Harley-Davidson hopes Instagram influencers can save its brand

Harley-Davidson hopes Instagram influencers can save its brand
Image: Philippe Wojazer/REUTERS
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

This morning, Harley-Davidson announced it had missed earnings expectations by a wide margin, sending stocks tumbling 5%. But amid a generally downbeat earnings call, CEO Matthew Levatich found a silver lining: the company’s influencer operation has never looked stronger.

“We drove relevance and interest through our activations with celebrities and social media influencers, whose content and activity generated equivalent traditional media value that was up 80% [compared to 2017],” Levatich said.

Harley can use all the social media influence it can get. The average Harley buyer is now a man in his early 50s. As a Barron’s analysis brutally put it, at that age, “those dreams of open-air touring down country roads may be colliding with the reality of aging hips and slower reflexes.” Harley needs to attract a younger generation of bikers—and fast.

To do so, the company has turned to Instagram.

Harley announced a new line of 2018 motorcycles via an Instagram stunt, featuring Aquaman star Jason Momoa, country musician Brantley Gilbert, and rapper/actor Ludacris. And in October, to celebrate its 115th birthday, the company hired The Marketing Arm to stage a weekend-long made-for-Instagram party, complete with “14 influencers and their guests” boasting a combined following of 12 million. The agency claimed that their influencer squad generated “270 pieces of authentic content,” which delivered 62 million engagements to Harley’s brand.

Whether or not the brand is resonating with young people—the company doesn’t “buy into the concept of millennials”—it has a much deeper problem. Harley specializes in high-end heavyweight motorcycles, which appeal to an older clientele with disposable income and a desire to look cool. But UBS analyst Robin Farley notes that young people have a different reason for buying bikes–“ease of transportation”–so they’re interested in cheaper or used cycles.

“We believe this significant divergence in incentives to buy a new bike could be what is partly behind Harley’s and broader heavyweight motorcycle industry’s challenge to tap into a new segment of younger riders to drive growth,” Farley said. “So unless there is a generational shift among younger riders to see motorcycling as a hobby vs. means of transportation, the outlook for the heavyweight industry could continue to be more dependent on an aging demographic.”