Motorcycle sales are driven by culture. Not styling. And not performance.
Okay, this is not 100% true, but I’ve long believed that the badge on the tank is the biggest single factor when buying a motorcycle. This is most certainly true with Harley-Davidson. Harley buyers generally do not visit Honda or Kawasaki or other dealerships. The fact that other brands might be less expensive and/or perform better is irrelevant. They. Want. A. Harley.
This is a dream scenario for marketing departments, regardless of the company or product. You don’t have to sell to these buyers, just get out of their way. And it worked brilliantly for Harley, particularly during the 1990s. Years before, they had stumbled upon the marketing magic of a bad-ass image. Coupling this with the booming 1990s – and the flood of refi money – allowed riders to exercise their boyhood (and occasionally girlhood) dreams. Gonna get me a Harley just like my 1950s juvenile delinquent neighbor!
There’s nothing wrong with this. Think about it a bit, and you’ll realize that a good portion of what we buy is based on image and dreams.
Sometimes, however, marketing can be a bit too successful. Harley is hesitant to mess with its brand image. The problem with this is that when the MoCo tries to expand the brand’s definition, it often stumbles, especially when it introduces smaller-displacement motorcycles to the lineup. To date, the sacrosanct Harley Buyer isn’t buying new images. Ditto with its LiveWire product line. So, all is lost?
No. The Pan America 1250 appears to be a success. I say “appears” because I’m not privy to the sales numbers. But I have talked with a couple of dealers and several owners. Most everything I’ve heard is positive. Importantly, this ADV is bringing crossover buyers into the showrooms. The ADV market is a demanding one and will quickly boot inferior motorcycles into the weeds, literally. I spoke with a new Pan Am rider who came off a 2017 BMW R 1200 GS. He believes the Pan America is superior to the BMW. High praise indeed!
So why is the Pan America succeeding but the company’s small-bike efforts are failing to find traction? A couple of reasons come to mind. First, Big Twin Harleys are aspirational motorcycles. Riders dream of owning one; few dream of a 500cc Harley. Second, the Pan America fits the bad-ass corporate image quite nicely. I mean, what’s more bad-ass than tossing around a 560-lb motorcycle on a gravel road?
One of the things that intrigues me about the Pan America is that it could smooth a path for smaller displacements. We know (or think we know) that a 975cc Pan America is on the way. But that is still a big motor. What about a motor in the 500cc range?
Wait, isn’t that what Harley buyers are ignoring? Yes, in a streetbike guise. Unfortunately, too often smaller motors are relegated to a “starter bike” category, and no one wants one of those, particularly if it has a Harley badge on the tank. Unless maybe it’s a Pan America 500.
Smaller ADVs are becoming a thing. At the premium end, KTM’s 390 Adventure and BMW’s G 310 GS are leading the way, but the Japanese manufacturers have ADV-like motorcycles in smaller displacements, like the Honda CB500X. All of these lend performance cred to small-motor ADVs while maintaining that all-important bad-ass look and function. While traditional Harley buyers might pass on a 500cc Pan America, I believe it would further increase that flow of crossover traffic.
And it just might be that this “never bought a Harley before” group could form the nucleus of Harley’s future buyers.