3 years

Total Recall

Brand India vs Brand Harley

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Harley-Davidson is coming to India. But why?

Harley-Davidson believes it is a great brand. It is hard to argue with that. But there is something the legendary motorcycle company would learn when it soon sets spinning rubber to tortured tarmac in India. That most Indians who have heard of Harley-Davidson, who know how to make those great grunts of appreciation at the very mention of it, are not bikers. They probably do not even know how to ride a bike.

Also, far bigger than Harley-Davidson the Brand (whose sound the blind can recognise, according to a commercial) is the fact that the very idea of a bike is a deeply etched symbol of middle-class humility. Don’t forget that owning the lowly Rs 1 lakh Nano is the big aspiration of almost all Indian bikers. The Indian rich, for whom these fancy bikes are made, are not natural bikers. Even if some of them actually deign to ride bikes, they do so knowing it’s closer to suicide in Indian traffic than any of the pleasures of inspiring awe and respect promised in those American TV commercials.

That’s the reason why BMW had to pack up its superbikes in India as quickly as they had launched them. Harley-Davidson, at about Rs 7 lakh a set of wheels, would soon figure out why BMW had to flee. The Bullets and the Splendors could still succeed, but they cost nothing close to a mid-segment sedan. More importantly, contrary to popular belief, even in the US, Harley’s men are not tattooed junkies who shack out wherever they need a refill. They are usually successful men, high earners who hold regular jobs and obey time schedules. 

Recently, Harley’s Chief Operating Officer and President Matthew Levatich said with a smile in Delhi that he would like to know, “what India does with Harley-Davidson”. Does with Harley-Davidson? The answer is going to be complex, because Indian conditions are unique.

THE ROAD

When a brand that prides itself on the slogan, ‘The Freedom of the Open Road’, comes to a country which has obstacle courses instead, then you’re asking for a clash of civilisations. Harley’s India Managing Director Anoop Prakash himself says, “Roads in Delhi are unlike roads anywhere in the world.” That is the first challenge for would-be badass bikers.

The brand enters India at a time that its leisure market is at the cusp of expansion. Levatich has had something to say about the country’s rapidly increasing infrastructure (he means roads, presumably). But this is a country in which the filling of potholes with malba also qualifies as ‘infrastructure building’, major highway projects never seem to get anywhere, and road repairs are unheard of. Even with shock absorbers worthy of a warzone vehicle, the most intrepid of Harley riders would have his bones rattling for weeks after a cruise in Gurgaon, Haryana, for example. Also, Harleys are neither as nimble nor as compact as regular commuter bikes that can at least weave through the maze on the streets. Needless to say, trying that on a 750 cc plus Harley would be like teaching an elephant to tango.

Even if Union Minister Kamal Nath’s brave promises about road construction do materialise, and the country’s existing patchwork of roads becomes miraculously Harley-able, and you stop scraping the chrome on every speedbreaker (both concave as well as convex), the great Indian road sense will greatly traumatise the Harley rider. It’s true that Harley gets respect wherever it goes, as the brand proclaims in its exquisite ad campaign, but that’s in countries where everyone knows what a Harley is. In India, almost nobody does, that’s for sure. Just picture the experience. A pesky Hero Honda rider wouldn’t care less, gigantic SUVs will continue to terrorise bikers by blaring horns hard enough to blow their helmets off, and buses won’t be persuaded to give up their homicidal ways. Not to mention the risk of paan splatter from a blissful bus window high above your bike. It would make quite a YouTube clip, that.

THE BIKER

‘Hey Asshole, shouts one of the 17,000 riders on the Love Run. Hey Asshole, he shouts again and everyone there turns around. Us Harley riders know when our name is being called.’

So writes Barbara Joans in her book Bike Lust: Harleys, Women and American Society.

True to what she says, the biker (according to Harley folklore, there are just two kinds of vehicles in the world, Harleys and cages) was supposed to be someone who refuses to comply. He’s a drifter, a lone ranger, a rebel, an outlaw—there’s an element of myth about him. He may or may not break laws, but he sure makes his own rules, clears his own path, wears leather, sports tattoos and wonders what sort of wimps use shaving cream on the face.

Unfortunately, the rider who makes his bike ‘the cornerstone of his identity’, as Daniel Wolf writes in The Rebels, has vanished even in America. He has vroomed off the screen, only to be located in the annals of motoring legend.

He has been gone awhile. Things began to change in the 1980s, when the original leather-clad biker gangs of Hell’s Angels vintage were replaced with well-shaven pinstriped executives who wanted to get in touch with their inner selves on weekends after spending the whole week in a cage (… er, cubicle). The original greasy lot, of course, snorted in dismissal. To them, these were the pretenders, pseudo-bikers. But Harley-Davidson had found its new target group: rich yuppies yearning for the freedom their lucre-lavishing jobs could not give them.

Suddenly, the frame of reference changed. But is anything of the sort even vaguely possible in India? The company may be in for some surprises. John Leo McEnaney, Harley’s Southeast Asia service operations area representative, insists that Harley should fit into India well because India has a strong biking culture. If he is talking about some sad punks who rev up on the roads and consider it a testosterone boost, he is in for a sales chart shock.

It’s true that leisure biking does have something of a market in India, and it’s expanding too. And there are many who want the adrenaline rush of a Harley ride. But for most, it’s a brand better left on the arm-patch of a leather jacket in a mustard field—to the sound of soppy cinema rather than a rugged V-shaped engine.

HIGHWAY STAR

The only practical way to be a highway star in India would be to ride the bike as part of a motorcade. One huge SUV at the back to keep those buses from running you off the road, one alongside carrying a team of mechanics, and another up in front to actually clear the way while the Harley’s brand reputation remains a work-in-progress. You see, the Harley doesn’t have a cow bar or nudge guard, and the cattle owners of India are the least likely to have developed the respect it must command.

In fact, Harley got a taste of this on its inaugural ride in Delhi, when the bikers encountered not one but several cows on the road. Anoop Prakash, though, remains optimistic about the bike’s prospects. “Don’t worry about cattle on the highways,” he says, “we have beasts. There were several cows on the road today but we managed just fine without even hitting one.”

THE HELMET

As must be evident to anyone reading this by now, Harley owners hate cars. The authentic American freedom machine is supposed to be ridden the authentic way, with the wind in your hair and your mind in the air. A skull cap or bandanna might just about make the cut, but helmets? Those clunkers are for knuckleheads who just don’t get it... right? Again, Harley may be in for some surprises here. Given the traffic conditions, a helmet is not a brain cage as much as a life saver. So, expect to see full-faced helmets on two wheels. There can’t be a funnier sight—a Harley rider in a helmet.

But then, that’s India. If the wheels are dangerous, let the head be kept safely out of reckless harm’s way. It’s a classic Indian compromise, the sort mothers have always enforced. This is a land of family people. All mothers share a common fear of bikes, and a decision to take a two-wheeled monster instead of a safe four-wheeled enclosure cannot be taken without some classic Indian melodrama to accompany it. Mothers have been known to deny themselves food for much less. In all this, to the extent that a helmet acts as a sound reassurance device, you can bet a Harley biker—even one who only wants to go out and sing in the fields—cannot leave home without one.

THE MANAGEMENT

So, what are the men who run Harley-Davidson thinking? The 40-plus CEOs who buy bikes for  weekend cruises are not exactly a roaring market, though nicer highways could conceivably make them one. The younger lot just wouldn’t have the money—unless of course it’s dad’s money, but then that demands parental acquiescence in the acquisition (see ‘melodrama’ problem above).

Okay. The point is it’s going to be tough for Harley in India. But the company is holding its nerve. As Levatich exults, “Whether it is in the snow or pouring sun… no Harley ride is a bad Harley Ride.” It’s the sort of attitude that reminds one of Harley’s recession ad campaign: ‘Over the last 105 years in the saddle, we’ve seen wars, conflicts, depression, recession, resistance and revolutions. We’ve watched a thousand hand-wringing pundits disappear in our rear-view mirror… because chrome and asphalt put distance between you and whatever the world can throw at you.’ Unless, of course, you are riding through Western Uttar Pradesh around Holi season, and cow dung comes hurling in your direction. It’s not just for your mother you’d rather wear a helmet. Freeing your mind n’ all can always be done off road.