Analysis: As boomers age, Harley hunts for younger riders

Fri Jun 21, 2013 8:05am EDT
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By James B. Kelleher

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Harley-Davidson Inc doesn't do much quietly. Its motorcycles are notoriously noisy. Its slogans - "Screw It. Let's Ride." - are loud too.

So why was the Milwaukee company quiet last year when by its own numbers it successfully zoomed past a demographic hazard analysts had fretted about for years?

Some background: In a recent interview, a top Harley-Davidson executive told Reuters that in 2012, for the first time in years, the average buyer of the company's bikes was not a baby boomer.

For a brand defined by the emergence and, lately, the aging of the post-World War II cohort of consumers, that's a big deal - proof the 110-year-old company is gaining traction with a new generation of riders.

Yet its top global marketing guru, Mark-Hans Richer, continues to insist it's no biggie - even though investors have long wondered how Harley would survive as boomers, who embraced its bikes as totems of rebellion in the 1960s and 1970s and drove its growth in the ensuing decades, rode off into the sunset.

One top analyst, Robin Farley at UBS Investment Research, suggests the company's muffled messaging reflects its desire to avoid having the accomplishment examined too closely. That's because by her calculation the average age of riders is still going up, not down. The company disputes her math but says even if she were correct, a new marketing focus means metrics like average age are less important than in the past.

Farley is skeptical. Average age is important because "that's ultimately the core customer," she says. "That's one of the reasons they don't want to talk about it."


Customers look at the showroom inventory at Harley-Davidson of Frederick in Frederick Maryland in this October 23, 2012 file photo. Unless the Milwaukee-based company began to attract younger riders and penetrate new markets, analysts warned the waning of its overwhelmingly white, male and middle-aged base would hurt sales in North America, where it still earns two-thirds of its revenue. REUTERS/Gary Cameron/Files