Has Harley-Davidson met its Oldsmobile moment? The venerable motorcycle brand faces the deleterious consequences of demography. On the one hand, Harley continues to be reliant on the defining mood, spirit and discretionary spending of Baby Boomers (think Marlon Brando’s outlaw motorcycle 1953 film, The Wild Ones, Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper in the 1969 film Easy Rider, and the hauntingly sad Rolling Stones Altamont concert). Today, many Baby Boomers are aging out of the motorcycle lifestyle. Meanwhile, Harley-Davidson is experiencing difficulty generating relevance with Millennials and their younger cohort.
The situation Harley-Davidson faces is more than the classic case of filling a leaky customer bucket. How to build on the core brand values while also appealing to younger, more ecologically focused, less traditionally minded, more cash-strapped cohorts. Unless the brand can bring younger customers into the franchise, it has the dismal prospect of becoming the Oldsmobile of motorcycles.
Harley-Davidson is an iconic American brand. However, let’s take a quick look back at how General Motors sunk the Oldsmobile brand.
Oldsmobile was the 1897 creation of Ransom E. Olds. In 1908, Mr. Olds sold the brand to General Motors. As difficult as this may be to imagine today in a world of Prius, Lexus, Leaf, and Tesla, in the 1970s and 1980s, Oldsmobile was the third most popular car brand selling over a million vehicles a year.
In a wistfully serio-comic 2009 online article, Edward McClelland pointed out how culturally significant Oldsmobile was in America.
“The average Olds driver was a 62-year-old who wanted to advertise that he’s achieved a respectable but not ostentatious (viz. Cadillac) standard of living. Cutlass Supremes and 98s were seen in the parking lots of every public golf course, Methodist church, and state college football game in America.”
Mr. McClelland reminded us that TV detective Joe Mannix (1967-1975 Mannix starring Mike Connors) drove a Custom Toronado, and the rock band, REO Speedwagon (heyday 1967 to 1980) took its name from the REO Speed Wagon a light delivery truck, the Ransom E. Olds ancestor of the modern pickup truck.
As younger drivers expressed little interest in purchasing Olds’ vehicles, General Motors recognized that it needed to update the Oldsmobile’s image. The Washington Post said in 1993, Oldsmobile full size Ninety Eights and mid-size Eighty Eights were “primarily bought by mid-lifers and senior citizens and hold no promise for attracting a younger crowd.”
Oldsmobile’s answer for rejuvenating its brand identity was the 1988 advertising slogan, the now classic, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” Even though it hung around for another twelve years, the consensus was that the slogan was the beginning of the end for Oldsmobile, The “grandfather” slogan accomplished two things: 1) among younger car buyers, the slogan reinforced why they did not want to own an Oldsmobile; and 2) it embarrassed and alienated the current loyal owner base.”
Double Jeopardy: alienate the core while also turning off new customers. Oldsmobile could have been saved. The brand had a great heritage of engineering innovation. For example, The Oldsmobile V8 engine proved so popular, it came to be known as the “Rocket.” The brand had some exciting products in the pipeline. But, the brand bronzed its old fashioned image with mistaken, mismarketing before the new vehicles hit the showroom floor.
Brands can be revitalized. Harley-Davidson has several opportunities for brand revitalization.
- The brand has many core elements that can be contemporized. Its core spirit is compelling regardless of age cohort: Harley-Davidson is a mindset, a set of attitudes not an age group. Basic values are enduring and cross age groups. Baby Boomers will feel rejuvenated, and younger riders will connect. Deloitte, the professional services accounting company, recently published survey results that indicate the degree to which there is “cross-generational crossover” when it comes to attitudes and behaviors.
- For many younger consumers, the big brawling Harley-Davidson bike is less appealing and not affordable. The brand is readying two dual-purpose models (highway and off-road capable). And, there are nine more sporty models in the pipeline. This is the time to revitalize the brand; to contemporize the brand’s enduring values. During the Nissan 1999- 2002 turnaround, Carlos Ghosn used the revamped, re-imaged, re-designed 280 Z to demonstrate to Nissan buyers that the brand was in a revitalization mode
- Harley-Davidson can redefine what Harley-Davidson riding is all about. In the 1960s the allure of freedom from conventions was a driving force. Cars were for parents; VW minivans and bikes were expressions of the Age of Aquarius. Today, that freedom can be channeled into riding as sport – challenging, entertaining pastime and competitiveness. A lot of younger people have been raised on Xtreme sporting events, some of which are off-road, motorcycling competitive events. Instead of just relying on the iconic, traditional, sedentary Harley rallies, also create Harley active events.
Brands are not monolithic, never-changing monuments. Brands are dynamic promises of relevant, differentiated, trustworthy brand experiences. And, there is nothing quite as experiential as riding on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Make this American classic appeal to all classes of Americans.