The Indian Gambit – Polaris Puts Harley-Davidson on Notice

04/20/2011 @ 6:33 pm, by Jensen Beeler27 COMMENTS

The Indian Gambit   Polaris Puts Harley Davidson on Notice chess gambit 635x476

Before yesterday afternoon, I had a hard time getting excited about Polaris. I think they make snowmobiles…but I’m not sure. This is how engaged with their brands I was, but of course this has all changed with the news that Polaris Industries, Inc. has acquired Indian Motorcycle for still undisclosed terms. Covering the business strategy side of motorcycling for the past two and a half years, I can tell you that there are few moves or decisions that strike me as truly inspired, but that events of the past 24 hours are surly Mensa-worthy.

Before I can talk about Polaris and Indian, I have to talk about another motorcycle company: Harley-Davidson. Kingdoms are fated to topple, but looking at Harley-Davdion and its dominance in the American motorcycle scene, let alone in popular culture, the legacy of the Milwaukee company seems assured to endure the test of time. So many companies have tried to be the next Harley, and all of their failures reinforce that concept that no company does “Harley” better than Harley-Davidson. Virtually creating the the legacy cruiser segment, and Harley-Davidson’s success in this regard is also the double-edged sword that is slowly prostrating the Milwaukee brand.

If I had to give one piece of advice to a company wanting to compete with Harley-Davidson, it would be real simple: don’t. Seemingly at the risk of painting itself into a corner, Harley-Davidson has refined its marketing message so thoroughly that it has honed in on a particular type of rider, and exhibits such a distinct persona of motorcycling that the company’s identity has found itself heading full-speed down a one-way street of branding. Thus the low-hanging fruit of competing with Harley-Davidson is to go after the brand where it cannot go.

A challenger would have to be foolish to take Harley-Davidson head-on, as the Milwaukee company has shown its capability of dragging competitors down to its level, and beating them with experience. For proof of this you need to look only so far as Honda. One of the largest motorcycle companies in the world, Honda has every technical, physical, and business resource at its disposal to compete with Harley-Davidson. Honda’s bikes are better built, cheaper, more advanced than Harley’s, yet sell miserably when compared to their American counter-parts. If Honda cannot succeed in this market segment, a company has to have serious cojones or severe mental illness to think they can do better.

Still need convincing? If I tell you to close your eyes and imagine a cruiser, the image your invariably envision is a Harley-Davidson motorcycle (for some non-motorcyclists, this is the only visage of motorcycling they can imagine). You have to give credit where credit is due, the Harley-Davidson name is iconic and pervasive. When it comes to creating a citadel out of a market segment, Harley-Davidson reigns supreme, and I would argue that the company is the cruiser segment of motorcycling.

Despite its roughly six-year decline, cruiser-style motorcycles account for nearly half of the US motorcycle market, which in total available market terms equates to the sound of rolling around in piles of dirty, dirty, dirty hundred dollar bills. This makes the prize to challenging Harley-Davidson tantalizing, and like a moth to flame, new offerings come forward with regularity to be incinerated by Harley’s warm glow, and for a while Polaris, with its Victory brand of motorcycles, was no different.

Victory has always been that other American cruiser brand, seemingly content to do about 5% or less of Harley-Davidson’s volume. While Victory has consistently posted growth numbers, no one is looking at the brand as a serious contender to usurping the Harley-Davidson throne. Part of the reason for this is because Victory realizes what I already described earlier; instead of taking Harley-Davidson head-on, the company has carved out a careful but unique niche of selling “modern” cruisers. The look is distinct, and is a mixture of heritage meets technology.

Many have derided Harley-Davidson for not tapping into this vein of motorcycling, calling-out the Wisconsin-based company for not developing its bikes beyond their vintage designs. While it would be nice to see Harley-Davidson with a R&D department in earnest, the truth of the matter is that the market size of cruiser buyers who care about technology has been proven by Victory’s yearly output, i.e. a drop in the bucket compared to the overall segment.

Harley knows this, Victory knows this, Polaris knows this, and this is where Indian comes into the picture. What if you could go after the pieces of the market Harley-Davidson forgot, and go after the Bar & Shield brand head-on…at the same time. Indian Motorcycle is Polaris’s one-two punch against Harley-Davidson; and if done well, the move could turn out to be a set of crushing body blows.

Unlike the Harley-Davidson brand, which is trapped in its vintage throw-back mystique, Polaris has the ability to put forth motorcycles that target this core demographic (let’s be real clear that Harley-Davidson’s current customer base is still the core demographic in this segment), while at the same time the company has the ability to appeal to the counter-point of the current cruiser segment, those who are repulsed by the Harley-Davidson ethos, and are looking for more from their cruiser.

While Victory supplies the solution to this latter group, Indian provides a path to serve the prior. When you get down to it, the Indian brand is one of, if not the only, names that can compete with Harley-Davidson for being a true blue-blooded American motorcycle marquis. While the history is there, the downside of course is that the company hasn’t really been in business for several decades. It also goes without saying that the Indian brand doesn’t have nearly the same value as the Bar & Shield. This however doesn’t mean that a revival of the Indian name cannot make up for lost time, and it is this premise that Polaris is surely banking on with its acquisition of Indian Motorcycle.

Indian is the brand that Polaris needed in its gambit to take Harley-Davidson head-on. Based in Minnesota, Polaris Industries did just under $2 billion in revenue last year, which isn’t too bad considering I hear there was a recession going on during that time. The Minnesotan company clearly has capital, and it also has things like expansive production facilities (Polaris announced today that it would be keeping its Osceola open, after initially announcing the plant’s closure), leveraged buying power, a globalized distribution network, and a well-regarded dealer network. Put these resources behind the proposed “autonomous business unit” that Polaris is calling Indian, and you have the makings of a turn-key Harley-Davidson competitor.

Thinking about this possibility today, I’ve been fixated on what having two well-backed American motorcycle brands could mean for the American motorcycle industry. While we are only a few steps in on the much larger journey that is Indian Motorcycle, it’s those first steps that determine whether you are headed in the right direction. For its part, Polaris has the makings for a real threat to the status quo. Your move Harley.

Comment:

  1. Ceolwulf says:

    While I care not at all about cruisers, I do hope we get a new Indian Four out of the deal. Although, Indian will have to be very careful about making what their customers remember Indian used to make, and not what they actually did make.

  2. Woody says:

    Seconding the indian four. If they bring back anything it should be that.

  3. Tom says:

    Does Polaris really want to invest so much into a diminishing market segment that has very limited appeal internationally? Perhaps, but I don’t see Indian as the HD clone as a long term viable concept as much as I can see Indian doing that AND being more of a full range company. Indian has that history that Victory simply does not. As a more viable long term prospect, I see Indian building bikes from cruiser to naked to sport bike while Victory remains a niche brand of sport cruisers.

    I could be wrong but companies confining themselves to being cruiser only and going against HD have pretty much all died. If Victory did not have Polaris backing it, its prospects wouldn’t be what they are today. Being a one trick pony just ain’t economically safe.

  4. Indian hasn’t been meaningfully seen in the marketplace for over 50 years, and Indian sales actually peaked in, brace yourself, 1914 – but that could be an advantage. They have the mystique, but they get to start with from a blank page. The famous Chief, and the 101 Scout – at least arguably the best bike that ever came out of the wigwam – were pushrod v-twins, like virtually all Harleys. But the Indian four proves that Indian does not = v-twin.

    The tortured history of the brand after the collapse of the wigwam in 1955 is almost worthy of a book. From Floyd Clymer’s Indian-branded Enfields, to the Chinese minibikes licensed by Clymer’s lawyer (who somehow ended up owning the trademark after Floyd’s death), to the S&S-engined bikes produced in Gilroy (was there anything that could have made George Hendee spin faster in his grave than an Indian-badged Harley clone? Yegads!..) I think I can quote General George Armstrong Custer in saying, “Is there no end to these #u@&ing Indians???

    Where was I? Hmm… I guess the point I’m trying to make here is, the closest that I’ve come to really being enthusiastic about a resurrected Indian brand was the brief shining moment in the ’90s when there were rumors that someone was going to bring John Britten in, to design an all-new Scout. Then, Britten suddenly died.

    The thing to remember is, in it’s day the Scout was a great handling middleweight sport bike. It was an American GSX-R750. (I’ve never ridden one, but I’m told they handle really well. The Scout, I mean. I’ve ridden lotsa gixxers.) In it’s day, the Chief was an American Gold Wing.

    I desperately hope that Polaris uses the Indian brand NOT to put out a cool retro Indian. They won’t manage to do that any better than Kawasaki did, with the ill-fated Drifter. I hope, instead, that they’ll ask themselves, “If George Hendee, Oscar Hedstrom, and Charlie Franklin were alive today, what kind of motorcycles would they design?”

    If anyone at Polaris needs James Parker’s phone number, they should call me.

  5. irksome says:

    I’m 52 yrs old and in 35 years of riding, I’ve gone from building my own cafe racers to vintage sportbikes to my current ’98 Speed triple to currently (and for the first time) considering a cruiser. The ONLY bike that interests me right now is the new Triumph Thunderbird; I have never and will never consider a HD product as I have zero interest in enabling an archaic and anachronistic financing and marketing firm that happens to build motorcycles while simultaneously sodomizing its unions/customer base.

    Besides, I don’t look good dressed up as a pirate. If Indian/Polaris can build a cruiser that isn’t a dinosaur-replica, I’ll take a look.

  6. skadamo says:

    Mark, isn’t James Parker employed? :D I like the way you are thinking advising Polaris not to reproduce retro Indians. I have a feeling they will though.

    I have an Indian dealer 5 miles from my house and have seen a handful on the street. Wonder what will come of them. I’ll keep an eye on it.

    Anyone know if Harley ever tried to buy the Indian brand as a defensive? In hindsight may have been a better buy than MV Agusta or Buell for that matter.

  7. Ron says:

    I think this is the only real hope of keeping the Indian brand alive. I would love to see a new Indian with an air cooled 4. Talk about retro cool. Polaris can take a 2 pronged approach to the American Motorcycle. Retro old school American with Indian, and New American with Victory. There is room in the marketplace to develop 2 complementary lines within the American Motorcycle market. Think Ford and Lincoln, Chevy and Cadillac… I think this is a great move for Polaris and American Motorcycles.

  8. rliddell says:

    Someone desperately needs to gain a respect for the awesomeness that is snowmobiles.

  9. Robert, if one showed up on my doorstop I’d respect it even in the summer.

    Mark, you’re dating yourself if you can remember the bikes Indian actually made.

    Tom, cruisers may be a diminishing part of the market, but nonetheless they still are a HUGE part of the market. If I was Polaris I would be thinking a house of brands strategy. Imagine if they bought up another company like Erik Buell Racing….ooohhh….did you feel that? I just got goosebumps.

  10. Bjorn says:

    It would be nice to see Indian taken back to their roots; building cutting edge sports bikes.

  11. Tom says:

    Jensen, what you say is true..at the moment in the US market. However, the US market isn’t the 800lb gorilla it once was and that is why I mentioned a long term strategy. Tradition (HD2.0) is not a business model.

  12. Jim says:

    I haven’t we heard a variation on this before? Oh yeah, Excelsior-Henderson, resurrect an storied old brand, throw a bunch of money at it and clean HD clock. EH isn’t analogous I know, but to believe that path to financial success is aboard a brand that was a fond memory when I was a testosterone fueled lad (60 now wishing I’d saved some of that T).

    Someone will likely mention Triumph as a demonstration as to how this will work, but Triumph is different. John Bloor revived Triumph, the brand had been dead for about a decade and was only a generation away from greatness, meaning lots of riders and others, were familiar with the brand. Also the demographics were in Bloor’s favor as the baby-boomers had begun buying motorcycles.

    Indian has none of those advantages and will be reintroduced into a politically correct world where the classic logos and labels will be judged racist by many opinion makers. Sorry don’t see HD noting this challenge.

  13. Greg says:

    Snowmobiles, this is why I hate them. They’re wildly inefficient, they do an incredible amount of damage to parks, national, state, and otherwise, there are a ton of 2 strokes still out there, most people travel vast distances just to ride them, they disrupt wildlife on a 24/7 basis, they’re just an excuse to get drunk and go fast. Unless you use one as a necessary mode of transportation, then you can stick your snowmobile far, very far up your white trash ass.

  14. Cracker says:

    @Greg as a former H-D employee and rider (pre-poseur and pre-hipster eras) I note that if I squint my eyes and replace the word snowmobile with the word Harley and change a few a few other words you just described some of my happiest years!

  15. joe says:

    Mr. Beeler is right, you can’t aim for Harley’s market. Indian 4s are legendary, but there is no way to make one as a modern production bike. All HD wanna bes created by Indian are just piss in the wind. I hope some day there is a real motorcycle company in America, but Victory and retro modern Indians ain’t it.

  16. gnmac says:

    I love the history of Indian, especially the board track racing part. I hope Indian takes the board track racing heritage and makes a naked sportbike that is worthy of competing with naked sportbikes from Europe, and Japan. That would be a site for sore American eyes, to have a real US naked superbike with American heritage!!

  17. UlyssesRider says:

    Harley Davidson can crash and burn in hell for eternity for what they did to Buell motorcycles. That is all I have to say about that. Meanwhile, I wish Indian, and Polaris, all the best.

  18. hoyt says:

    Jensen – where’s the original story/comments about the Indian purchase on your site?

    Victory to HD: “check”

  19. It’s linked up in the first paragraph, but here it is again: http://aspha.lt/gy

  20. hoyt says:

    Ok, thanks…I think i need a new mac. (regrettably it has become much slower than the work pc..the horror!). Anyway…

    Hopefully the flexibility of having a vintage cruiser will fuel sales so much that Victory can build upon, ironically, Indian’s other heritage – racing and either buy EBR or build their own. Mark mentioned James Parker. His Indian sportbike design was quite the design brief that included desmo valves. Wouldn’t that be something?

  21. Honda never competed meaningfully in Cruisers as they were just too Harlley and yet too Honda. Yamaha’s Stars have done OK, better than Suzi or Kawasaki. It’s just too downhill for the Japanese engineers to have any empathy for these things. They do their own history better: Puh-leeze bring the new CB1100 here, and the W800 would be nice, too. It makes me think of when Toyota first decided to go into NASCAR: TRD was forced to design a pushrod V8, as Toyota didn’t make/sell one anywhere on planet Earth !

    The Victory cruisers are well along the way of creating a separate, ‘modern’ cruiser brand identity. The stylng is different enough, but for me the big difference is more horsepower and real handling vs. H-D. A comparison of a Sportster to a Hammer is almost not fair, the Hammer just murders it. The Vision tourers are different and certainly a different look. The ‘Ness connection’ is a very smart idea.

    A Polaris Indian would do well to follow Triumph’s example: Honor your heritage, but they must work, be dependable, interesting. My best description I heard of a Bonneville is that ‘it’s not a reissue, it’s as if this is what it would have evolved to over the years’. So yeah, a modern Chief is fine, but Indian would need a Speed Triple, a 675, a Thunderbird, etc. Paint outside the lines some, but with obvious Indian identity. Think Diavel. Think S1000RR. Shouldn’t be hard for a company that can build a 27-grand touring tricycle ! ! Or now that the big $$ market is swinging away from those idiot choppers, imagine an Indian factory bobber. Indian does not need to become a 30-grand Royal Enfield !

    And I do not underestimate that H-D may have GM’d itself: If you think you’re infallible, and keep re-making the SOS forever, eventually people will look elsewhere. And when your business falls 60% and your dealers who built Vegas-casino-sized dealerships are going under to boot, you should be able to see someone beginning to write on the wall . . . . without some radically fresh thinking, H-D is simply going to run out of weekend-bikers: Everyone who wanted one got one, and now there’s nobody left. It floors me that a brand so deeply rich in history can not figure out that it CAN move on and take it’s customer base along, if it’s done right. But you can’t keep building ’57 Chevys forever.

    In the years WW2, Harley was the bike to have IF you couldn’t afford an Indian. H-D made a killing on scout motorcycles for Uncle Sam during the War, Indian barely got a sniff of the war production money. H-D came out of WW2 rich, Indian management made lots of mistakes and was gone by the mid-50′s.

    It will certainly be interesting to watch how this rekindled rivalry will play out.

  22. Jeram says:

    They’d better get hanibal to do the rounds of the international motorcycle shows with the Scout stream-liner

    That’d get the heart racing for potential fans!

    (And by hanibal I mean Anthony hopkins as Burt Munroe)

  23. hoyt says:

    “GM’d itself” is a good reference. Even crusty, diehard harley riders from the 70s have sons and grandsons riding sportbikes or just sticking to dirtbikes. So, the “generational sales” are not a guaranty like GM went through.
    You can build Road Kings (57 Chevys) for a long time, just not anywhere near the scale they are currently building them, especially when the developing market begins to slow down. This gives HD time to figure out what their Cadillac sport sedan-equivalent will be. That will also be interesting to watch

  24. Mark Zimmerman says:

    Apparently the guy that engineered the MV deal at HD has found gainful, if temporary employment at Polaris. Indian hasn’t built a bike since 1953, and by the way the Chief’s and Scouts were flat heads, not pushrod OHV’s. Outside of the name, which has been tarnished through the years, there is no connection whatsoever between what Polaris bought and the original company and the vast majority of potential buyers understand that. Which is why Indian has been hard pressed to sell 400 or so bikes a year. Polaris would have been as well served by using the name Merkel, Vincent or Thor. Or by putting thier resources into building something that would entice buyers onto thier current range. A line of 1000- 1300 cc V-twin sports/roadsters is one avenue. My bet is that Indian by Polaris won’t last five years, and I’ll be surprised if they go that long. If I’m wrong I’ll say so in print as well.

  25. Mark Zimmerman says:

    Sorry guys I misread one posting that refrenced “push rod V-twins like HDs.” Thinking the author meant pushrod OHV’s like the knucklehead. My apologies for any confusion or ruffled feathers.
    MZ

  26. Gonzo says:

    Jensen, you fool! All anyone needs to do to compete with Hardly Ableson is to build something the inbreds would like the look of that actually performs and is reliable. Then they would put the Milwaukee morons out of business. They are not a bike manufacturer, they are a lifestyle dealer catering to lemmings who all look alike in their silly little leather vests.