Rather than launching its new product, the 1200 Custom wide-shouldered cruiser, at the Auto Expo, the cult American motorcycle company Harley-Davidson has instead chosen a media ride in Rajasthan for the launch, a few days before the Expo. “The 1200 Custom will be assembled at our Bawal plant in Haryana. With this, we’ve expanded our portfolio of CKD (complete knockdown) models to eight motorcycles and a total of 13,” says Vikram Pawah, the new managing director, over breakfast at the Suryagarh, a palace hotel near Jaisalmer, Rajasthan.
The buffet consists of local delicacies. Among other items, there is dal pakwan—a thin wafer topped with spices, chopped veggies and thick dal (cooked lentils)—which is essentially a Sindhi version of ultra-thin-crust pizza.
We are a group of 15-odd journalists who are riding different Harley bikes to Jodhpur, a city 300-km away. Pawah chooses the big one—the Heritage Softail Classic—while I decide to ride astride the Street 750, the smallest Harley available in India.
“I have been a motorcycle enthusiast since my college days. I feel comfortable around people who share that passion of motorcycling,” Pawah says as we set on an almost day-long journey.
Earlier, Pawah has worked in industries ranging from food processing, consumer durables and automobiles. Over the last 21 years, he was associated with Honda Cars India and worked in India and Australia. In September 2015, he joined Harley-Davidson India.
We stop for lunch at Fort Pokaran—a sprawling hotel in a converted 14th-century citadel in Pokaran, a town which served as the test site for India’s first underground nuclear weapon detonation in 1974. It ia a simple fare of roti, dal, mixed vegetables and chicken. We fill our plates.
Harley-Davidson India commenced operations in August 2009 and opened its first dealership in July 2010. Until now, it had sold over 12,000 units. Today, it is the top premium motorcycle company in India, with a 65.79% market share, according to SIAM data. Its chief competitors are Triumph and Indian; some superbikes offered by Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha also indirectly compete with Harley bikes.
“For us, growth is not just about units sold or market-share,” Pawah says. “What’s important is how we reach out to our customers. By end-2015, we had expanded our reach to 20 dealership points. We are entering tier-2 cities and have recently opened dealerships in Lucknow, Calicut and Nagpur. Soon, we are entering Coimbatore. For a customer, the accessibility to the company and the affordability of our motorcycles is getting better in smaller cities. That’s what growth means to us.”
Companies, before entering a new region, generally carry out a market study to see if growing in that area would be profitable or not. Harley, Pawah says, has a slightly different approach.
“As the Harley community grows in a particular region and if we aren’t present there, we decide to expand into that area. As we set up ourselves, the first thing we do is a Founders’ Ride—all existing customers from that area get together and ride around town, to declare that Harley-Davidson has arrived. In fact, with our dealer partners—most of whom are active riders—or even within the company, what we discuss is are we ensuring customers have enough avenues for experiencing the product, are we creating ample platforms for them to engage with each other, are they living their dream of riding a motorcycle and so on.”
Harley motorcycles are priced from R4.5 lakh to over R25 lakh. So for people to live their dream, they need money in their pockets too.
“I agree. But I must add that our target audience is not defined by age, demography, income levels or sex. It is defined by mindset. We have a wide array of customers—from young 20-year-olds to 60-plus, from middle-class to the rich, men and women. For example, in Lucknow, I met a customer who is an Army doctor and is the first lady Harley rider of the region,” Pawah smiles.
A ‘wide array of customers’ comes to the Auto Expo too, which opens to the public from February 5-9. And despite the fact that during the previous Expo the Street 750 was among the biggest hits, Harley is not participating this year. One of the reasons could be the rising cost of participating in the five-day event. Pawah differs.
“We want our customers to experience the Harley culture. This time, we felt that rather than participating in the Expo, we must focus more on customer rides and on the HOG (Harley-Davidson Owners Group) rallies we organise. For us, it is important to decide what format to use to expose our brand to customers. We feel that, in today’s scenario, an experiential event is a better platform to promote our products,” he explains.
Globally, HOG—the company-sponsored community marketing club—contributes a lot towards Harley’s growth. An integral part of the organisation, HOG is formed by people who own these motorcycles. There are some benefits—all HOG members enjoy a free entry to the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, US. In India, members can get reserved seats at several fine dining restaurants.
“It is the HOG where the Harley culture of brotherhood is nurtured. I am proud that there are over 6,000 HOG members in India already. A few weeks from now we will have the biggest-ever Indian HOG rally in Goa. I am looking forward to meeting my customers there,” Pawah adds.
But the question remains, who drives HOG in India?
“More than the company, HOG is driven by dealer partners and customers. Whatever investment is required from us to support that community, we contribute,” he explains.
On the second leg of our ride, Pawah chooses the 1690cc Road King. I stick to Street 750, which I find is a fine piece of American engineering on Indian roads. Jodhpur is 170-km away. A four-hour ride brings us to the outskirts, where we assemble. In a matter of minutes, the 15-odd Harley bikes parked together are the cynosure of the highway crowd. Everyone wants to know the prices.
Is a Harley motorcycle sold in the typical auto sales way—giving customers a test ride and following up with them when they want to buy it? Pawah disagrees.
“We give prospective customers a long test ride, then we invite them to the Sunday morning rides that all our dealers organise, essentially taking them through the Harley culture. When they feel comfortable, we encourage them to join the community. Our focus area is how much more customer experiences can we create; sales numbers are a by-product,” he explains.
“Be it any industry—four-wheelers, two-wheelers, consumer durables—it is the customer who drives the organisation. So as long as you are listening to your customers, you are engaging with them, you will be in a good position to serve them, and grow,” he adds.
At R4.52 lakh, the Street 750 I am riding is India’s most affordable Harley. Because it is relatively inexpensive, people don’t have to ‘wait’ till they have earned enough money to buy a Harley. The Street 750, it appears, is making it easier for people to enter the Harley family.
Pawah explains that while the company will continue to invest in the Street platform, Harley-Davidson is not defined by the product, but by the culture it portrays. “There can be a customer who can ‘afford’ a Fat Boy, but would want to buy and ride the Forty Eight, because the latter is more suited to his/her personality.”
Globally, the Street 750 has a younger sibling, the Street 500. Launching that in India would make it even more easier for people to enter the Harley family. “There are no plans, as of now, to launch the Street 500 in India,” he says.
As we enter Jodhpur city, there are mobile phone camera flashes all around. People on bikes and cars are following us to check out our machines. Numbers swell. Pawah, it appears, is now used to the attention. The thought “this is our Expo” must have crossed his mind several times.