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The Motorcycle Industry's Blindspot

I fell in love with motorcycles when I was 10 years old.

I'd seen bikes on the road at an even earlier age, of course, but it wasn't until 10, on a summer visit to my family in Colombia, that I had an opportunity to come close enough to one to fall instantly, and irrevocably head over heels. The bike, a then-pristine 1984 Honda Z50R owned by a neighborhood friend of my cousin, was everything my kid-brain could imagine as necessary for happiness: it was candy apple red, had a light-saber-blue seat, chunky front and rear tires and the design profile, ergonomics and engineering that made it as accessible as it was exhilarating.

In my mind's eye, and ratified by the stir caused in my kid heart and soul upon the first ride, I experienced not only a ‘vehicle’ but what I would later understand was in fact a means of exploration, freedom, focus, detachment, meditation... even prayer. The effect of riding was then, and remains to this day, a kind of ‘suspension of disbelief’ - reminiscent of the one that occurs as you settle into a darkened theater amid bluish/purple light and deep-red felt curtains waiting for a live performance to begin.

Motorcycling, like theatre, is the promise of a story that’s always new. There's nothing like it.

Today, I’ve handed on this great love to my kids, especially my daughter and two youngest sons: the former (25) spent a good chunk of her childhood being commuted to Catholic School on the back of my Triumph Speedmaster, and the latter two (17 & 15), now riders themselves (KTM & Suzuki respectively), have been on motorcycles since their feet could touch the pegs. Motorcycling can be, especially for the young, a source of deep imagination, experience and growth.

And it's with young riders in mind, that I write this piece.

Because here's the deal: young people, generally speaking, are not riding. In fact the entire market has greyed dramatically. Today the average rider is 50 years old. In 1990 the average age was 32. An entire motorcycle generation of riders has been lost. And while the industry has made some recent gains with females, the market is still overwhelmingly (81%) dominated by male riders. The implications are severe.

To wit, Harley-Davidson's recent troubles.

For the uninitiated, the sound-byte summary goes something like this:

  • Harley, a 117 year-old brand with massive name ID all over the world, a shaper of pop culture in previous decades, an American right of passage - now struggling for relevance and growth.

  • 15 years ago; more than a quarter million bikes sold in the US per year and over $1B in profit.

  • Today, monster losses.

What happened?

Harley's problems are nestled within a broader context that impacts all motorcycle OEMs doing business in the US: A combination of a greying core consumer base juxtaposed with the distinctives of a new super-diverse generation driven by mobile, ride sharing, gaming, Netflix, and every other Millennial/GenZ time trap that has shaped these consumers in ways that make them distant reflections of the GenXers and Boomers that preceded them.

That's a lot to contend with.

But, like with any challenge, hope is never lost with faith and a plan of action. In fact the industry has responded; from youth rider academies, to smaller displacement engines for urban dwellers, to all-electric designs that appeal to the environmentally aware. Nevertheless, the fact remains that US-based OEMs (Harley, Indian, etc) have generally struggled while Japanese, English and European brands have been less impacted, or even thrived. Why is that?

A big part of the problem seems pretty clear to me. European brand promises are rooted in performance and being ‘premium’. Japanese on technology and efficiency. British bikes mainly on nostalgia. All of those are powerful drivers that sell well for the time and place we’re in.

American motorcycle brands, on the other hand, are principally rooted in an American experience: an ethos, a way of life, a perspective. A perspective born in turn-of-the-20th century mechanical innovation that gave us the first production motorcycle (Indian) and the first Harley before the Wright brothers gave us flight. A perspective molded even further by GIs returning home from WWII after tours of duty on the backs of Harley flatheads who formed riding clubs in order to relive the camaraderie they'd established in the war. These, and many other images, are the backdrop that forms the foundation of the American motorcycle experience and the brands in its orbit; and it's precisely this 'American experience' which has dramatically evolved and diversified in the last 50 years which now needs to be re-expressed in order to capture the imagination of New American riders.

In 1960 - at the infancy of the modern motorcycle era - the US was 84% white. Today the percentage of Americans who are not white is 40%. Among the 13-24 and 18-34 cohorts that are CRUCIAL to carry the torch for motorcycling, the rate of diversity is even higher. And these young people, shaped by their cultural backgrounds, and in many cases by their own immigrant journeys, have experiences to share, and bring unique insights to bear which can, properly harnessed, reconnect motorcycling with the New American Experience.

This is about much more than just multicultural marketing.

How might a deep understanding of these consumers shape the engineering of the next bike model? Determine the next sub-brand? Identify the feature set, or factory packages of a future bike? What are the stories, content and forums that could highlight these riders’ lives? Which are the partnerships with authentic grass roots organizations close to diverse communities that could drive that authenticity? What could it mean to execute a top-down plan to establish a Diversity Value Chain that can unlock real incremental value and activate a dormant and ascendant group of new riders?

The potential, like the promise of motorcycling itself, is endless.

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