Riding high on the hog
With the baby boomer generation among its most important customers, could Harley-Davidson be hitting a demographic speed bump?
© COLUMBIA / Kobal Collection
In a week-long festival of V-twin bravado and flashing chrome swagger, perhaps the most heroic acts were performed by fabric.
Leather, denim and humble cotton struggled valiantly to restrain many a bulging midriff and hefty thigh as riders threw their legs over a “hog” and gunned the engine for a cruise around what one grizzled, tattooed figure called, “the lake in the middle of nowhere.”
We’re at the European Bike Week in Austria, right smack in the middle of new Europe, firmly in the state of middle age, and, it must be said, the realm of the affluent middle class. Each year, more than 75,000 riders from motorcycle chapters throughout the continent descend on this tiny lake in Carinthia, southern Austria, to celebrate all things Harley-Davidson.
It is the largest event of its type in Europe and possibly even in the world. The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and Daytona Bike Week in the United States may draw considerably bigger crowds, but they are not driven by one manufacturer. Here, at idyllic Faaker See, riders of other brands are welcomed at outlying campsites. But make no mistake: this is a celebration of the H-D heavy customized, 651+cc lifestyle.
“For me, Harley-Davidson is a culture,” explains Georg Schweinzer from Fürstenfeld in Austria, sitting proudly on his polished white sportster. He bought his first hog in, averages 12,000 km a year and has visited the European Bike Week 10 times during its 14-year history.
Nigel Villiers discusses the brand with PROJECT M editor Greg Langley
“It is more than a brand. It is a lifestyle that says freedom and the Easy Rider romance of the road,” says the 49-year-old cook to the nodding agreement of Maria, his Hungarian girlfriend.
Owners view Harley-Davidson with intense loyalty and involvement. The 109-year-old company from Milwaukee is one of the most powerful brands worldwide. The name conjures up an image of rebellion and classic American style, which is extolled here by a babel of European languages in the shadows of the ruined Castle Finkenstein.
Italy may have one of the most rapidly aging societies in Europe, but it remains one of Harley-Davidson’s youngest and strongest markets on the continent. Some 15% of Harley purchasers in Italy were aged 30 or under. For the whole of Europe, the figure is 7%.
Why the difference? Harley-Davidson’s Rudi Herzig thinks it may be cultural. “Italians tend to start with Vespas, progress to bikes and then maybe purchase a car.” Weather could also be a factor, he notes. Bikes are very much a sunshine activity and become dangerous in rain and snow.
But the real answer may be more straightforward. Italian children tend to remain at home until they are almost 30, far longer than almost all other European cultures. This, commented one cynical female journalist, means Italian men have more money to spend on personal indulgences at a younger age.
The generation that grew up aiming to emulate Peter Fonda in Easy Rider has returned to Harley-Davidson – with a few more miles on the clock © gottschall photodesignThe company owes its modern success to baby boomers. The narrative is that back in the and, Harleys were the bike of choice for the “one percenters,” then defined as those who didn’t fit into society and didn’t much care, such as the notorious, media-hyped Hells Angels. They personified the motorcyclist mystique – large, tough and dangerous outlaws clad in black leather and covered in tattoos. Another complex overlay was created with the success of the counterculture road movie Easy Rider featuring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper.
That image of the tough-guy’s bike sat uneasily with Harley-Davidson, the company, but it impressed young boomer males. Like much of American culture, this spread worldwide. In the, Harley sales increased as that generation came into their 20s. In the, sales decreased as boomers settled down and raised families. Needing money, many sold off their Harleys.
In, Harley-Davidson responded to declining sales by creating the Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.), a factory-sponsored motorcycle enthusiast club that embraced the motorcycle’s slang name. In part, H.O.G. sought to tame the “outlaw” image, but also to enhance the Harley-Davidson lifestyle experience.
H.O.G. benefits include exclusive products and product discounts as well as one year’s full membership with the purchase of a new, unregistered Harley-Davidson. It was canny marketing. With the messy business of child-rearing out of the way, boomers returned to the market flush with discretionary spending cash and could readily purchase the bike they had been missing for 20 years.
By, worldwide shipments hit 118,771 – more than triple a decade before. The sanitized image of leather jacket rebellion also appealed to aging professionals who only had time to be “weekend outlaws.”
“I am a great believer that when you are over 50, you still want to be 30,” says Nigel Villiers, Harley’s head H.O.G. man in Europe, discussing the appeal of the brand. “You buy the right clothes, the right shoes and accessories and, when you’re over 50, you can actually afford it.”
Cook by day; Easy Rider by passion. Georg Schweinzer seen here with his girlfriend Maria © gottschall photodesign
On the lakeside road, Harleys thunder by, before slowing and pulling into the parade ground to join hundreds of polished and gleaming bikes on display. As riders remove their helmets, much grey hair and wrinkles are revealed.
“It’s really a party for the 40+ generation,” comments 32-year-old Georg Mager to Karin Paul as the pair enjoy the busy scene from the verandah of Choppers Bar. A suave red-head sporting a cowboy hat, Georg is a pilot with Austrian Airlines, where Karin also works as a stewardess. It is their first visit to Bike Week. Although he has been fascinated by Harleys for 18 years, he finally purchased his first bike, a Dyna Wide Glide, at the end of. Since then, he and Karin have covered 8,000 km.
Inadvertently, Georg pinpointed a problem for Harley: demographics. The same trends that popularized the brand threaten its future. Last year, Harley sold 210,404 bikes worldwide (46,699 to Europe), a figure substantially down on, when almost 350,000 bikes were shipped. Undoubtedly, tougher economic times have contributed to the woes, but commentators note Harley could be hitting a demographic speed bump.Harley-Davidson likes to boast that it makes customers for life. That may be true, but if your best customers are middle-aged men (the average age of a Harley buyer is, for example, 46 in Germany and, as elsewhere, has been steadily rising for the past two decades), then the consumer base will age out as knee and hip replacements take their toll. Meanwhile, children of baby boomers are not displaying the same fervor for the brand.
Rudi Herzig, a press spokesman from Harley-Davidson, succinctly describes the situation. “Thirty years ago, riding a motorbike was not something your mother wanted you to do or your father encouraged – so you did it. Now, your mum and dad are riding bikes, which is great for the industry, but means it has perhaps lost some of its interest for the young.”
However, all motorcycle manufacturers face the problem. In the last decade, the number of 40-59-year-olds riding any type of motorbike in Germany has doubled to 53%. But as a company whose modern success has stemmed from the baby boomers, Harley-Davidson needs to seek new markets. In recent years, it has opened dealerships in India and China seeking to sell the mystique there. It is actively marketing among young adults as well as Hispanic and Afro-American populations in the United States.
Women, too, are a growing segment, targeted through the reintroduction of its classic Sportster, which has been retooled with a lower seat height. In Europe, 7% of new Harley buyers are now women.
A woman liberated. After years of riding pillion with her husband, Anita Strasser is now the proud owner of her own Harley. © gottschall photodesign
Anita Strasser from the 35-member Lucerne chapter in Switzerland is typical. For 12 years, the 51-year-old sales woman clung to the waist of her husband, Claudio, as they travelled around Europe. Then, three years ago, she obtained her own license and a customized Softail. “I got tired of sitting on the back and wanted the thrill of controlling one of these powerful bikes for myself. Now it is the feeling of freedom, strength and the possibility to let myself go that I enjoy most,” explains the mother of two.
For the couple, H.O.G. membership allows them to share a common interest with people from all walks of life. Their chapter, which is active socially and sponsors an annual day for disabled children, includes mechanics, judges, pensioners and IT specialists among its membership.
“We take pleasure in our Harleys, but they are only the starting point,” says Claudio. “We are there for each other in good times as well as bad,” he says, seeking to explain the camaraderie that unifies his chapter and bonds Harley riders in general.