Harley-Davidson Is Trying to Cultivate Millennials While Catering to Loyalists

Iconic brand seeks new generation of riders via digital and mobile

Harley-Davidson is reaching out to millennials and women. Harley-Davidson
Headshot of T.L. Stanley

Ever wanted to hop on a Harley-Davidson Iron 883 motorcycle and weave through gridlocked Manhattan streets? How about hitting the expanse of historic Route 66 while feeling your tires on the asphalt and the wind against your skin? Turns out you can—at least virtually.

Those scenarios are just two of the many available to players of the upcoming Ubisoft video game The Crew 2, an open-road racing adventure set to debut in March 2018. The game is one of the unconventional ways that Harley-Davidson, a 114-year-old legacy brand, is reaching out to millennials and women as it looks to broaden its consumer base beyond its core baby boomers.

The Crew 2 is “gender agnostic,” and like its hit predecessor, The Crew—which has amassed 12 million players—is expected to appeal to young male and female gamers and potentially anyone with a passion for motor sports, said Stephane Jankowski, producer at Ubisoft’s Ivory Tower Studio, which created the franchise.

“We used a lot of feedback from the community in developing the new game,” Jankowski said. “We’ve taken a sandbox approach where players can create their own stories and ask themselves, ‘What do I want to do today?’”

That tactic could help expand the global player pool for Ubisoft and increase the exposure and age range for Harley, which plans to integrate more models into the game’s upgrades next year. And since the franchise earned a PG-13 rating for its first installment, on par with Disney’s live-action flicks, it provides a kid-friendly antidote to the hyper-violent Grand Theft Autos of the world. (The Crew 2 hasn’t been rated yet.)

Many children, by the time they’re 8 or 9 years old, have had “a motorcycle moment,” according to Harley’s research, meaning that they’ve been exposed to riding through someone they know or via a piece of pop culture and want to experience it for themselves, said Heather Malenshek, the brand’s vp, global marketing.

“This is a no-risk environment for them to try out riding and have fun with it,” she said of The Crew 2, which offers a realistic virtual jaunt with no road rash. “And it links to our long-term goals of planting the seed with kids and young adults who can become the next generation of riders.”

"We’ve taken a sandbox approach where players can create their own stories."
Stephane Jankowski, producer at Ubisoft’s Ivory Tower Studio, which created The Crew franchise.

The game is a solid marketing match for Harley because it allows for customization and embraces a “thrill-seeking, adventure-loving” psychographic looking for “freedom on two wheels,” execs said.

Developers completely remodeled the U.S. cities and highways in The Crew 2 which, for the first time, lets players switch from road vehicles like Harleys, Ferraris and Porsches to boats and planes to amp up the stakes and challenge gamers’ skills.

This isn’t the iconic brand’s first link to video games, having embedded its motorcycles in Atari’s Test Drive Unlimited 2 and Sega’s King of the Road. Two Harley-branded games of its own, Race Around the World and Race Across America, came from Wizard Works.

In another millennial-skewing move, Harley also re-signed a deal with the Ultimate Fighting Championship last year. The partnership, which began in 2007, includes viewing parties at local dealerships, “UFC Fight for the Troops” events on U.S. military bases and hiring MMA talent like Cain Velasquez and Paige VanZant as spokespeople for the brand.

Much of Harley’s recent outreach has happened on digital and mobile, with live video and branded content, contributing to a 6 percent sales bump between 2010 and 2016 among young demos, women, Latinos and African Americans, accounting for 40 percent of the company’s U.S. sales, execs said.

Digging in further, Harley recently rolled out its 2018 model year products with a group of social influencers, including actor Jason Momoa, who posted a hero shot on Instagram.

With its goal of 2 million U.S. riders by 2027, Harley is also focused on understanding “consumer life stages, cultural shifts and where people are in their riding journey, despite age or gender,” Malenshek said.

A new TV ad campaign with the tagline “All for freedom, freedom for all” aims to cultivate new audiences while still catering to the loyalists. The spots come from Team Ignite, a new IPG division that won the Harley creative, media and digital business last year after a global review.

The work, using Primal Scream’s Movin’ on Up as a soundtrack, features riders of all stripes, including women, youngsters, weekend warriors, professional racers and a pug wearing goggles and a Harley hoodie. The goal, Malenshek said, is inviting “riders and nonriders across the globe to embrace their individuality.”

This story first appeared in the Oct. 2, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@TLStanleyLA tlstanley8@yahoo.com T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.