“I was researching a character for a novel who I wanted to be a motorcycle rider,”Bernadette Murphy tells me. “In order to do that accurately, I felt like I should know what it’s like to be on a motorcycle.”
A creative writing professor at Antioch University in Los Angeles, Murphy had never actually hopped on a hog. But when she heard about Harley Davidson’s garage parties, she knew it was something she wanted to do in the name of research — at least initially.
There are probably few brands that conjure up more testosterone-fueled images thanHarley-Davidson. But these days Harley wants to extend its brand beyond “Easy Rider” to include a broader demographic, namely, women.
The company places the emphasis on its outreach at the dealership level. Local sellers have taken to holding what the brand calls ” garage parties” — after-hours, no-sales-pressure events to expose women to the fundamentals of riding. One such lesson might include how to properly reposition a heavy bike if it has fallen over. Other conversations might include overviews of motorcycle controls, licensing, bike fitment and what gear and apparel someone would need to get started.
“As a woman, if I do something that looks scary or something you assume a man should be doing, I find all this inner strength that helps me do all the other intimidating things I want to do,” saysMurphy.
After the garage party piqued Murphy‘s interest, she signed up for Harley’s “Jumpstart,” which allows a potential rider to learn how to fire up the engine and shift gears while on a stationary platform.
“Riding was like the feeling of flying or even ice dancing. It was so euphoric,” Murphy says. “It opened up a whole new world to me; one I didn’t know I would be interested in.”
By then, she was hooked. She signed up for the company’s Riding Academy, which teaches approximately 10,000 potential buyers a year how to ride.
“We’ve been doing the ladies’ garage parties for at least five years now,” says Emily Shokouh, part-owner of Harley-Davidson of Glendale in California. “They’ve really gained momentum. Women feel a lot more comfortable not having men around and they can ask honest questions.”
The garage parties are free and offer dinner along with a fun social atmosphere. And while there is no pressure to buy, the goal is to breed enough familiarity with the Harley-Davidson brand to bring the women in as consumers.
“It’s about building confidence,” says Shokouh. “It’s the main thing that keeps women away from riding.”
“We’ve been reaching out to women for decades,” says Claudia Garber, director of market research at Harley-Davidson. “But it’s been in the last decade that we’ve it dialed up.”
Currently, in the U.S., almost 12 percent of motorcycle owners are now women, per an estimate from the Motorcycle Industry Council. That’s an increase of almost 30 percent over the past 10 years.
And it appears that female riders are overall, satisfied customers. According to a study conducted by Kelton and commissioned by Harley-Davidson, women riders are more than twice as likely to “always feel happy” (37 percent of riders vs. 16 percent of non-riders) and more than a third (34 percent) reported that they felt less stressed after starting to ride. Almost four times as many describe themselves as “always feeling sexy” (27 percent of riders vs. 7 percent of non-riders) and nearly twice as many “always feel confident” (35 percent of riders vs. 18 percent of non-riders).
Harley-Davidson is the top-selling motorcycle brand among women in the U.S. and its appeal is boosting its bottom line. According to Road Racing World, in April, the company reported its first-quarter net income was $265.9 million on consolidated revenue of $1.73 billion, compared to a net income of $224.1 million the prior year on consolidated revenue of $1.57 billion.
The company sold more new on-road motorcycles to women in the U.S. than all other brands combined in 2013, in large part due to the events it holds and the community it creates around familiarizing women with its brand.
“Women are buying all of the models that Harley makes,” says Garber. “We don’t pigeonhole certain models for women. It’s about self-selecting what’s right for you.”
Safety is a primary concern for many women who might be considering starting to ride. Others have simply never even sat on a bike and need to be taught the basics, just like they were driving a car for the first time.
“It’s not about segregating women,” says Garber of the company’s female-driven initiatives. “It’s about addressing the intimidation factor.”
Shokouh observed that some of the women who take classes through Harley-Davidson then moved over to competing brands like Honda due to the smaller sizes of their bikes. She thinks that now that Harley-Davidson has introduced the smaller Street 500 and Street 750, her dealership will have an uptick in sales to women.
“I think we’ll see more of them jump right into the Harley-Davidson brand,” says Shokouh.
Which is exactly what Murphy did. She was so taken with riding that eventually she took a 16-day cross country road trip on her Sportster Iron 883. Murphy‘s journey into becoming a rider will be chronicled in her fourth book, “Look, Lean, Roll: A Woman, a Motorcycle and a Plunge into Mid-Life Risk.”
“Road trips are something women are not encouraged to do,” says Murphy. “There’s a real lack of positive female road trip narratives. You have stories like ‘Thelma and Louise,’ but those women always end up dead.”
Murphy‘s book title is in reference to the often counterintuitive feel of leaning into a turn on a motorcycle, almost to the point where a rider thinks she might fall.
“The book is about women who want a more expansive life,” says Murphy. “You have to lean into life because that’s where the exciting things happen.”
Gina Hall is a Los Angeles-based writer and producer with more than 10 years experience in television, documentary and feature film production. She is a graduate of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and blogs for the Huffington Post at huffingtonpost.com/gina-hall
Source: Gina Hall