Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Harley-Davidson’s core rider had always defined its primary target market. That rider was most likely to be a male (91 percent), although his mate, if he had one, tended to be as enthusiastic about the bike as he was. He rode the motorcycle and lived the lifestyle. Yet, unlike consumers of many other high-ticket products, Harley owners spanned a broad socioeconomic spectrum. Visitors to the massive Harley-Davidson meets that took place in Sturgis, South Dakota, and in Daytona Beach, Florida, encountered riders from every strata of American life. But all of them embraced, if only for a weekend, the Harley credo of freedom, self-reliance, and individualism. The advertising invariably addressed itself to those riders who lived the credo, who in fact already owned a Harley. Jack Supple, for many years the executive creative director on the account at Carmichael Lynch Spong, described bluntly the tight focus Harley-Davidson’s advertising maintained on the core rider: ‘‘We don’t pander to the broader public.’’
Yet there was a secondary target market the advertising also reached, the segment of the broader market that was interested in Harley-Davidson motorcycles because of their reputation. In many ways this segment was every bit as important as the primary group, for it was from this group that increased sales came. Existing Harley owners might buy a new bike from time to time, but they would never fuel 10 percent or higher annual growth. This market also tended to be predominantly men who had grown up with the Harley legend in some form or other but who did not own one. It was a tribute to the company, the advertising, and the motorcycle itself that these men did not need to be convinced of the superiority of the product, as they might if they were shopping among Japanese bikes. They merely needed to be exposed to the legend frequently enough.
Founded in 1903, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company was among the original companies building and selling motorcycles to racers and other thrill seekers. Among a crowded field of starters, it had the distinction of being the only motorcycle company to survive the next 80 years, and thus it came by its legendary status honestly. During the late 1970s, however, the company was troubled by a reputation for poor quality, lagging innovation, and serious competition from abroad, most notably from Japanese manufacturers. During an unfortunate period of ownership by AMF Corporation, the company even produced Harley-Davidson golf carts. Finally, after a group of investors bought the company back, it began a remarkable turnaround. In 1979 the company hired the Minneapolis ad agency Carmichael Lynch Spong to help reverse some of the negative perceptions that were plaguing it. Jud Smith, group creative director of the agency team that worked on the account at the time, said in an Adweek article, ‘‘The image was that it [the motorcycle] was owned by dirtballs and decidedly uncool.’’ Although Harleys were seen as distinctively designed, honest machines, many of the competitors were offering more user-friendly motorcycles, especially for less-experienced riders. Easier to maintain, some of the other bikes were even faster than the legendary Harley. Still, Harley-Davidson had developed a near fanatical following of riders whose deep emotional attachment to their bikes had already crept into American culture. Harley ‘‘Hogs’’ were perceived as simple but tough and as embodying the rebellious facet of the national character.
By 1984 Harley-Davidson had turned an important corner under its new management, introducing a new line of bikes while significantly improving quality. The advertising began to communicate the changes, and at the same time it drew upon the passion the motorcycle inspired in its core riders with themes like ‘‘Things are different on a Harley’’ and ‘‘Harley through and through.’’ The advertising even broke with its rule of always making the bike the hero of the ad by employing high-profile—and highly passionate—Harley riders like Malcolm Forbes, Jay Leno, and Mickey Rourke, who agreed to do the ads for a dollar if it would help their favorite motorcycle company. By the 1990s an improved product and savvy marketing had turned Harley-Davidson from the motorcycle of ‘‘dirtballs’’ to the choice of free-spirited American individualists. Along with them came a legion of consumers who wanted to own part of a legend and could afford to pay as much for a bike as most people paid for a car. Despite the long waiting period, sales edged ever upward.
As a symbol of brawny industrial power, no-nonsense technological prowess, and pure American individualism, it would be difficult to surpass the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Even as flagship Americans products, from automobiles to television sets, were overtaken, outdesigned, and outmarketed by competitors from Asia and Europe, the Harley stood defiantly apart, refusing to give an inch, much like its famous champions, the Hell’s Angels-style bikers of modern legend. At least that was the image most people held after nearly two decades of ambitious product development by the company, helped along by generally inspired advertising from its agency. And as demand for the highpriced motorcycles exceeded supply, the company launched a line of ‘‘genuine’’ Harley-Davidson accessories and clothing, including cigarettes and cologne. These marketing successes, however, came at a cost. Potential Harley buyers, unable to ride away on the bike they wanted and unwilling to wait the average two years until it became available, were turning to Japanese brands. Japanese companies had begun marketing a line of Harley clones, heavy cruising bikes designed to capture the low-slung style of the classic Harley, sometimes with more power and features. At the same time,Harley’s very success in selling to a wider market was causing some of its core riders to question the company’s commitment to its values. Company research found that ‘‘a small but vocal group of core riders are saying that Harley is ‘selling out.’’’ To counter this trend, a new advertising campaign was launched in 1997. The campaign, dubbed ‘‘The Book of Harley-Davidson,’’ was designed to remind core consumers that the company that ‘‘wrote the book’’ on Harley was not about to stray from its principles. In this way the campaign hoped to reinforce positive brand perception among new buyers, while reversing any negative perceptions core riders might have. The company had ambitious sales objectives as well, for it hoped for a 10 percent increase over 1996 figures. Sticking mostly to print advertising, the campaign presented a series of spread ads in national men’s magazines as well as in books for enthusiasts. Each ad was a ‘‘chapter’’ that sold the romance of both the motorcycle and the American road. For example, chapter 5, which sold touring bikes, was titled ‘‘Waking Up in Strange Places,’’ while chapter 8 was called ‘‘Is That Thing Street Legal?’’ an appropriate headline for an ad touting racing bikes. By all measures, the campaign succeeded inmeeting its objectives. By 1998 unit sales had increased, positive perceptions by new buyers had improved, and negative perceptions by core riders had been cut in half.