Is Harley Doomed? Harley-Davidson 2021 Launch Reaction

Oh look, a clickbait title. But…are they doomed? What does doomed mean, though? Doomed to bankruptcy and failure? I’m not so sure about that. Doomed to continue struggling for a few more years until they find their footing and place in an industry they failed to keep up with? That’s a more interesting question…

Like many others, I sat down to take in Harley-Davidson’s virtual event to announce their 2021 lineup. Like going into a J.J. Abrams Star Wars movie, I came in with low expectations, that way I could be pleasantly surprised.

Look, it’s no secret that Harley-Davidson has been struggling for years. There’s been numerous corporate shake-ups, dwindling sales, and other storms to weather. I wanted to see if the vision they were presenting in the 2021 launch event looked like it was going to turn the tide.

First, let’s get this out of the way; I’m not going to provide a blow by blow analysis of every little detail in the event, because there’s actually a lot to unpack across it’s 40+ minute runtime. Rather, I’m going to offer my broader thoughts on the direction displayed in the launch event. For context, I suggest watching the launch video and browsing the launch site yourself.

Ready? Let’s go.

The Bikes

Oof.

There’s not a lot to like here. It’s hard to get excited over such lackluster offerings. There’s new paint, new audio systems from Rockford Fosgate, and CVOs get a bigger 117ci engine.

The most interesting thing H-D has going on, the Pan America, was largely absent from the presentation. It was teased at, and the footage shown looks like it’s an awesome, capable machine. There’s a separate presentation to launch it coming in February, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

Another absence in regards to new, interesting, and exciting stuff, was any mention of the LiveWire. Some talk about how it’s reshaping the future of the company, or perhaps how it fits in with the CVO bikes into this whole premium lifestyle vision of the company. Heck, the LiveWire is already incredibly expensive, why not offer a CVO version of it?

Also absent is the liquid-cooled Street models. Understandable, but this now means that in 2021, the cheapest Harley is the Iron 883 at $9,499. That’s a high barrier for entry. Out the door at well over $10k makes the brand completely inaccessible to a lot of people interested in buying a motorcycle. Can that appeal to non-customers, or those who see they can get a fairly competitive motorcycle from virtually any other brand for as little as half that price? Fit and finish, style, and brand recognition can only go so far. Does Harley even care, is the bigger question…

I honestly think they’ve finally made peace with being willing to give up those sales to chase customers who are more likely to be brand loyal. They’re not an “entry-level” brand and don’t intend to be.

The Street Bob 114 seems pretty great, though. It’s certainly successful for what it is; a stripped down, raw, no frills bobber. Putting the bigger engine in it was a brilliant move. I’m left a bit confused, though, since you now have the Softail Slim and the Sport Glide with higher price tags and the smaller 107ci engine. At almost $4,000 more, the Sport Glide in particular seems like a terrible value compared to a Street Bob 114 with some bags, a windscreen, and maybe a comfier seat added.

There was lots of talk about artisanal what-nots, too. I expected the middle-aged designer trying to pass as a beanie-bedecked hipster to go deep into how the new CVOs are bespoke pieces of art, custom-crafted by master artisans in an atelier (and include a case of your favorite one-off craft beer in the saddlebags).

On the bright side, hipsters now have options, and can park a hand-crafted CVO Road Glide in the garage next to their barely running XS650 café racer project.

Look, I’m a designer. I appreciate craftsmanship and thoughtful design. I want stylish, cool-looking, well made motorcycles and gear with an attention to detail. They were just laying it on super thick, and it came across as goofy and out-of-touch.

The aesthetic itself is actually excellent. The bikes and new paint schemes look pretty great. I could just do without the marketing-speak and veneer of synthetic hip coolness.

For a motorcycle company, though, Harley-Davidsons’ motorcycles are kind of underwhelming. It’s no secret that outside of aesthetics and brand recognition, they’re not particularly competitive with the rest of the industry. In fact, pretty much every model from every other brand is in some way superior in terms of value, performance, features, reliability, or almost any other metric you can use to judge a motorcycle. They’re just not from that soul-stirring classic American brand, though.

In that regard, Harley’s move to further emphasize style and aesthetics, and leverage the heritage of the brand, is actually the brightest spot in the launch. It’s the smartest move for them to make if you ask me (no one did, but here we are…). Capitalizing on the intangible, the emotional, the feeling of freedom, and what the brand represents, is where they’re the most competitive.

Apparel & Branding

*Shrug*

This looked like a biker-themed episode of Project Runway. I love seeing behind the scenes of the design process, but it came across only slightly less artisanally cheesy than the talk about how bespoke their artisanal motorcycle designs are. Artisanal.

The accented knock-off Jony Ive designer chap was probably meant to lend that sort of Euro-flavored mystique and credibility, but it fell pretty flat.

The designs themselves look good, and appropriate for the modern twist on heritage and artisanal they’re going for. Say it with me: A-R-T-I-S-A-N-A-L. Artisanal.

I dug a bit deeper into H-D’s apparel offerings, and I appreciate that Harley is taking the effort to manufacture and sell technical riding gear. It’s great to see abrasion resistant denim and textiles, armor pockets in jackets, and pieces sporting water and wind proof materials. It’s also great to have options for functional gear outside the expected brands at Revzilla and Cycle Gear (but you’ll probably never see me give up my RSD gear in favor of H-D stuff).

Rider stories

I kind of liked these little vignettes. I’m a sucker for documentary-style stories about people and why they ride (one of my favorites is Why We Ride which you can watch on Amazon), and these were fairly interesting and engaging, without being too cringey.

Oh, they were still cringey, but a palatable amount.

They certainly didn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the presentation, though. It was jarring to go from the generally awkward scripted presentations from the H-D team to these stories, and back. Watched on their own, they work fine.

They weren’t terribly overproduced, and were kept feeling pretty grounded and authentic. You get a sense of why people love the H-D brand and why it resonates with them.

Oh, but can we talk a bit about that intro?

Go. Go. Go. God damn it was cheesy. The script was awful, but the cinematography was great.

Final thoughts

Sure, it’s easy to crap on Harley. They’re swimming against the tide of obsolescence, trying to define themselves in a market where they are a paradox of being both a trendsetter and an irrelevant laughing stock, wrapped in a shell of their former glory.

You just kind of expect a company with such heritage, talent, resources, and loyal customers to do better. To be more exciting. To innovate, and wow or surprise you from time to time. Yet, even when you go in with low expectations, they still manage to underwhelm.

If Harley existed in a vacuum they’d be fine. Thing is, when the rest of the industry is rapidly advancing, it takes a lot to be differentiated, let alone disruptive. The competition keeps coming out with exciting new engine designs (and models to showcase those designs), innovative rider connection technology, advanced electronics packages and rider aids, and offering machines with more and more value. Launching little more than a slightly bigger engine, new paint schemes, some speakers, and a new line of clothing just doesn’t cut it.

On the bright side, what was clear to me by the end of the presentation, is that Harley-Davison doesn’t seem to be interested in re-orienting themselves, but rather in doing a better job defining and differentiating themselves within the industry.

Compared to how shaky and unsure they’ve seemed the last few years, there’s a certain air of confidence to Harley-Davidson right now. I think they’re willing to give up sales volume to secure brand loyalty. There’s something strategic and intentional behind them now. Harley seems focused on playing to their strengths.

That’s good as long as you’re in their target market. A target market that is apparently composed of people who weathered the economic challenges of 2020 with nary a worry, and don’t bat an eye at the notion of purchasing motorcycles that start at nearly $10,000.

That seems pretty tone deaf to me. If you’re not even going to throw the working class a bone, they’ll just keep buying Hondas and not look back.

So sure, the aspirational qualities are great. They’re telling a great story and the visuals are stunning. Playing on people’s emotions is an effective marketing strategy, so I applaud them there.

If the marketing speak and buzzwords surrounding this launch is any indication, Harley is wholly embracing being a lifestyle brand first, and motorcycle company second. It’s definitely style over substance. Let the Japanese and Europeans make their feature-laden motorcycles with a bazillion horsepowers. Harley has been playing catch-up when it comes to performance and features since the 60’s, so leading the pack on style and brand loyalty can be a winning strategy.

However, if the perception is that Harleys are only attainable by celebrities from superhero movies, wealthy urban professionals with too much time on their hands, or empty nesters with deep retirement accounts, it’s only going to further alienate everyone who isn’t already in, or worse, resents, those groups.

Bad for Harley, good for Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki, Yamaha, KTM, Husqvarna, BMW, Ducati, Indian, Enfield, and everyone else.

But I kind of want that Street Bob 114.


2 thoughts on “Is Harley Doomed? Harley-Davidson 2021 Launch Reaction

  1. Those things have to be some of their most hideous bikes yet! I have NO idea how they sell those things – IF they can even get ’em. That BS 4-valve engine was the final nail in the coffin.

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