How to damage a brand: Case study Harley Davidson

Photo supplied to Whaleoil

The Girl Friend and I are avid Harley riders. For us, it is more than just a weekend hobby. Our holidays are mostly road trips, loading up the bikes and heading away for a week or two. The majority of our social life includes fellow Harley enthusiasts.

From Norway, Sweden and Finland in the north, down to Sardinia, Italy and Romania in the south. From Belorussia in the East through to Germany in the west. We have covered every country, often multiple times.

The Girl Friend?s Harley now has over 90,000km on it. It was, therefore, time to start thinking about a replacement, something better suited for the long road trips. She rides a 1200cc Nightster and we were looking at getting her a 1750cc Softail.

With that in mind, we recently took the opportunity to test ride a number of 2018 model Harleys over two days when the demo truck was in town showcasing this year’s offerings.

I had first seen a few of the 2018 models when they were released late last year. Surprised, would be an understatement to describe my reaction to the design changes. Chrome and more chrome. Designs that looked like Harley had started copying Triumph or the major Japanese brands. However, this was the first time we had got to ride them.

?It has no soul? was the Girl Friend?s comment after her first test ride.

?It sounds like a scooter? came after the second.

?I can?t feel the engine and the gearbox is weird? after the third.

Now we are Harley enthusiasts, but not Harley fanatics. There is no way I would be paying good money for what we test rode. We started talking about looking at other brands of motorbikes as a Road Trip bike for her. The plan was always to keep her old bike, so she would still have a Harley in the garage and for weekends.

But maybe it?s just us we wondered. After all we know of a few people who have bought a 2018 model and say they are very happy with it.

However wider discussion with people test riding that weekend revealed that they had the same concerns as us. One of the Harley dealership employees went so far as to say ?they are now no different than a Japanese bike? ? which is the ultimate insult, particularly coming from somebody who works with them day in day out.

I was pretty confused by the whole experience so went and did some research. Being a listed company, the numbers are available. The 2018 models came out in late 2017. In the first quarter of 2018 (January-March) Harley Davidson sold 12% fewer bikes than in the same 3 months of the previous year. Sales for the April-June were 4% down on the same period the year before. This is a massive reduction in bikes sold and comes on the back of reported discounting, something Harley has never had to resort to in the past.

So what has gone wrong?

But wait. Before we go any further. Let’s remember that this article is about how to damage a brand. For each example I will give you, please think about other brands that have gone down the same route.

We are using Harley Davidson as a case study, and I don?t want to get too technical and make it a mechanics forum… so, with all that in mind… Here goes?

So what has gone wrong?

In 2017 Harley Davidson introduced a new engine for its large touring bikes. In 2018 they put that new engine into its mid-range bikes. Let?s call the new engine the M8.

So….in the latest official Harley Davidson magazine (HOG Europe Issue 2, 2018) They interviewed a French employee. A Marketing co-ordinator (let’s call him YF) It is the usual fluff piece about how he got attracted to Harleys. He says quote.

I remember with nostalgia the oh-so specific sound emanating from the engines […] end quote.

I think we all know what he means. You can hear a Harley and immediately know that it is a Harley.?However, as my Girl Friend said after her test ride? The M8 sounds like a scooter.

Mr YF goes on to say

[…] and the bike?s heat and smell hitting me in my face. End quote.

Yet Harley promotes one of the benefits of the M8 is that it produces less heat.

In my circle, there are a lot of women who ride Harleys. They and my Girl Friend claim that having a 1200cc – 1700cc engine throbbing between their legs will sometimes result in an Orgasm. Yet Harley Davidson is promoting one of the benefits of the M8 is that it reduces vibration by 75%.

Clearly, Harley Davidson has not researched its? female market.

At this point, I know a number of readers and Harley haters are just going to want to rush down to the comments section and say that they always knew that riding a Harley was a form of public masturbation. Possibly they are right. But next time you see a woman riding a Harley with a big smile on her face.. well now you know why? and remember, she is having more fun than you!

I?m sure the M8 is a technically better engine just as Harley Davidson claims. However, when I am out riding my bike the last thing I am thinking about is fuel efficiency. And as for reduced emissions, no one ever bought a Harley based on its reduced emissions. They should have just kept that bit quiet.

I was having a beer with a couple of Harley mechanics who work for one of the Harley dealers. The words they used to describe the M8 would get me banned from this blog if I put them in the comments section.

In pursuit of a technically better product, Harley Davidson seems to have completely forgotten about why people actually ride Harleys.

People are still buying the bikes, but for me, it?s like if you woke up to find that they had changed the recipe in your favourite cola or chocolate. It might be okay if you have never tried it before, but as a regular customer, you miss the old product.

How many other brands have done that? In pursuit of one goal, they forget their customer base.

So the Girl Friend?s and my decision was pretty much done. No new Harley for her. Particularly when you factor in that Harley Davidson is planning to start manufacturing its bikes for the European market in Thailand! If I want an Asian bike I will buy one and not pay the premium that Harley demands.

Harley Davidson still has a chance to catch this and turn it around. It depends on whether they, like many other large companies, think that their brand is bigger than the customer. We will see.

PostScript: As part of my research into Harley Davidson sales I learnt that despite worldwide bike sales being 12% to 4% down this year, the Harley factories were only shipping 2% fewer bikes. Inventory is building up in dealerships. It is my understanding that dealers are obligated to take a certain volume/mix of bikes.

With the 2019 models due on the showroom floor in just a month or two, many dealers are still stuck with 2017 models.

I tracked down a Harley dealer with a 2017 Softail Slim that still only had 1km (one!) on the clock. So we did a deal. The Girl Friend now has her new Harley Davidson. It’s the old style engine, but still a throbbing 1690cc. She is extremely happy. I can tell by the smile on her face every time she rides it.