Harley-Davidson (HOG) is the classic case of a divine franchise. While still the world’s largest maker of cruiser motorcycles, it is being swamped by new competition. HOG’s EBIT performance has slid for the last 4 years and is even below the level of 2012. BMW Motorrad, KTM AG, Ducati and Triumph are all growing unit sales and profits. HOG has a very defined product line whereas its competitors are flush with sports, adventure, cruiser, heritage, cafe racers, scooters, off road and much broader engine sizes.
The further complication is that the Japanese are getting their act together. Honda is targeting over 20mn units in 2018 (mainly driven by emerging Asia). Honda has received rave reviews of its new CB1000R which should keep the fires burning. Several years ago, Yamaha introduced a budget cruiser called the Bolt but HOG responded with a competitively priced bike made in India which showed the desperation of a strategy where it doubted its brand power. Kawasaki has a 12 month waiting list on its Z900RS cafe racer which is a replica of the 1970s classic. Kawasaki has no interest playing in scooter markets and remains focused on its core larger bore segmentation.
Yamaha and Kawasaki have gone down the path of profitability than pure unit growth while Suzuki is the real laggard, lost in me too group think product. Honda has had a real resurgence in product which harks on its history. Honda now has 75% market share in Indonesia, 72% in Vietnam, 80% in Thailand and 82% in Brazil. Only 28% in India. Still, the market share, resale and brand power in Asia no maker will usurp them for decades. Put another way, the risks associated with dethroning Honda in Asia by a dealer channel push would be astronomically high. Yamaha has the other 10%.
Profitability is starting to look much rosier for the Japanese too. Even Suzuki has managed to pull itself out of loss.
Sadly for HOG, 1Q 2018 has shown even worse numbers. Global unit sales were 7.2% down on the previous year and 12% down at home. Japan and Australia were soft. Looking at the strategy it looks like throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping it sticks. It looks like some consultant has rattled together some funky catchphrases.
HOG’s problems are simple. It is not listening to customers. When grandson of the founder, Willie Davidson, took over the reins after the near bankruptcy under AMF stewardship in the 1980s, the company really consulted customers and worked out they wanted more reliability and capability. It delivered. Sadly HOG is hanging on by its fingernails on brand alone today. The Polaris-owned Indian brand is coming up with excellent product lines which have all of the cachet of HOG given it was its fiercest competitor in the 1930s.
HOG’s product line up is relatively stale in terms of real innovation. While the Milwaukee 8 engine is a very good start and the Fat Bob is a proper philosophy change, the rest of the line up needs major revamp. At the moment it seems the brand is stuck in an echo chamber.
In closing Harley’s are a cult. There aren’t many brands where customers are prepared tattoo it to their bodies. In all the bikes CM has owned, the Harley had 10x the number of people wanting to ride on the back vs the rest combined. Yet it goes to show that brand only goes so far. Product still matters.