The iconic American motorcycle company seems to be modernizing everything but its motorcycles.
Recently, Harley-Davidson has made some moves I never expected. Best known for big classic American cruisers, Harley recently announced that it will be sponsoring a Formula E team, of all things. Stranger than that is Harley's partnership with Trials Frontier, a smartphone game involving riding a bike over, under, and through a variety of obstacles. Neither of these marketing ploys would interest Harley's traditional grey-haired, leather-wearing demographic in the slightest, appealing far more to younger people.
The younger generations are absolutely crucial to Harley-Davidson's survival. Contrary to popular belief they are not killing motorcycling, but companies that don't offer the affordable practical bikes they are looking for will suffer as older riders—Harley's current bread and butter—age out of motorcycling. Models like the Street 500 and 750 are a genuinely good start down the right track, but they still don't offer the value that younger riders are looking for, or the performance that enthusiasts generally have to turn to foreign models to find.
I say "generally" because Indian is changing the rules with its FTR 1200. Here's an American company making a true performance-oriented motorcycle, completely outside of its traditional image of big comfy cruisers. Yet it's also true to Indian's heritage, drawing from its American Flat Track Racing success. Currently, the closest you can get to this experience on a Harley is the XG750R in Trials Frontier. I've wasted a lot of time on this game... I mean, performed extensive research into this computerized simulation of Harley's own flat track racer. As best as I can determine after hours of testing, it's nothing like riding a real motorcycle.
Therein lies the problem. Harley is doing a great job lately of getting involved in activities that younger people care about, but there is no direct tie-in to existing motorcycles once Harley has their attention. Formula E is no doubt connected to fueling interest in the LiveWire, but a five-year-old design and nearly $30,000 price tag are not going to retain that interest. A smartphone game is fun and clever, but the closest thing Harley offers to an XG750R is the Street 750. Players of the game won't make that already tenuous connection. Did you know that Harley refers to the Street 750 as the XG750, just one letter off from the bike in the game? I didn't until I researched the Street 750 for this article.
Harley-Davidson is one of the most well-known brands in America, regardless of whether you're interested in motorcycles or not. Stretching this branding into new areas that appeal to a younger demographic is a smart marketing move. It takes more than marketing to get people to buy your products, though. As much as Harley is about the lifestyle as much as the machines, it's the machines themselves that matter to would-be riders. It takes an actual product that such people are interested in buying. At the moment, Harley still has none.