CNBC ran a story yesterday on the slow demise of Harley Davidson that caught my eye. It began with the statement, “The supposed millennial penchant for ‘killing’ industries gets thrown around a lot, but it could really be happening to one American icon: the Harley-Davidson motorcycle.” The reasoning is that in addition to a decline in sales (which are admittedly significant) and behavioral data suggest a considerable generational divide in attitudes toward heavyweight motorcycles. There’s little question that this American icon is dealing with difficult times, but there are two distinct problems with the article. The first is the fetishizing of data and the inability to interpret it in a broader context. The second is the obsession we seem to have as a society with blaming Millennials for crushing industries.
The Data Problem. Survey data suggests that the reasons for buying a bike differ fairly dramatically for older and younger generations. In response to why they buy a motorcycle, 21-34-year olds state that it’s a matter of ease of transportation, while older buys (the article doesn’t really qualify what “older” means) are buying because bikes are “cool” or as part of a hobby. Younger buyers, so the story goes, appear to be more motivated to consider motorcycles for practical reasons, which means it is likely they will be more interested in less expensive bikes that bring in lower margins for manufacturers. However, potential younger buyers cited the second most common reason to buy a motorcycle was that it “goes with their self-image”. That is, they’re buying them, or considering buying them because they are “cool”. So, from the outset there is a bit of a contradiction, or at least a misinterpretation, of the data and what appears to be a complete disinterest in exploring the findings with a critical eye.
First, these assessments don’t take into account that the economy into which this population into after leaving college, and the bulk of them are indeed college grads, is one of the most hostile times in U.S. History. Even with a booming stock market and labor market, this generation is mired in debt and jobs simply don’t pay what they did. Because of these tough times, they were forced to change the outlook or the norm in key areas such as ownership. Like their great grandparent who weathered the depression, their outlook and buying habits are more frugal, more pragmatic. This has affected other industries including the motorcycle industry, and as such we’ve have seen the rise of smaller more “urban-esque” style motorcycle in recent years. This presents a problem for brands like Harley-Davidson, but it is one they are addressing. The problem is, innovation and change take time, so the current decline in sales doesn’t necessarily indicate the death of the brand.
Second, there’s that point about bikes being cool. Motorcycle culture exists on the margins of mainstream culture as both a social community and a mode of transportation, and the cultural stereotype imagines all bikers to be rebels, socially as well as sexually. The motorcycle is much more than a means of transportation; it is a symbol of freedom, a life that breaks through the norms. To put it briefly, the motorcycle culture implies being one with the bike and living by the road’s unwritten rules. The degree of freedom, individuality, and adventure found in motorcycle riding and culture distinguishes it as nontraditional in contrast with cars, the bus, etc. In other words, while the technology behind a bike may have to shift to accommodate changing interpretations of technology and the economic realities of a younger generations, motorcycles still have a cultural allure that can’t be overlooked. And the Harley-Davidson brand is still the heart and soul of the motorcycle mystique.
The Millennial Problem. Quite simple, Millennials haven’t destroyed industries any more than they’ve brought plagues of locusts. Piling up on a generation is divisive and counterproductive. American institution is declared dead, the news media like to haul the same usual suspect before the court of public opinion: the Millennial generation. But based on analysis of economists at the Federal Reserve, this idea is pure fiction.
When researchers compared the spending habits of Millennials with those of young people from past years, such as the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, they concluded that “Millennials do not appear to have preferences for consumption that differ significantly from those of earlier generations.” They also found that “Millennials are less well off than members of earlier generations when they were young, with lower earnings, fewer assets, and less wealth.” So, the fact that young people are buying fewer motorcycles doesn’t prove that they don’t want them. It might mean they simply can’t afford them.
It’s typical for Millennials to bear blame for dramatic cultural and economic changes when their only crime is behaving like everybody else. For example, last year The Wall Street Journal published a report that cited young people for killing grocery stores. The data show consumers ages 25 to 34 are spending less at traditional grocers than their parents’ generation did in 1990. But here’s the rub: Americans of all ages are relying more on convenience stores, pharmacies, and superstores, for food to eat at home, and those institutions aren’t typically counted as grocers in government data. Furthermore, the same holds true for etailers, like Amazon. Also, Americans of all ages are eating out at restaurants more. The group shifting its spending toward restaurants the fastest? It’s not 20-somethings. It’s people over 50. In other words, whether it’s motorcycles, cars, groceries, or nearly anything else, the woes of these industries can’t be pinned on Millennials. Millennials have simply become scapegoats and tired tropes for unimaginative reporting.
What It All Means. Harley-Davidson’s reaction to the article from CNBC sums up everything about it quite nicely: “There’s nothing new here”. Blaming millennials for the failures of various industries, including the motorcycle industry, is rather asinine. Indeed, it might make more sense to thank them for forcing the motorcycle industry to go back to their roots of innovation, rebellion, and coolness. Manufacturers and marketers ultimately have a responsibility to work with dealers, influencers, etc. to create new riding opportunities and messages that breath life back into the industry. Brands like Harley-Davidson are making terrific bikes that people want to ride. But weak marketing communication efforts around their overall value have allowed the price-to-ride value equation to slide. Add to that a fixation on data over creativity and reflection on the cultural significance of the motorcycle and you have a tremendous problem. Millennials aren’t killing the industry. The industry, like society, is simply changing.