Despite paltry annual sales and a customer base that couldn’t fill a high school gym, Indian Motorcycle—America’s oldest bike brand—gets a lot of love from its $3.2 billion-a-year parent. Since buying Indian two years ago, Polaris Industries Chief Executive Officer Scott Wine has posed on classic bikes, promoted Indian’s mobile app, and even donned one of its jackets in the 2012 annual report. “The heritage of this brand is phenomenal,” Wine says.
The question is whether he can leverage that heritage to create a viable competitor for Harley-Davidson. Others have tried, including Polaris. The company, a big maker of snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, launched its Victory bike line 15 years ago. While Victory makes up most of Polaris’s on-road vehicles unit, which grew 64 percent to $240 million in sales last year, that’s a fraction of Harley’s $5.6 billion. Now Polaris hopes to win over Harley fans with a 112-year-old motorcycle brand that’s faded under multiple owners since the 1950s.
Polaris began revving up the hype well in advance of the redesigned bikes’ debut this summer. After months of talking about Indian’s heritage, in December Polaris released a teaser audio clip of the deep, throaty V-Twin that will power the new line. In early March, it unveiled details of the 111-cubic-inch engine. Indian has also signed up a celebrity pitchman, Mike Wolfe, host of History channel’s hit American Pickers. Photos of the bike have yet to be shown.
Such a drawn-out debut is unusual for Polaris, which Raymond James analyst Joseph Hovorka says has traditionally been “an engineering-focused company … so marketing comes second.” In snowmobiles and off-road vehicles, where it’s a market leader, new products often appear within weeks of being announced—avoiding a sales slowdown in older models. But by pulling out the marketing stops for the Indian debut months in advance, Polaris hopes bikers will hold off buying a new Harley.
The Indian name boasts a rich heritage, from the elegant styling that inspired carmaker E. Paul duPont in 1930 to convert his entire production line to the motorcycle, to the 1920 Indian Scout Burt Munro rode to set a land-speed record in 1967. But it’s a relic of an earlier time, much like Pullman or Pan Am. Those who do know it are used to years of false starts; those who don’t might wonder about a brand that boasts an American Indian headdress as its logo. “When you’re bringing back iconic names, you’ve got to retain the style cues—the Indian script logo, the Indian-red color option—while updating the overall bike,” says Steven Menneto, Polaris’s vice president of motorcycles. “It has to be the best blend of old and new.”
Yet making faster, lighter, and cheaper bikes that play off a classic look will only work if Indian can get on the radar screen of bike buyers. “We have to let people reconnect with this brand,” says Rob Hagemann of Indian’s ad agency Colle+McVoy. Along with print and online ads, Polaris’s marketing team has plied dealers with trinkets and hit motorcycle rallies and trade shows with busty young women extolling the bikes’ virtues. The goal: to emphasize Indian’s authenticity. As Interbrand’s New York chief Josh Feldmeth argues, that’s something Harley already has. “Everyone in that company understands the essence of a Harley customer,” says Feldmeth. “It’s hard to replicate.”
Polaris learned that the hard way with Victory. Although once cast as a homegrown alternative to Harley, it lacked the mystique or marketing muscle of the leader. Instead, it’s grown to almost 5 percent of the heavyweight bike market by stealing business from Japan’s floundering players—Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, and Suzuki. With Indian, Polaris finally has something to offer Harley customers: provenance. And the interloper seems happy to take a page from its larger rival’s playbook. “We have great respect for Harley,” Wine says. “Now, there’s the choice of another iconic American brand.”