, Harley-Davidson’s smallest bike in 2007, received fuel-injection. Fast forward six years and liquid cooled heads are being introduced, and then, a 500cc and 750cc Harley?! Say it ain’t so!

When I rode a Sportster it was shunned upon by the Harley-sta crowd. It was the “postman’s bike”. If the 883cc Sportster is the postman’s bike, than who will ride the Street 500 and Street 750? We already know who will ride Harley-Davidson’s latest motorcycle: an electric bike. No one.

Questions:

So with the MoCo reaching out in all new directions, are they not diluting the very reasons people are in love with the brand, while simultaneously trying to convert haters who, well, are gonna hate? Or will the smartness pay off? Will all of these moves create a more versatile product offering and develop a younger and more diverse brand following?

Is Harley-Davidson growing a brand, or killing their own mystique?

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6 comments

  1. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Harley were designing an e-bike JUST to stir the pot! As they say, “there’s no bad ink…..just make sure you spell my name right.” Same reason Bieber drops his pants, crashes cars and punches photographers: it’s all been done by someone before him….but if it works to keep his name in the “press” (read: online), why not do it!

    Also, Harley, as a corporation, has had some balance sheets that are as “unbalanced” as, well, some would say their engines. They haven’t had to look too far afield to see that everyone from Elon Musk (Tesla Motors) to even General Motors (Volt) is planning for the day when motors (and balance sheets) will be powered by something other than hydrocarbon fuels. Hey, I’m ready for the Hydrogen Harley!

    • Good call Michael. I don’t expect these to come to market any time soon. Well, I should clarify: I don’t expect these to come to market at a pricepoint I could justify, in the next couple years… but I’m not opposed to technology. As for Harley’s motivations, you might have hit the nail on the head… but my question remains:
      Are their latest moves growing their brand, or killing the HD mystique?

  2. “You’d be hard-pressed to find even the purest of supersport racerboys not willing to jump out of his or her leather onesie in order to take a brand new hog out for a romp.”

    You would have to look no further than me to find the person who won’t ride one-ever. Under any conditions, at any time, even for money. I won’t risk my life on an underpowered, break-less, rock crusher than a Harley. After all the “Jap Crap, Rice Rocket, “are you’re eyes starting to slant” insults I sustained from their owners they can go to heck. The Japanese build the best products sold in America and this butt will never, ever settle into a Harley saddle. A Victory maybe, but not a Dog, uhhh, Hog.

    • Yikes. I love motorcycling. I would ride any brand of motorcycle. At least to try it. Sure, maybe I wouldn’t ride every bike of every brand, but I would definitely try them. Last summer Harley-Davidson Canada lent us the Breakout. That was a fun bike! Apples to oranges versus the last Harley I rode. I think we owe it to ourselves to keep an open mind. That being said, I’m not really sure where I stand on Harley-Davidson’s latest moves, though I suspect that Michael might be on to something.

    • After all the “Jap Crap, Rice Rocket, “are you’re eyes starting to slant” insults I sustained from their owners they can go to heck.

      It sounds like you’re taking on their insecurity problems. FWIW, over the years I’ve owned HD Sportsters and Softails, Yamaha RZ500’s and TT250’s, Triumphs and Urals, and a whole bunch of others besides. The only bad bike is no bike.

      Now to the point,… HD have a particular niche market sewn up, and the Street 500 / 750 is aimed at a totally different market – https://www.google.com/search?q=extreme+games+hd+street+750

      Will it work ? who knows, but they are a strong company with a world wide brand, and whether purely as a business or as a bike manufacturer, HD are a success. However, they do need to diversify to ensure that they don’t suffer due to any fall off in their existing market, or just as importantly, any issues with their technology (I’m thinking of noise and pollution regulations similar to the 2 stroke issues from last century).

      hth

  3. I’m thinking that Harley can succeed in this market where no other can. I’ll use the same argument in this case that I used when Polaris got hold of Indian. One of Harley-Davidson’s greatest strengths is in their dealer network.

    In my area, there is one Zero Motorcycle dealer. They have a brochure on their counter, and a banner on their storefront, no bikes. There is one Indian dealer in the state. I will ride by 5-6 Harley dealers, and maybe 3-4 YamaHondaSaki dealers on the way to the Indian dealer.

    If I’m gonna lay out big dollars for an innovative bike, I don’t want to have to tow the thing 200 miles, or wait months to get warranty service. The fact that Harley has a huge presence with dealers all over the US and the world gives them a leg-up when entering any market.

    Would I buy one? Maybe, if the range and price are reasonable. Would I buy one as my only/primary bike? Not likely unless the management of the old folk’s home threatens to throw me out because my is too loud.

What do you think?