Harley Davidson’s Customers Are Dying. Just Like Yours.

By Eric Layer

Harley-Davidson is in trouble. The company has seen 17 straight quarters of bad news, and the decline accelerates every quarter. It’s not a pretty picture for one of the most valuable and passionately followed brands in history. And while the causes for such a catastrophe are always complex, in Harley’s case, there’s a single fork in the road that exemplifies, if not explains, the death spiral that very well may be the end of the company.

Harley’s brand strategy in the ‘80s and ‘90s was to go all-in on Baby Boomers. It was as shrewd a choice as a brand had ever made: Boomers were a large, well-established segment with money to spend, proud of Harley’s American roots, and eager to hold on to their glory days. As Harley built on classic icons like Marlon Brando, it cashed in on suburban executives able to plunk down thirty or forty grand on a shiny new taste of rebellion.

Then, in 2003, Harley bought Buell Motorcycles. Buells were a faster, rowdier type of bike that had been created by a young Harley engineer a decade prior. Buells didn’t look much like traditional Harleys, and they would have been unrecognizable to Marlon Brando. But they had the same spirit, updated for a new generation. Buell was the first bike of, among others, Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus, whose Gen-X take on rebellion sounded more like the Ramones and The Clash than The Beatles and The Stones.

At first, it looked like Harley knew exactly what it was doing. The brand marketed Buells with smart, edgy ads that read exactly like Buells rode: a younger member of the Harley family with a new spin on the same heritage and values. Headlines like “It’s a fast, rude ride. But so is life,” screamed, “Harley is more than just your Dad’s bike.” Harley seemed to have concocted the perfect way to stay relevant as its cash-cow core began to age.

But after just six years, Harley killed Buell. The move was ostensibly a reaction to its core demographic: Harley’s traditional audience didn’t like sharing its identity with the new kid on the block, and Harley chose to tie its brand to a product and a demographic rather than a spirit and an idea. There’s been nothing like Buell for almost two decades, and Harley has retreated to its comfortable and well-known lineup of classic V-twin bikes built for Boomers. But today, aging Boomers are buying fewer motorcycles, which is why the decision to end Buell coincides almost perfectly with the beginning of the decline that the giant still hasn’t been able to reverse.

One doesn’t have to look far for the parallels between Harley-Davidson and death care. Cemeteries and mortuaries were very successful for nearly a century in selling products and services for which there was a strong and universally accepted demand. But as their more traditional target has aged, demand has faltered, and most mortuaries have hesitated to move forward because the old days were just too good.

But just like Harley’s, death care’s glory days aren’t coming back. People in dark suits and buildings with great-grandma’s design sensibilities are even more foreign to modern audiences than classic motorcycles. Harley might have ticked off some Baby Boomers with the Buell, but if the company had stayed the course it might not be in dire straits today. A fresh take on death care might not be as profitable or as familiar as the old one, but we’re kidding ourselves to think we have a choice.

My firm has done the only industrywide research in the world on how death care firms are perceived by modern audiences, and we’re working on inventing the new models that will keep your business alive well into the future. It involves a lot of change and usually a lot of cost. For the mortuaries and funeral homes willing to evolve, it’s been a fast, rude ride. But so is life.

And that sure beats the alternative.

Eric Layer

Partner and author, Eric specializes in building things faster and better than mere mortals. Call Eric when you have an impossible mountain to climb. He’ll get you to the top.

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