The student sped up his compact Harley-Davidson motorcycle, heading straight for an oncoming obstacle. Once he passed a preset marker, he swerved right with two consecutive counter steers, avoiding the would-be “crash” while keeping within the test’s exit lane. Then he braked the Street 500 motorcycle as instructor George Boskey, who doubles as a Harley salesman, signaled his approval. Although there was no real danger, this skill on the road could be the difference between a quick maneuver and a debilitating crash.
It was the third and final day of this group’s Riding Academy class just across the Ben Franklin Bridge at Barb’s Harley-Davidson in Mount Ephraim, Camden County. That’s where a big sign proclaims “Learn to Ride Here in Three Days,” and classes cost $425, or $99 for first responders.
Three of the six students had never driven a motorcycle before the second day of the course, but they had all passed the written and driving exams by the end of three days. They learned the importance of such proper riding gear as helmets and gloves, and defensive driving skills, which are key to combating cycles’ inherent risks. They also received a $500 coupon toward a new Harley at Barb’s, and were ready to get their driver’s license stamped with an “M” at their local DMV location.
“It’s amazing how much you can learn and how much you can change in just a matter of two riding days — three days in total,” said Victoria Curl, a bartender who said she was tired of riding on the back of her friends’ and family’s bikes. “I was feeling more of a sport bike, but being on a Harley is a different experience. I think I’m a little more obligated to get a Harley, specifically here because of how much they helped us. It’s definitely a great gift.”
Through classes just like this, Harley-Davidson is hoping to reach a new generation and create two million motorcycle riders in the next 10 years, hoping to stem an industry-wide decline in ridership. And now is a critical time for Harley, which is facing new challenges brought on by President Trump’s steel tariffs, which in turn have triggered threats from European leaders of retaliatory import taxes on the company’s motorcycles.
Roughly 16 percent of Harley-Davidson’s sales are from Europe. The company has been investing heavily overseas to attract untapped riders abroad. It recently closed its factory in Kansas City, opting to consolidate and add 450 jobs to its facility in York, Pa. The company plans to open another factory in Thailand to avoid costly import taxes in Southeast Asia.
Harley-Davidson, the iconic American motorcycle, still dominates the U.S. market with a 50.7 percent share last year for larger cycles. But 2017 marked its fourth-straight year of declining sales, which in part led to the decision to close the Kansas City factory and consolidate in York, Pa., a move that will eliminate about 260 U.S. jobs overall, Bloomberg reported. Motorcycle-related revenue fell 6.8 percent in 2017 to $4.92 billion. The company expects to ship 231,000 to 236,000 motorcycles this year, down from 241,000 in 2017. The HOG stock price has been trending down since it reached $73.95 on April 30, 2014. It has hovered in the low $40s, marking a 30 percent drop in the last year.
Another concern is safety. Motorcyclists are about 27 times more likely than passenger-car occupants to die in a crash. In the United States, Riding Academy emphasizes safety, training 62,000 riders a year, mostly beginners and young adults, at 245 locations, said Heather Malenshek, vice president of global marketing at Harley-Davidson. Women, millennials, and city dwellers are part of several outreach groups that the company hopes can reinvigorate motorcycle ridership.
Older threatening males dressed in denim is a common image of Harley-Davidson, based on its user profiles, according to Neal Roese, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
And while that look may not appeal to many millennials, aspects of the brand that center on a spiritual journey, a search for individuality, and a feeling of freedom are all strong hooks, said Roese, who coauthored a case study on how Harley-Davidson is courting a new generation of customers.
“You can think of the complex and long history of the brand as both a constraint but also an opportunity,” he said.
Though millennials are less loyal to brands overall, Roese explained, brands that are genuine and produce high-quality products — which stand up to young adults’ knack for internet searching — still manage to build lasting bonds with millennial consumers.
“I think Harley-Davidson has a great deal to offer, in terms of a genuine history,” Roese said. “An authenticity that also has a certain retro feel. Oftentimes, millennials, especially hipsters, appreciate classic brands.”
And that’s why Harley has partnered with Ultimate Fighting Championship, the mixed-martial-arts group, as well as sponsored an event at the Aspen X Games, both popular sporting brands with young adults. The Milwaukee Bucks also wear a Harley-Davidson patch on their jersey; the NBA has the youngest average viewer of the four major sports.
The brand’s prevalence in Sons of Anarchy and appearances in a few Marvel blockbuster films have also helped deepen Harley’s existing image to include action and adventure. Because who wouldn’t want to ride the same bike as Captain America?
Another major pivot is the company’s continued investment in electric vehicle technology. On March 1, Harley-Davidson announced investment in Silicon Valley start-up Alta Motors, which makes lightweight electric motorcycles. Harley plans to spend $25 million to $50 million annually over the next several years to develop electric motorcycle technology.
Though an electric bike may seem to be the antithesis of the classic Harley road bike, Roese believes marketing and advertising can help align the new bikes with the existing brand.
“One of the ways to do it is don’t make it look super slick and clean and gleaming as though from some weird science fiction future, but rather, make it more grungy,” Roese said. “Keep it black, make it look like something a superhero from the Marvel Universe would use.”
And that’s what they did with Project LiveWire, its prototype electric bike, which Harley plans to bring to market in the next 18 months. Audiences across the world saw it in action during a scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron, when Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow character rode one as her stunt double chased a CGI villain through the streets.
According to a 2014 study by market research company Ipsos, conducted for the Motorcycle Industry Council, 73.8 percent of millennial motorcycle owners were interested in purchasing an electric motorcycle in the future, with top factors being gas prices and the environment.
For other young adults, such as Nick Hoban, 23, who was another member of Boskey’s recent class, it’s a lot simpler.
“There’s nothing more American than riding a Harley on a summer day,” he said.