Why Harley-Davidson has to risk spinning LiveWire into its own separate brand

Why the move to relaunch the LiveWire under its own brand may not necessarily mean a bright future ahead for the anomalous electric Harley-Davidson

LiveWire Relaunch

The Harley-Davidson LiveWire, as a project, is a curious beast that traces a fine line between two seemingly paradoxical, but actually very intertwined, viewpoints in that it is both a bold change of approach that shows innovative vigour and a bold change of approach that is vigorously misguided

Companies developing any significant product - ie. one you will have for an extended period of time - will know this dilemma well. Do you develop products inside the box for consumers you already have to keep the profit margins ticking over or do you step outside the box without really knowing if there is anyone out there waiting for you.

Get it right, you’re an innovator. Get it wrong, you’ve abandoned your loyalists. There are as many examples for the former and there are for the latter.

Harley-Davidson LiveWire (2020) Review | UK Road Test | Visordown.com

That isn’t the issue though - after all, where would we be without those that made leaps of faith because even if they failed, they at least set a chain of events into motion. Instead, it is what you do next that matters, the true moment for pledging allegiance to a future in which you keep adapting or commit to what you know. 

Which brings us to Harley-Davidson, a company more than any other wedged between the two camps. 

It’s not known as a go-to for radical thinking per se but it did radicalise its strategy a few years ago with a plan to dive into markets it hasn’t tried yet - ADV, Asia - and, most surprising, create an electric motorcycle at a time when such a market didn’t exist and was squared up to an audience base that doesn’t just ignore electric, but will actively berate it.

Really the Harley-Davidson Pan America should have been sufficient for it to claim it has modernised its thinking but it’s very obvious this and the LiveWire are the results of the old guard, decisions Harley ‘under new management’ probably wouldn’t have made. But that’s just business.

Does the past hold the key to the future of Harley-Davidson? 

Indeed, H-D is both boosted and paralysed by its history, where nostalgia and image continue to sell enough motorcycles even know we all know relying on your past to sell your present doesn’t guarantee the future.

This was the clear view of the old management structure, who concluded moving into new territories and segments was the answer. But while he LiveWire garnered plenty of attention, it’s certainly not a game-changer for the market it is in, much less Harley-Davidson.

Harley has seen this occur already with sliding profits and sales prompting a major boardroom shift and the installation of Jochen Zeitz as CEO.

Cue the old bosses getting the heave-ho and the implementation of the ‘Hardwire’ strategy, the brainchild of new CEO Jochen Zeitz. His message goes back to some basics by massaging the current customers Harley has while more subtly engaging with new audiences. It’s not a long-term strategy necessarily, but such was the length of H-D’s slump, a short-term win is just fine here.

It has led to Harley-Davidson to pull of a major - if not unsurprising - move in spinning off the LiveWire into a separate brand.

By unshackling the LiveWire from the rest of the range it gives Harley-Davidson’s electric ambitions an opportunity to forge a path to the new audiences it is aiming for while unladen from the somewhat confusing antithese of its fellow H-D models. Meanwhile, this also allows H-D to not feel like its presenting opposing arguments to its customers when you have a planet-saving LiveWire parked up next to a thirsty Electra Glide.

You can certainly envisage the process that led to the LiveWire getting the green light and - if you like bold strategic decisions - this is a humdinger in that it made a company famed for big, booming bikes tracing a silhouette that hasn’t changed much in decades, not only make a smaller bike - which is major in itself - but commit it to electric for a market that, though growing, still doesn’t exist some two years after it went on sale.

We admire the LiveWire for what it represents. It is to date the best all-electric motorcycle you can buy, it does what it is claimed to do, handles better than any other electric motorcycles and it has carved a very interesting niche... albeit one that isn't just different from Harley-Davidson's heritage, but barely recognisable were it not for the branding

This is certainly no negative thing but take the Pan America, it is remarkable for it represents (albeit more subtly) in forging a new path while feeling like a modern, more in-keeping take on the Harley brand.

Stil, someone had to have a go at a LiveWire type bike first, plus the combination of affluent eco-conscious customers and the lack of alternative motorcycling options should be sufficient to ensure the LiveWire can pay the ‘leccy bill.

Which is just as well because the LiveWire used a significant amount of resource, budget and time getting it to market, setting a framework that should lead to stronger, funkier, better value successors. In short, the fallout of abandoning such a project - though perhaps desired by certain corners - would create enough short-term problems from a marketing point of view than it would if LiveWire gained a more subtle, long-term solution.

Is this a LiveWire relaunch... or is it being amputated?

With this in mind, some may argue spinning LiveWire off from Harley-Davidson is the equivalent of sounding a death knell for it. Think of it as a hot air balloon that is too heavy to rise and needs to lose one person or it will come down. The LiveWire is the one being pushed over the edge. It’s not a sacrifice, because it has a parachute but it could land on a pile of money or in the middle of the ocean. You sense Harley’s new management is prepared to accept either of those outcomes, so long as it doesn’t hamper its core business.

Much will depend on what LiveWire does next. The buzzwords of ‘urban mobility’ have emerged from the initial bumf so we expect a range to look a bit more like a premium Halfords store than a dealership filled with e-scooters, powered bicycles and whatever the latest high-end superfluous gadget is. 

From a motorcycle point of view though, you have to wonder whether Harley-Davidson is satisfied allowing the LiveWire become standalone product in a standalone brand. I mean, what do we call it…. Just ‘LiveWire’... like it’s just ‘Madonna’?

Either way, we would love to see it commit to a second model - perhaps a slinkier cruiser - to see what the brains (those still around) that concocted such an innovative (if flawed) plan can do with the immense benefit of being one model in. After all, electric is coming - perhaps not as quickly as H-D would have liked - and Harley have unexpectedly placed itself as the segment’s high-profile halo like the cool kid hanging with ‘nerdy’ kids - this is a good thing,  I hasten to add.

Something will be revealed in July though it could be a LiveWire brand launch showcasing a familiar looking bike sans Harley-Davidson badging. 

If Harley-Davidson has the money, the time and the vision to wait for electric motorcycling to come to it, then it’s in a very strong position. As for how long that wait is… well, that’s what no-one really knows.

Still, nice logo.