The company spent half a century cultivating an image that’s failing to attract new buyers.
Harley-Davidson is floundering. The company never really recovered after the Great Recession of 2008, repeatedly failing to attract new, younger buyers. And as the economy sours again, Harley still can’t seem to get off the mat. It’s getting harder to see how the company recovers from its death stall. A situation which, a new YouTube video contends, Harley brought upon itself.
Some of the points are obvious: Harley invested millions in marketing to create an in-your-face tough-guy image that simply isn’t connecting with younger riders. This decision was made years ago, aimed at attracting Baby Boomers who didn’t see themselves as hippies, but it’s left a lasting, dated impression of the brand in the minds of most Americans.
But Harley is also a victim of the political environment it created. Unable to stave off foreign competition, all-American Harley once asked the Reagan administration to protect its market share with tariffs. The administration complied, which set a dangerous precedent for Harley as a politically protected American manufacturer. So when Europe imposed retaliatory tariffs on American goods in response to recent U.S. trade policy, they targeted three all-American categories: blue jeans, bourbon, and big motorcycles.
Sales were already struggling in the U.S.; they tanked in Europe. To dodge the tariffs, Harley tried to move some production to local markets, but that backfired when the company was lambasted by President Donald Trump and other politicians for outsourcing labor. Even Harley’s most loyal customers saw the move as betraying the company’s blue-collar American roots.
New products like the electric Livewire show that the company is trying to adapt to a new world, but it may be too late to save the brand. Complicating matters, Harley recently burned up a lot of cash buying back its own shares, a move that certainly hasn’t been a good investment so far. But even with more cash, it’s hard to see where the company could go. Harley’s core demographic is aging, and few new buyers are filling the gaps. Harley-Davidson created a movement with its macho, brawny bikes, and now it’s struggling to outgrow that image.