Why September is American Boomer Wheels Month
This September, car-makers are turning, eager-eyed, to Frankfurt, Germany, home of the world’s largest auto show.
In 2014, Americans aged fifty and over bought 6.9 million passenger vehicles, half (49%) of the national non-fleet total, and way more than Germany (3 million) and the UK (2.5 million) combined.
So we observe American Boomer Wheels Month by urging smarter, more profitable engagement in the 50+ space.
Conformists, fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Motorcycles: left brain basics
We the people love our wheels; they symbolize far more than just personal transportation.
Nowhere in the American automotive arena is the power of symbolism stronger than in the motorcycle market, where most bikes satisfy emotional wants, not utility-driven needs.
There are currently 8.5 to 9 million motorcycles registered in the United States, heavily outnumbered by 260 million cars, vans, SUVs, cross-overs and pickup trucks (industry and government sources).
But, unlike automobiles, only 4% of the motorcycle fleet is used for regular transportation/commuting (U.S. Census Bureau, 2009). Street bikes are mostly toys for boys.
Especially older boys: 90% of registered owners are male (Motorcycle Industry Council/MIC), and J.D. Power reports the median new bike buyer is aged 47 years, up from 40 in 2001.
In 2014, 69% of new motorcycle sales were street bikes, almost all (94%) over 600cc. Off-road (17%), dual sport (7%) and scooters (7%) round out the total.
Harley-Davidson dominated the market, with a 52% share; Honda, Kawasaki and Yamaha each took around 10% – leaving less than 20% for 2nd tier and specialty brands (Source: Robin Farley/UBS, hat tip Daniel Beulah, MarketingSherpa).
Motorcycles: driven by Boomer-world culture
During the Boomers’ formative years, mirroring the Western movies and TV shows of the day, three main tribes ruled the motorcycle landscape. They created enduring imagery.
Brooding with social angst or pillaging small towns in the heartland, rebels and misfits both had Hollywood appeal. Who could forget, even if one wanted to, badass biker flicks like The Wild One, Wild Angels, Easy Rider and a slew of politically incorrect spin-offs?
We drivers behaved ourselves around them, always happier to see the sheriff ride off into the sunset than into our rear view mirrors.
They rode small displacement buzzy little bikes to the lake or the beach – think Disney’s Annette Funicello – and sped around campus having good clean fun. They sometimes kicked sand, but almost never pillaged.
But Boomer culture doesn’t stand still. Fast forward a few decades and we had pushed the industry to offer an incredible product range.
Boomers now tore around the back country on dirt bikes, zoomed the highways on mind-blowing performance machines and glided the interstates sheathed in more plastic than a Star Wars imperial trooper.
Atop the food chain, successful Boomer dentists, lawyers and ad agency execs straddled pricey hogs outside grungy bars, going for that old school bad boy look. Harley-Davidson had created its own category and a uniquely American design language that Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha and Suzuki worked hard to master. Even BMW tried – albeit in impeccable Hochdeutsch.
Motorcycle sales tumble
By the early 2000s the industry was living high on the – um – hog.
While automobile sales remained fairly stable in a narrow range, motorcycle demand exploded. From 710,000 in 2000, sales roared to over a million by 2003, peaking in 2006 at 1,1190,000 units, triple the early 1990s level (MIC data).
What could possibly go wrong?
In the depth of the slump, bike and automobile sales were down about 40% versus 2000. By 2014, auto sales had recovered to 95% of the 2000 level, but motorcycles lagged, still off by 32%.
That’s as good as one can spin the data; reality is even more painful.
Comparisons with 2000 hide the fact that motorcycle demand didn’t peak then, but grew over 50% through 2005-7. When the market finally bottomed out in 2011 it had lost 63% of sales versus its 2006 high; by 2014, unit sales were still down 59%.
Boomers to the rescue – if invited
Today, motorcycle marketers face a dilemma; Boomer men – the over-fifty crowd – account for almost half the volume. As noted, J. D. Power puts the median buyer age at 47; Harley admits to the same and is on record as searching for ways to reach beyond the brand core to younger buyers and women.
But unlike the typical CEO, Harley’s new boss Matt Levatich also recognizes the importance of openly – key word: openly – targeting Boomers (James R. Hagerty, The Wall Street Journal). He’s fifty himself; that helps.
It’s a refreshing difference from what we usually hear from auto execs; stripped of corporate-speak it comes down to ” We need their money, but Boomers aren’t cool; and even our smart ad agency kids don’t know how to speak to old-timers.”
Reality time: it’s not about generations, it’s about money. The recession thoroughly beat up Millennials. Burdened by college debt, struggling to find decent-paying jobs and start households, pricey new toys aren’t on the horizon right now.
However, Boomers and their big sisters/brothers born 1940-1945. aka the Boomer-Plus Generation™ is 93 million strong and owns 70% of U.S. household net worth. With median new motorcycle buyer incomes north of $80,000 (J. D. Power) it makes real good sense to actively engage us, not just tolerate us.