MILWAUKEE – Harley-Davidson loves millennials, no doubt about it, with much of the company's marketing aimed at motorcycle buyers ages 18-34.
Do the millennials love Harley back? It looks that way; the world's largest manufacturer of heavyweight bikes says it's the market leader in sales of new on-road motorcycles to young adults.
In 2015, for the eighth straight year, Harley was the No. 1 seller of new highway motorcycles in the United States to adults ages 18-34. It was also the top seller of those bikes to women, blacks and Latinos, as well as white men ages 35-plus, according to motorcycle registration data.
Harley says its strategy to focus on growth among "outreach customers" lines up well with U.S. population trends.
The millennial generation continues to grow as immigration adds to the group. Millennials now number 75.4 million, surpassing the 74.9 million baby boomers (ages 51-69), according to the Pew Research Center.
That's the challenge, and the opportunity, for Harley and other motorcycle manufacturers that are well established with the boomers but must bridge the generation gap to the millennials.
In 2015, one-third of new Harley-Davidson motorcycle purchasers had never owned a bike before.
"We continue to sell more Harley-Davidson motorcycles to today's young adults than we sold to baby boomers when they were young adults," Harley CEO Matt Levatich said last month at the company's annual shareholders meeting.
"Earning their loyalty and trust is key to our future. It's what has inspired us throughout our entire 113-year history, and it continues to inspire us today," Levatich said.
Michael Spaeth, consumer marketing segment lead for Harley-Davidson, pointed to Harley's new 2016 Roadster and the Dark Custom models as examples of bikes that appeal to younger riders.
Also, he said, in many ways millennial motorcyclists aren't much different from previous generations of young riders.
"It's almost a little eerie how much young adults riding motorcycles today look like their fathers when they were that age. The young guys are wearing the same clothing as their dads, and they are riding a very similar style of motorcycle," Spaeth said.
Some have said that millennials are less likely to buy things for status, image or brand loyalty. They're more likely to make a purchase based on the value for their money, according to a J.D. Power survey with more than 600,000 respondents.
"Big and shiny" bikes aren't as popular with millennials, said Kirk Topel, owner of Hal's Harley-Davidson in suburban Milwaukee.
"They tend to like stuff that's more stripped down. They like the simplicity of the design as opposed to how gaudy they can make something," Topel said.
Increasingly, Harley dealerships are focused on attracting a younger crowd while, at the same time, keeping their older customers.
"We like to do the stuff that makes everybody feel young," said Chaz Hastings, owner of Milwaukee Harley-Davidson, a dealership that has a tattoo parlor and Wednesday night dodge ball tournaments.
Samantha Loftus, 24, a millennial motorcyclist from Milwaukee, recently traded her Yamaha 600cc bike for a 2016 Harley-Davidson Softail Breakout.
Loftus said there was a time when she thought of Harleys as a "grandpa's bike," but not anymore.
"They have bikes that are sporty and fun …. I am excited about the whole experience of being a Harley biker girl," she said.
Many consumer-product companies have difficulty marketing to millennials because the younger audience is skeptical of advertising or doesn't follow media that run the ads.
"We are less likely to be attracted to the contrived imagery," said Burklin Nielsen, a millennial motorcyclist.
Nielsen, 33, says she gets most of her news and information online.
Like other millennials, she wants marketing material that's more akin to her lifestyle and interests, including social causes.
"We all have some belief that we feel strongly about. Mine is making sure that women can get out and ride," said Nielsen, director of operations for Stilettos on Steel, a women's motorcyclist group.
Millennials often say they prefer local events, over traditional advertising or large gatherings, to learn about new things.
"What I really like to focus on are experiences. I appreciate it when a company does more of a grass-roots effort focused on building relationships," said Brenda Martinez, a 29-year-old Milwaukee motorcyclist and founder of Litas in Milwaukee, a female riders group.
Martinez owns a Harley-Davidson Road King but said she's been attracted to Royal Enfield motorcycle events in Milwaukee.
India-based Royal Enfield established its North American headquarters in Milwaukee and hired former Harley-Davidson executive Rod Copes as North American division president.
Royal Enfield is the world's oldest motorcycle company in continuous production. The company, known for its bikes that capture the essence of old-school motorcycling — a throbbing engine, simple electronics and a low price — is revered in India but is only now getting re-established in the United States.