Harley-Davidson's bold plan to appeal to younger buyers

Iconic American motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson is embarking on a bold path to boost its appeal to younger buyers, become relevant for billions in emerging markets and respond to a push for 'green' performance.

The ride of choice for outlaw bikie gangs has promised 100 new bikes over 10 years, including an all-electric machine that "sounds like a jet fighter", according to Bill Davidson, the vice president of the Harley Davidson Museum in Milwaukee.

In Australia to celebrate the 100th anniversary of local distribution, Bill is the great grandson of co-founder William Davidson. He's been involved in product planning for the legendary bike manufacturer and is close to the decisions set to shape a company founded in 1903.

Revealing a plan he describes as revolutionary and evolutionary, Davidson says the key to Harley's future is the "look, sound and feel" that defines the bikes known for their raucous exhaust notes as much as their lashings of chrome and distinctive cruiser styling.

"We're blessed to have a uniqueness in the motorcycle industry unlike anybody else," says Davidson. "When you see a Harleygoing down the street … even if you aren't a rider, even if you don't know the brand, people are still able to say 'there's a Harley-Davidson'."

The future is electric

Things are set to change for a brand known for its big sounds.

"We've got an electric bike in the works, it's a prototype that we've shown to the world," Davidson says of Project LiveWire. "Will we introduce that bike? Absolutely. When? We're not sure."

Despite apparently ditching one of the brand's three core elements, Davidson is adamant the electric bike will live up to expectations.

"We use the same philosophies around looks, sound and feel as we do with our traditional V-twin [engines]," he says. "We've engineered a unique sound into that motorcycle so that it doesn't sound like your typical electric bike. It's got a unique signature sound that sounds like a jet fighter."

On the surface, that sound is unlikely to appeal to the Harley-Davidson faithful, some of whom love that they can make people jump simply by accelerating down the road. But Davidson insists the electric bike is "Harley through and through".

"It doesn't feel sterile … and the sound, even though it's different, it's still uniquely Harley because of what we've done to the electric transmission, motor, so-forth."

More than the bikes

Distinctive two-wheeled cruisers are the core to Harley, but there's also clothing and apparel and parts and accessories that allow owners to customise their machines.

"A simple formula is: somebody gets their licence, they buy a bike, they buy clothing, they start going on our rides that we put together and they're inspired by other people's bikes so they buy accessories," says Davidson.

And Davidson views the dealer network as a crucial cog in what is a well-oiled machine. He describes it as "world class" and "best in the industry", something that has helped grow the global Harley Owners Group (HOG) club membership to almost one million.

"There is not another motorcycle club that even comes close to that!"

Davidson also references authenticity.

"Authenticity of our brand and things we do related to our brand is really critical," he says.

That hasn't always been the case in the past with licensing of the Harley-Davidson brand to other products.

"We learned very quickly that the value and essence and soul of the brand is the most powerful entity you have. You absolutely have to respect it because if you lose that you've lost everything."

Competitive edge

Harley Davidsons often aren't about transport – they're about enjoying the ride.

As such Davidson sees the brand's biggest competition as anything that competes for peoples' leisure time.

"To us it's more in the realm of what's absorbing people's time," he says. "Some of the electronic things like computers, video games, it absorbs people in a whole different world that may take away time of riding a bike."

Everything from social media to smartphones could be indirectly dissuading people from bikes.

Some of Harley's new models will be aimed at China and India, two markets the brand has struggled to crack – but desperately wants to.

They're two of the biggest bike riding nations in the world, but riders typically choose cheap, small bikes that are more A to B than enjoying the ride.

"When you think of China and India and the growing middle class structures of those countries and the fact that most of them ride already … if we bring products to those markets and entice them as that middle class grows it's just a huge opportunity."

Young at heart

Davidson talks of immense brand loyalty for Harley Davidson.

"We know that when we get them in the door we have a loyalty rate of almost 99 per cent," he says. "Once they're on a HarleyDavidson they will not purchase another brand."

Little wonder, then, that the younger generation is a major focus.

"We apply a customer-for-life philosophy that we try and get them in at a young age and keep 'em in for a lifetime and that has been working really, really well for us."

Hence the Street 500, the most affordable Harley (at about $10,000) and one approved for learners.

As for the outlaw bikie gangs, Davidson views them as a "dwindling entity worldwide".

"They haven't harmed us in any way, shape or form," he says. "If anything, we have a little bit of rebel within our brand and these clubs sometimes will actually help with that."