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03-15-2006, 11:43 AM
Uneasy Rider: Harley swerves to avoid demographic wall

By James B. Kelleher | March 15, 2006

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Harley-Davidson Inc., the U.S. motorcycle maker, insists it isn't nervous.

But analysts and others who watch the company say it's in the middle of a coming-of-age drama that might be called "Uneasy Rider."

As the Baby Boomers who transformed Harley's rumbling, lumbering bikes from countercultural totems into American icons enter their senior years -- the leading edge of the generation is turning 60 this year -- they're increasingly in the market for knee and hip replacements, not Harley's notoriously bone-shaking bikes.

That's forcing the Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based company to scramble to find new customers among women, blacks and Hispanics -- groups that have not been traditional Harley-Davidson riders.

The quest has involved the development and rollout of new products, like the 883 Sportster Low, built for smaller, lighter riders, and new marketing efforts, like Harley's TV ad campaign during the NCAA tournament this spring.

And the effort is showing some signs of success. Female ridership has quintupled in recent years. Today, women like Janeen Wingo, a 33-year-old resident of Calumet City, Illinois, who bought a Harley-Davidson 1200 Sportster last summer, account for 1 in 10 of the company's sales -- up from 1 in 50 just 15 years ago.

But as Harley-Davidson tries to adapt to the changing marketplace, analysts say it needs to avoid the pitfalls that other Baby Boomer-favored businesses like Levi Strauss & Co. have fallen into as they tried to navigate a similar transformation.

"How do they do it without hurting existing customers and destroying the brand?" says Geoff Meredith, the president of Lifestage Matrix Marketing, a California consulting group that specializes in aging baby boomers and has worked with Levi's. "That's the $64 million question."

For manufacturers of recreational vehicles, like Forest City, Iowa-based Winnebago Industries Inc., the aging of the nearly 80 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 represents the beginning of a golden age.

For Harley-Davidson, it represents the end of one. While the company has been making motorcycles since 1903, it only really became part of popular culture -- and the popular imagination -- after World War Two. Two events stand out: the demise, in 1953, of Hendee Manufacturing, its sole remaining domestic competitor (and the maker of the Indian motorcycle), and the popularity, in 1969, of Dennis Hopper's classic countercultural road movie "Easy Rider."

"Half their demand is from guys 40 to 50 years old," says Bob Simonson, an analyst for William Blair & Company in Chicago.

But that cohort, Simonson and others says, can no longer be counted on to support the bike maker. "In the 13 years ended 2004, that group was growing at a 1 to 4 percent rate every year," Simonson says. "Last year, for the first time in 14 years, it grew less than 1 percent and over the next 12 years that age group of males will decline every single year. They're going from having the demographic wind at their back to having it in their face."

Joanne Bischmann, vice president of marketing at Harley, admits, "The demographics are changing" though she insists the change isn't as dramatic as some have suggested. "But that doesn't mean there aren't other populations we don't want to tap into."

To reach out to the black community, Harley has begun sponsoring the nationally syndicated show of Tom Joyner, an African American radio host whose program is heard by as many as 8 million U.S. listeners. Harley is also advertising during the nationally televised college basketball tournament that dominates the U.S. sports calendar from mid-March to early April and is sponsoring the Roundup, an African American version of the annual gathering of bikers in Sturgis, South Dakota.

To reach younger Hispanics, the company is advertising in Hombre and Fuego -- two Latino men's magazines -- and participating in low-rider shows.

And to reach women, it's putting a four-page insert into Jane, Allure, Glamour and two other Conde Nast magazines, featuring what Bischmann says are "real women riders." It's also hosting garage parties for women -- not unlike the get-togethers that Tupperware, Avon, Mary Kay and other U.S. direct marketers have used to target women successfully for decades.

At a recent event that drew hundreds of African American riders from the greater Chicago area to a club in the city's downtown Loop, the opportunities -- and challenges -- Harley-Davidson faces as it tries to change attitudes and win over new riders were on display.

Among the attendees were the 11 members of Ladyz on Krome, an all-female club of Harley-Davidson riders that Wingo -- who goes by the nom de zoom "Kuiet Storm" -- heads.

But the vast majority of the riders at the event, including Max "PT" Brown, a 32-year-old member of the 5th Gear Ridaz, another Chicago club, were owners of screaming street bikes like the Kawasaki Ninja.

Brown called Harley's "awesome bikes" but added. "the younger riders don't go for them. As you get older, then that's when you go into the Harley-Davidsons."

web page (http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2006/03/15/uneasy_rider_harley_swerves_to_avoid_demographic_w all/) http://cache.boston.com/resize/bonzai-fba/Reuters_Photo/2006/03/15/1142442260_2473/410w.jpg

Jeney Regelean (L) poses on a custom chopper by Finish Line cycles at the Cabbage Patch bar during a Bike Week event in Samsula, Florida in this file photograph taken March 8, 2005. Analysts and others who watch U.S. motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson Inc. say it's in the middle of a coming-of-age drama that might be called "Uneasy Rider". But the company insists it isn't nervous.