Tuesday, October 27, 2009
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.