Harley-Davidson's Brad Richards Talks Shop on Design
Daily Slideshow: H-D vice president of design give us a inside look into the future of the Motor Company.
Harley-Davidson has weathered a fair bit of criticism in the past couple years about its change of direction and proposed models. With declining sales and plant closures, 'getting it right' is now of the utmost importance. To get an insider perspective on the changes, Bike EXIF's senior editor, Wesley Reyneke, spoke with Brad Richards, Vice President of Styling & Design at Harley-Davidson. Here are some highlights.
As of late, Harley-Davidson is being criticized for abandoning its core customer base. By Richards' own admission, this is somewhat true, though 'evolve' might be a better term. Richards explains that the changes are being viewed in the context of the past twenty years where the “loud, proud and bold...archetype rider was defined. But, the new generation wants nothing to do with that archetype.”
While Richards is enamored with the boisterous archetype, he acknowledges that the next consumer base is quieter. “Millennials want subtlety, they want a high-quality experience, but they don’t brag, they don’t boast, they’re not loud, they’re not obnoxious. So we have to be able to tailor some of the products to this new generation.” The changes may not please current customers, but this has happened before.
It is easy to forget that Harley-Davidson has survived for over a century by being adaptive and expanding its client base. A dramatic example of this strategy came after the 1981 AMF buy-back. The Motor Company courted the baby boomers and their disposable incomes. Core customers who had supported Harley-Davidson during the 'dark years' felt betrayed, but it was still reason to celebrate as Willie G. Davidson demonstrates in the above image.
Richards argues that the criticism leveled at Harley-Davidson is history repeating itself — again. Not unlike the FXR, Richards cited the lack of eager reception for the Dyna, “When the new Softails were released [in 2017], a lot of people were upset that the Dyna was gone. But when the Dyna was first released, no one liked it.”
The Motor Company might be looking for validation. Richards explained that new consumers are giving them permission to explore alternate avenues. “We’ve done tons of research...and the younger generation loves the brand. They know what it stands for, they know its authenticity and quality and the history, but they just don’t see products that they really want to ride.”
The opportunity to fill a niche market has occurred before. Richards explained that “post WW2 there was a massive boom...and our bike sales went through the roof. But by 1949, there was an equally massive drop-off in the sales of our big twins...so we invested in lightweight and low displacement. We’re going through the same thing right now. It’s so cyclical.”
In terms of critical reception, the Livewire has received the most backlash. Richards defends the Livewire by saying “the messaging has always been that we’re going to embrace electric...because it breaks down so many barriers for new riders. It’s very simple to get involved in two wheels.” Yet, Richards acknowledges the Livewire is a 'halo product' due to the cost of new technology.
Richards admits that the Livewire is not aimed at today's market. From a price point, “it is not a bike that’s been designed for millennials.” What Harley-Davidson is proposing are smaller electric vehicles. In the same vein as yesterday's minibikes, Richards sees a new generation learning to ride on an electric Harley-Davidson product, just as he predicts baby boomers will strap them to the back of their Airstream trailers.
Richards stresses that the Motor Company's focus is “all about getting people to embrace two wheels.” Harley-Davidson wants people to say, “I’m gonna buy this bike, and fit it in my life,” rather than, “I’m gonna buy this bike and...go to Sturgis.” Accommodations are nice, but perhaps the real question Harley-Davidson should ask is: What bike are you going to ride to Sturgis next year?
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