If you have read the news in the motorcycling world lately you will have seen the headlines about the declining state of Harley-Davidson. Articles have been popping up everywhere for months about the company's poor financial outlook. There is a measure of angst going around as some people are using this as a measure of the health of motorcycling in the United States. It may be true that HD is the largest US seller of motorcycles, but their declining sales may not be a measure of motorcycling as it once used to me.
The HD condition, as I will call it, it largely a product of their own making. I would not call myself a fan of HD, but I am not a hater either. I can respect the sort of "mechanical" nature of their motorcycles. I personally am not a huge fan of bikes with tons of gadgets on them, electronics, and all that. With the exception of their top of the line bikes, HD has remained true to that image. However, their image overall is precisely what I think their largest problem is. They have spent decades cultivating a cultural identity and biker image. Up until recently that has largely been a boon for them, creating a "fraternity" of sorts for motorcyclists to rally behind. With that fraternity though has also been the creation of a mentality that "you're one of us or you aren't".
One of HD's (and motorcycling in the US') biggest problems is the age demographics of riders. HD riders are old, as are the riders across the country in general. Those individuals tend to be able to buy a $15000+ motorcycle, but in order for the industry to stay healthy you need to get younger riders into the market.
The new batch of millennials coming into the market don't appear to embrace the current image that HD has cultivated. Many are turning to sports bikes or adventure touring bikes. Another large sector seeing a resurgence is the café racer, "hipster", city rider. Brands like Roland Sands, Icon, and others are tapping into a new style for younger riders. Just about every manufacturer from Kawasaki, to Yamaha, are now releasing "vintage" styled bikes that appeal to a younger crowd.
Coupled with increased pressure from a "new" US brand in Indian Motorcycles, it makes you have to wonder how HD is going to respond and if HD can respond. The market now has more options and more sub-groupings of biking identity then it ever had before. No longer are biking communities split largely between sports bike riders and cruisers and with that growing division comes a smaller slice of the pie for HD.
They have spent such a long time cultivating the image that they have, I am not entirely sure they can attract a different audience with women, younger riders and a different demographic without alienating those individuals who have been with them for decades and spent tens of thousands of dollars with them. HD may finally find itself in a position where it has to cede its dominate market presence over the coming decade.