Why Harley Is Showing Its Feminine Side

On a stormy Tuesday night in late September, Linda "Jo" Giovannoni was busy making preparations for a women-only "garage party" at the Palatine (Ill.) dealership of Harley-Davidson, a company best known for its big motorcycles that appeal primarily to aging white males. That evening Giovannoni, marketing director at the suburban Chicago dealership and a co-founder of Harley Women magazine, was out to change that perception among the dozen or so women who showed up to share snacks, overcome fears, and talk cycling. Giovannoni led the women on a tour of the showroom, crowded with $15,000 bikes, and gave them advice on essentials such as how to fit a helmet and the proper accessories to customize their rides. One partygoer, 55-year-old Jo-Ellen Douglas, had ridden with her husband for years. "I was just happy to be on the back," she said. "Now I've decided it's my turn."

Harley, still reeling from the weak economy, has increased female-targeted marketing this year to attract more would-be riders like Douglas. In July it introduced the $8,000 SuperLow, designed to appeal to women and first-time riders. The SuperLow has the lowest seat in Harley's 32-bike lineup, making it easier to ride, and it's 150 pounds lighter than a typical Harley.

A bike more suited to women is something Harley customers have long been asking for. Chief Executive Officer Keith Wandell saw that firsthand at a riders event in Orlando on his first day on the job in May 2009. "Ten questions were asked and nine of them were from women, and all of them were really asking the same thing: When are you going to design a bike that's more suitable for women riders?" Wandell recalls.

The company certainly needs additional sources of growth. New motorcycle registrations have fallen 41 percent since 2007 overall and 36 percent for Harley. The company's production has sunk to 2001 levels. And about a fifth of the bikes Harley ships today are Sportsters, the smaller, less expensive (and less profitable) models. To help address declining volume and product margins, Wandell spent his first 19 months in office reworking labor contracts at Harley's plants. The new agreements give new employees fewer benefits and let the company add and cut workers based on demand. Wandell also got rid of non-Harley bike brands such as MV Agusta and Buell to focus on its namesake icon, which traces its roots to 1901.

Women riders now represent about 12 percent of Harley sales compared with 2 percent in 1995. The brand also has a 53 percentage-point market-share lead among female riders and has the leading share for people aged 18 to 34, Hispanics, and African-Americans, other groups it's courting, the company says, citing researcher R.L. Polk's data.

Harley-Davidson has 47 percent of the U.S. market share for on-road motorcycles through July, a one percentage point increase from last year, according to Polk. Kawasaki Motors is second, with 14 percent.

To help attract women, Harley in 2008 hired Marisa Miller, who has modeled for Victoria's Secret and Sports Illustrated's swimsuit edition, as a spokesperson. In addition to appealing to men, Miller, whose riding skills can be seen on YouTube, helps Harley draw female riders, Wandell says. "It says, look, this is real stuff," he says. "A lot of women ride bikes, and here's a Victoria's Secret supermodel riding bikes and doing burnouts. It was strictly intended to send that message." The marketing effort, part of a doubling of spending since 2007, complements the introduction of the SuperLow, which, in addition to black and other traditional Harley colors, comes in Merlot Sunglo.

Harley and its dealers are also working to overcome some women's apprehension about safety. A few evenings a year, many of Harley's 650 U.S. dealers close their stores to men and hold women-only parties where staffers try to demystify a 700-pound motorcycle. The company held about 500 such events in March, attracting 27,000 women, 11,000 of whom were in a Harley dealership for the first time. The company says it sold 3,000 bikes from the events that month.

Turning age 50 brought Joanne DeGennaro, an office administrator for an orthopedic surgeons' group, to Giovannoni's garage party near Chicago last month for her first time on a bike. "I had been conservative and in a career where I've seen very bad injuries from these types of things," she said. "I have no idea what I'm doing. I mean the weight of it just intimidates me, you know?"

That night, however, she was able to sit on one of Harley's smaller bikes, a Sportster, with salesman Mike Parth showing her that it's easier to lift the 550-pound bike off its kickstand by turning the front wheel to the right. She said she now plans to sign up for Harley-Davidson's training class and get her license. "Considering the type of work I'm in, I'm apprehensive because I see the gooey stuff that we fix from these accidents," she said. "But I just decided, you know what, I've got to start living for myself."

The bottom line: With motorcycle sales in a slump, Harley-Davidson is boosting its efforts to attract more female riders.

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