The rise of Harley Davidson in Korea
BUSAN, South Korea -- The name “Harley-Davidson” conjures different images for different people. Some see it as the quintessence of romanticized American individuality; a rider, a bike, two saddlebags strapped to the side, and nothing ahead but the open road.
Others see outlaw gangs roaming town to town on dissonant metal steeds, donning layers of leather like a suit of armor, ready to do battle with bumbling Barney Fife like authorities should they get in the way.
For the riders themselves, their perception of the Harley “experience” comes in varying measures of allegiance to the “way of life”. With it comes an undying loyalty to the brand (how many product names do people tattoo on their biceps?) and to the oft-cited maxim, “Four wheels move the body. Two wheels move the soul.”
The company itself serves up no measure of pretentious poetry on what it all means. In 2008, during the celebration of the 105th year since William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson’s first bike hit the streets of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1903, the company put out the following statement:
"Over the 105 years in the saddle we've seen wars, depression, recession, resistance and revolutions. But every time, this country has come out stronger than before. Because chrome and asphalt put distance between you and whatever the world can throw at you. Freedom and wind outlast hard times. And the rumble of an engine drowns out all the spin on the evening news. If 105 years have proved one thing, it's that fear sucks and it doesn't last long. So screw it, let's ride."
While their motivations may differ with the American brand of the experience, more and more Koreans are taking to the road on Harleys. In a country where motorcycles have been looked down upon as a cheap means of transportation for legions of delivery drivers and couriers, and where a person’s individuality is rarely encouraged, motorcycles are increasingly seen as tools of leisure and an avenue to expand into new social circles.
This changing perception, along with an increase in disposable income, has helped boost sales of high-performance, large-engine bikes at a time when Korean motorbike sales are in a general decline. According to the Korean Motorcycle Industry Association (KOMIA), while overall motorcycle sales are down, imported bikes with engines of 500cc and above have been on a steady rise.
Last year, sales for Harley-Davidson Korea, through its seven dealerships nationwide, hit a record 902 units, up 14 percent from 2010. And in the first half of 2012 they jumped another 47 percent.
According to the company, it is enjoying the fruits of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement that allowed the company to cut the prices of its bikes, which sell in Korea for anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 USD, by as much as $1,500.
Korea is just one part of the company’s international push that now includes more international dealers than U.S. dealers. All told, international purchases accounted for roughly 35 percent of sales in 2012.
As far as smaller, mere mortal modes of two-wheel transport on the peninsula, Daelim far and away leads the pack, selling over 60,000 bikes a year, followed by S&T Motors (owners of the Hyosung brand) in second, with just over 30,000, and Honda in a distant third with just under 5,000 bikes annually
The demographic for Harley riders in Korea, much like that in America, is still largely the domain of middle to upper-class consumers who can afford both the time and the money for the relative luxury-priced brand.
So said Connick Lee, deputy general manager at Harley-Davidson Korea in an interview with the Joong Ang Daily. “To own a Harley, one needs to be fairly financially secure and also have a decent amount of leisure time.”
Korean purchases of larger engine luxury bikes like Harley, BMW and the varied Japanese offerings are a byproduct of the country’s increasing wealth and its hunger to break from domestic norms.
“Having a Harley is like owning a Rolex,” said Kevin Kang, COO of Harley-Davidson Korea. “You don’t own a Rolex because of its accuracy. You buy it because of the brand image.”
The Korean Harley Journey
One thing that sets Harley-Davidson apart from other manufacturers around the world is its community building efforts through the Harley Owners Group (HOG), which counts more than one million members in over 1,400 chapters worldwide, making it the largest factory-sponsored motorcycle organization in the world.
The Korean chapter of HOG, which now includes over 1,000 members, started in 1999—exactly five years and several administrative hurdles after the Harley-Davidson company was finally allowed to sell in the Korean market in 1994. There is also a sub-group called “Ladies of Harley”, which, along with the parent group, organizes several events and road trips throughout the year just for the ladies.
In keeping with Korea’s more family-oriented culture, Harley-Davidson Korea has placed greater emphasis on family-related events such as the “family tour”, where bikers travel to a destination on their motorcycle while the rest of the family travels along by bus.
Harley-Davidson’s image of rider-bike-open-road in the Korean consciousness is not without its roadblocks. Here, riders are forbidden from the ‘open road’ as Korea is the only country in the OECD that doesn’t allow motorcycles on highways.
36-year-old Busan businessman Lee Dong-yeup, who saddles up nearly every weekend on a 2011 Street Glide CVO model, thinks that, in time, all roads will be open to motorcyclists.
“If riders adhere to traffic laws and the etiquette of the road, I think the regulation will be lifted,” says Lee.
As in America, many of the complaints about Harleys revolve around that bubbling-like roar emitted from its twin tailpipes. Interestingly, in the early years of production, Harley-Davidson made its name as the quietest bike on the road. Now, its roar is part of its legend—even for Korean riders.
“When I ride a Harley-Davidson, I can feel the uniqueness of its engine and the noise of its exhaust,” says Lee.
And what about the perception of the gangster motorcyclist in Korea?
“When people see riders in a group, they also think those people are a part of motorcycle gang,” says Lee. “It is understandable because, at times, even I don’t want to ride a Harley because it is too noisy. By not installing a noisy muffler, observing the speed limit, and refraining from the group ride, people will think differently about Harley riders.”
Are these likely to happen? Or will Korean Harley riders stick with the company’s own maxim? “Screw it, let’s ride.”