Harley Easy Rider the movie

For the past two decades Harley-Davidson has been seen as a free-spirited, rebellious brand. Drawing on images from classic movies like “Easy Rider” and “Wild One” the company struck a chord with well-to-do baby boomers, who needed to feel like they are breaking the rules and every once and a while. For Harley owners, riding is a way to escape everyday life and feel like an outlaw without actually breaking any laws (except maybe changing lanes without proper signal).

It’s this bond with boomers that has gained Harley some of the most loyal customers you will ever see. Harley has shown that they know what their brand stands for, and until recent months has remained true to those beliefs, even during tough times.

Tough Times

Harley, like a majority of manufacturers, have in fact been facing hard times. Harley reported a 37% drop in first-quarter profits because of sluggish sales and plans to eliminate up to 400 more blue-collar jobs over the next two years.

On the surface this looks like the sluggish economy is having it’s way with another American business. That is certainly true, but I speculate that there might be some deeper signs of trouble for Harley that are being overshadowed by the recession.

Take for example the fact that Harley’s biggest demographic, the baby boomers, will soon be reaching ages where riding a motorcycle will become less and less of a priority and in some cases physically impossible. And with baby boomers on their way out as Harley customers, there are not nearly enough numbers in Gen X to fill their shoes. That leaves Gen Y, a generation that has never heard of “Easy Rider” and has grown up on movies like “Fast and the Furious” where speedier, more nimble sport bikes take the screen, and there are no heavy-motor bikes like Harley anywhere in sight.

Searching for Relevance with Gen Y

Some small steps have been taken to gain loyalty from Gen Y, like the acquisition of Buell Motorcycles in 1998, and the introduction of the V-Rod in 2001, which was the first completely new bike the company has produced in 50 years. The V-Rod incorporated a more aerodynamic design like that of sport bikes, and is noticeably quieter than the typical Harley.

But these moves have done little to gain the interest of the younger generations, and have looked more like a company that has one foot in the boat and one on the shore, as they struggle to find relevancy with Gen Y without losing their most loyal and profitable boomer customers.

More recently, Harley has taken, what I’d consider a bold new direction with the hiring of former GM executive, Dino Bernacchi as director of advertising, promotions and entertainment. He’s the guy that was responsible for trying to thinking he could buy a bit of pop culture by matching up megastars like Gwen Stefani, Jay-Z and Tiger Woods with automobile from the GM line.

Bernacchi seems to have a bit of an addiction to Hollywood and was once quoted saying,

Everybody wants to be youthful and feel good and live vicariously through these celebrities. Sure, everybody criticizes it, but then we can’t get our eyes off of it.

Taking a page out of his old playbook at GM, Bernacchi seems think he can instill some youth into the Harley brand by throwing it into the spotlights of Hollywood.

So far there have been tie-ins with the HBO series True Blood, placements on FX’s Sons of Anarchy (one of my favs), and recently Harley teamed up with some famous gals (Jillian Michaels, Jewel, Tricia Helfer and Deborah DiMiceli) for the June issue of Vanity Fair.

[Watch the Vanity Fair Photoshoot]

I may just be me on this one, but I find the glitz and glam of Hollywood to be a big departure for the Harley brand. Even with their desperate need to find relevance with Gen Y, is Hollywood too far? Or maybe a little stardom is exactly what Harley needs.

What do you think? Is Harley turning it’s back on it’s brand?