Harley-Davidson’s Anoop Prakash on attracting the next generation of riders

The new managing director of Harley-Davidson Canada on how he plans to sell the dream of the open road to a whole new market

Harley-Davidson Canada managing director Anoop Prakash

Harley-Davidson Canada managing director Anoop Prakash. (Portrait by Thomas Dagg)

When Harley-Davidson Motor Co. entered India in 2009, it hired Anoop Prakash to spearhead the expansion. Sure, he wasn’t a motorcycle expert, but with a career that spans the U.S. Marine Corps., McKinsey & Co., LexisNexis, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Prakash had the business and management chops. Harley-Davidson now dominates the premium motorcycle market in India. Prakash’s next challenge is to bolster the company’s presence in Canada, where sales are down nearly 4% year-over-year. Harley-Davidson has relied on the strength of its brand for too long and has to engage new customers.

Harley-Davidson hasn’t had a subsidiary in Canada for decades, and the company just set up a Canadian headquarters in August. Why is that?

We’ve been in Canada for 98 years, but in 1973 we appointed a distributor in Canada, Deeley Harley-Davidson, and it handled the market for 42 years. But there are a couple of things going on now. Globally, we’ve been slowly moving distributors out and our own subsidiaries in. We’ve realized we can do a lot better when we’re in the country. We can think longer term and develop the brand. Distributors have agreements that are renewed every three to five years. When you’re thinking that way, it’s about maximizing volumes and profits. That was always the struggle with distributors who were great on the ground, but weren’t great at investing in marketing. In Canada, now’s the time to do the hand-off, when we need more emphasis on the younger adult population and the immigrant population. We weren’t speaking to those groups.

Harley-Davidson, globally, has been accused of resting on its laurels for the past few years while the competition has intensified. Is that a fair assessment?

Yeah, the one thing that’s galvanized this change of strategy globally is that we’re seeing small dents in our market share. We continue to enjoy a leadership position in many markets, but it’s been softening. We take that very personally. It means that somebody who already knows how to ride and has a licence is choosing a motorcycle that’s not a Harley. That’s where we need to step up our game.

What’s your first priority now that you’re here?

We’ve already launched our 2016 model motorcycles and reduced our pricing to be competitive. It’s the first time we’ve achieved parity with U.S. pricing. That helps take care of a long-standing problem, and the only way it could be managed was if we hedged the currency as a global company. That’s the other factor that accelerated our entry here, actually. The way the Canadian dollar was moving over the past year, the distributor was under a lot of pressure to keep increasing prices, and we felt that was not the right way to go because it was making us less competitive.

You mentioned the need to attract younger customers, too. How do you define “young”?

That’s 25 to 35, and it’s someone living in an urban area, who could buy a car but chooses not to because it’s not conducive to the urban lifestyle. We’ve actually spent a lot of time speaking to young adults all over the world—almost 10,000 of them from across Asia, Europe and North America. They admired the brand but were concerned about when they would be able to get into it. That “when” was far out into the future.

Right, so it’s something they might consider at 50.

Yeah, riding might be on your bucket list. The “a-ha!” moment for us was asking: If you had a Harley today, what would it look like? There were a lot of things around manoeuvrability; it had to be lighter and have quick acceleration to pop in and out of traffic in the city. All of this led to our Street series, released last year, and it’s been the fastest-growing motorcycle for Harley out of the gate. Most of the people coming to it are new to Harley and new to motorcycling, period. The challenge is to let the market know what we’re doing.

How are you going to do that here?

We have to be more present in cities. In Toronto, we only really have two dealerships, and it’s similar in Vancouver and Montreal. Second, we have to develop experiences for people to be exposed to the lifestyle. One thing we did with great success in India when I was running the division was to partner with Rolling Stone to develop music events featuring independent Indian rock bands and expose people to the Harley lifestyle that way. We do that really well in the U.S. through the X Games and the SXSW festival. In Canada, we have to go where young adults are instead of expecting them to find us.

Do young Canadians perceive the brand as cool? Or do they associate it with grey-bearded guys wearing bandanas and Confederate flag patches?

It troubles me that you’re coming up with these images.

I might be exaggerating a little.

Anecdotally, we know there are some perception challenges. No one knows how affordable our models are these days, that you can get onto a Harley for less than $13,000. There’s this marketing word, “activation.” I love that word, because that’s what we’re trying to do with the great assets we have—the brand, the pricing, the product and the dealer network. We have to activate them to the right audiences, though. For example, there’s a lot of excitement around motorcycling with South Asian and East Asian communities here in particular, for example. We haven’t invited them in. But already, having only been here a few months, we’ve been contacted by some of the local South Asian press because they want to hear about what we’re doing.

You actually launched Harley in India in 2009. Was there much brand recognition there?

There was. In the early days, people knew Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator sitting on a Fat Boy. And they knew Steve Austin riding a Harley from a syndicated version of the WWE. Everyone knew Harley as the granddaddy of motorcycling, but there was a low degree of relevance for them. The market there is dominated by commuter motorcycling, and that’s a commodity market. People had a lot of questions. Where do I ride this thing? Is it heavy? Do I need to be six-foot-five? So we had to demonstrate. The day we announced we were coming into India, we did a ride through Delhi, and it was covered everywhere. People had never seen such big motorcycles on Indian roads before, and we were able to show people that Harley is the perfect match for Indian roads.

So you didn’t have to change the models for India in any way?

One thing we had to redesign was the horn. It wore out faster in India than anywhere else. When you ride in India, you’re constantly on the horn just to give people a sense that you’re coming up behind them. The other nuance was that any bike coming out of a factory with two seats has to be equipped with a sari guard. Typically, the rear seat is for the woman in the family. She’ll ride sidesaddle, and that guard has to stop her sari and the rear wheel from interacting.

Getting back to brand building, what else did you do besides rides?

We made a lot of effort to make sure people knew who Harley owners are. For some people, increasing relevance means knowing your neighbour is a Harley owner. We did a lot of profiling of our customers, and put them out front, through advertising and marketing, because they’re our best ambassadors. Even before we arrived, there were a few dozen Harley owners across the country who imported their bikes, and they were well-known. If you’re one of the few guys in a city who owns a Harley, people are going to see that as a status symbol.

So it sounds like you avoided celebrity endorsements.

Yeah, a lot of people ask about whether we got Bollywood actors and cricket players to go out and ride Harleys. We did not do that. That would be inauthentic. If you’re trying to develop a brand around authenticity and independence, then you’re not going to pay people to ride your motorcycle.

I read that you’d never ridden a motorcycle before joining the company. You weren’t a motorcycle buff?

No, not at all.

Did that question come up in your job interview?

[Laughs] Well, they wanted someone who could operate in the Indian environment and would be able to translate the brand and understand its roots. I grew up in the Midwest, where Harley is headquartered, so I understood the values of the company. And, having served in the Marines, a bunch of my fellow officers had Harleys. So I got to be around them a lot.