The Indian Gambit – Polaris Puts Harley-Davidson on Notice

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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.