OpinionHarley-Davidson LiveWire: can America’s most iconic motorcycle brand ignite Gen Z with its first electric bike?

Harley-Davidson’s newish boss, Jochen Zeitz, hopes to steer the brand towards a future of electric bikes and more appeal with digitally driven Gen Zers. Photo: @harleydavidson/ Instagram

This article is part of STYLE’s Inside Luxury Column.

In 2012, when I moved from Europe to the US, one of the first things I bought was a Harley-Davidson Softail Slim. It was a transformational purchase. It deepened my love of motorbikes. And it opened a new world – being the proud owner of a Harley.

Harley-Davidsons are made for a life on, and off, the open road. Photo: @harleydavidson/Instagram

It was love at first sight. I did not plan to buy a motorbike, I was just curious to experience the legendary brand. When I entered the showroom on a weekday evening, I saw the bike and the desire was immediate. I did not even have a motorbike license, so I decided to get one over the weekend. When I had it in my hand – after the brief three-day training programme common in the US – I went back to the showroom on the Sunday afternoon, paid for it and rode home.

I still remember it as the most unique purchase I have ever made. The bike was handed over with an initiation ritual at the showroom and the general manager told me that my life would never be the same again. He told me that owning a Harley was like belonging to an exclusive club, where strangers from all walks of life unite around their fascination with freedom and the iconic American brand.

Once they are Harley owners, many begin to customise their bikes. Photo: @harleydavidson/Instagram

Soon enough I started customising the bike, which not only made it more mine, but also catapulted the total spend well into the realm of luxury purchases. Even today, the customer experience at that Harley-Davidson showroom stands out, even in comparison with many luxury car brand experiences.


However, the brand – as Jochen Zeitz, CEO since March 2020, has pointed out recently – needs to bring back “desirability”. It seems that over the last few decades, Harley-Davidson has been relying a little too much on tradition to connect with young customers. It also boasts a bloated product range with a significant spread in prices, and presence across too many regions and countries. As a result, the brand needs not a “rewiring” as Zeitz and his team originally felt on taking over, but a more substantial overhaul.

Analysing my own thoughts on the beloved brand, I realised that no motorbike Harley had launched since the Softail Slim sparked a desire in me to buy another bike. No apparel line inspired me to buy. Even as a proud owner, it seemed that the brand was fading away.

Harley-Davidson has a proud competitive heritage. Photo: @harleydavidson/Instagram

The new strategic plan, called Hardwire, focuses on electrification, fewer segments and markets in which the company can win, and on the recreation of desire. These goals address a challenge many luxury brands have faced over the last few years: how to gain relevance in a digital, social media-driven age, amid rapidly changing consumer sentiment, fashion-forward and extremely image-conscious Gen Zers, and massive technological disruption that will change mobility dramatically in the decades to come.

Harley-Davidson understood earlier than most other brands that customers are not just looking for a means of transport, but see their bike as an expression of their personal brand, as a lifestyle. In a digital reality, where lives are curated to fit a social media persona, any brand that is not perceived as “in the now”, influential and inspiring has no future.

The classic Harley look: all black, jeans and tats. Photo:@harleydavidson/Instagram

Consequently, Harley’s hardwiring towards electric motorbikes and desire creation is critical. The capital market has already rewarded the strategic shift with a significant increase in company valuation since Zeitz took the helm. Now, precise implementation will have to follow the high ambition.

A critical aspect will be to translate the past codes of freedom – a feeling closely connected to the brand – into those relevant to younger audiences who dress in Gucci, carry Louis Vuitton bags and use Balenciaga trainers. Oversized, fashion-backward apparel typical of past Harley-Davidson collections will have to evolve and create desire among today’s customers.
Harley-Davidson LiveWire, the brand’s first electric bike. Photo: @harleydavidson/Instagram
Another critical aspect will be to create visceral differentiation within electrified bikes. The electric LiveWire and other electric models that will follow offer customers never-before levels of acceleration and sense of speed, however the signature sound and vibration of a Harley engine is missing. This is a similar challenge to that faced by brands like Lamborghini, Porsche or McLaren. In a future in which the electric performance be extremely similar among top brands, other brand equity elements must take over.

While traditionalists worry about what will be left of Harley once the combustion engine is gone, I believe it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the brand to gain new customers and become hip again. Gen Zers are more urban than any generation before, and the silence and agility of electric power trains make them ideal for mobility about town. As always, disruption is a dramatic opportunity to create the future of a brand and I would not be surprised to see a significant shift in customer demographics for Harley-Davidson.

Harley-Davidson is synonymous with a sense of freedom. Photo: @harleydavidson/Instagram

In this aspect, the Hardwire strategy comes at the right time and the experience and track record of Zeitz in building lifestyle brands will be critical. To me the core is the creation of desire. Despite loving my bike after buying it in 2012, nothing the brand did since truly intrigued me.

It’s time for me to fall in love with a new Harley. This will depend on Zeitz and his team coming up with updated brand storytelling, and spectacular new bikes and lifestyle solutions that spark the inspiration again. To entice with objects of desire I can’t resist.

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  • New Harley-Davidson CEO Jochen Zeitz’s Hardwire project hopes to slim down and ‘rewire’ the brand as it faces an ageing customer base and environmental concerns
  • The brand’s first electric bike, LiveWire, shows promise – but to sell it Harley needs to appeal to a younger, hipper, urban and more conscious consumer