Post 6 | Harley Davidson | How do you evolve a struggling icon

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The Harley Davidson brand has always appealed to the closeted rebel in me. Its rich history and equity is intriguing and the brand has established itself as part of the American Dream culture.

Yet, this iconic brand is struggling badly. Reporting a 3.4% drop in retail motorcycle sales in the U.S in the fourth quarter of 2015, as well as a 1.7% drop for the full year of 2015 compared with 2014. And slipping 0.6% worldwide in retail motorcycle sales in Q4 2015 and 1.3% for the full year.

As dire as that sounds, I actually don’t believe that declining market share is Harley Davidson’s biggest problem.

Its biggest challenge lies in its positioning and eroding brand equity.

What was once their most power full asset, has arguably now become their biggest stumbling block. I’m talking about the Harley Davidson brand image, that’s synonymous with a unique brand lifestyle which is slowly but surely losing relevance and eroding value for younger generations.

So how does an iconic brand grow and evolve to appeal to a younger target audience? 

There are a few growth strategies they could consider; from launching an entirely new brand, to considering various brand extension strategies, or even a multi-brand or endorsement strategies.

Given the iconic status of the Harley Davidson brand and it claiming a top five spot amongst top motorcycle manufacturers in the world, I think it’s safe to say they won’t be changing their brand name anytime soon.

A brand extension strategy is based on the premise that consumers place a value on a brand name, and this value can be used by organisations (Klopper and North (2011:231). This is where having a strong and reputable brand such as Harley Davidson can help launch products into new categories.

However, in my opinion as Harley Davidson’s generic competitive strategy (which pushes for product innovation) ensures they have a competitive advantage against other popular motorcycles already, I don’t think product innovation is where their biggest opportunity or threat lies either, so there goes an extension strategy.

Other options are a multi-brand strategy – where products are introduced under a new brand name without any links to the other brands (Riezebos et al., 2003:234) or even an endorsement brand strategy, where a new product uses the Harley Davidson parent brand to align with the brand’s established values and associations.

But again, I argue that Harley Davidson’s product range and selection is not at the core of their long-term growth challenges and I would not advise they move away from the iconic Harley Davidson brand, but rather evolve how it is communicated and portrayed to appeal to the lifestyle younger audiences.

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The youngest of the Baby Boomers generation (Harley’s current core consumer market) are just entering their 40s, so the Harley Davidson brand needs to look at appealing to younger generations if it’s to ensure it sticks around in the long run.

Considering the marketing expansion grid, Harley Davidson I recommend that they follow a market development strategy, to better market its existing products to appeal to a new, younger generation.

To grow the Harley Davidson brand, they need to reexamine its positioning platform and identify the core values it wants to preserve to stay authentic, but also understand what values need to change and evolve to thrive again. Harley’s brand equity needs to evolve if it wants to survive.

I believe there are a few key areas where the Harley brand can evolve, to appeal to younger generations and ensure its iconic brand doesn’t fizzle out along with its current, older target audience.

Purpose & Actions
The current stereotype of the Harley rider is a badass, slightly intimidating rider, but also the typical old white guy trying to reclaim his youth, and frankly neither really represent someone most millennials aspire to become.

What’s interesting and aspirational though about most Harley riders though, is not their looks, but their characters and actual behaviours. Harley riders all have a strong sense of community and duty, which are both highly relevant to younger generations nowadays, and values they can identify with.

I recommend that Harley changes up its brand imagery to emphasise what Harley riders do, rather than what they look like. Their behaviours are highly relevant and appealing to many young adults nowadays and might be worth exploring to help evolve and re-position the brand to younger audiences.

Tap into the Experience Culture
Younger generations define themselves by experiences they make and the stories they gather, rather than material possessions.

As Harley Davidson is the epitome of an “experience brand”, a fact they should embrace and extend beyond its product experience to encompass the whole brand experience. In other words, maintain one of its core attributes and equities, but translate it into a broader brand promise around experience seeking, something most millennials out there crave.

Motivate them
Lastly, from a communication point of view, Harley seems to be stuck in a pattern. The brand has always built its communication on the insight that many people dream of freedom and to one day own a Harley – but this strategy tends to delay the purchase as the emphasis is subconsciously on the “one day” and doesn’t drive urgency to buy. And one thing we know about millennials is that they crave instant gratification.

Harley therefore needs to tap into a this set of motivations  to appeal to the aspirations and needs of a younger audience.

The future of the Harley Davidson organisation will affect the future of the Harley Davidson brand, and it should therefore guide them in choosing the best suited growth strategy to alight to its future outlook and strategy.

Harley Davidson’s future lies in the hands of younger generations. So, if Harley wishes to turn around their declining brand equity and market share, they need to evolve their unique position, and maintain the brand’s core equities while adding new, more relevant and contemporary ones, that will help better align the brand with younger generations.

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