Thursday, November 26, 2009
Judging the Harley-Davidson campaign by the most common measure—sales figures—would be somewhat misleading, given that the company could have sold every motorcycle it built with or without advertising. Indeed, Harley-Davidson exceeded its goal of selling 10 percent more bikes in 1997, reaching 13 percent, for a total of 96,216 units. But this was due to, if nothing else, a 13 percent increase in production. Had the factory turned out 50 percent more Harleys, the company could have reported a 50 percent sales increase. Yet, based on its own extensive polling of its customers and on the market, management considered the campaign a success. Based on its data, the ‘‘perception of Harley-Davidson as ‘a strong and appealing brand’ increased by sixteen percent during the campaign,’’ according to an agency press release. At the same time the number of core riders who described the company as ‘‘selling out’’—admittedly small to begin with—fell by more than half. Positive publicity continued to generate itself as the media rushed to align itself with the Harley phenomenon, always a sure sign that a brand was hot. In the area of creativity, one of the dealer television spots won a Gold Lion at the Cannes International Advertising Festival, one of advertising’s most coveted honors.
Harley’s strategy for the campaign flowed quite naturally out of the company’s unique history and place in the market. The shape of the campaign, however, was determined primarily by the need to reassure the core ridership that the company had not ‘‘sold out,’’ in the words of Craig Rowley, account supervisor at Carmichael Lynch Spong. The campaign’s theme, ‘‘The Book of Harley-Davidson,’’ was devised by a team led by creative directors Kerry Casey and Jim Nelson. They relied primarily on print media because of its ability to reach the target market most cost-efficiently. Although two television spots were shot for the campaign, they were designed to be used by dealers and not broadcast nationally. The print ads consisted of spreads, each purporting to be a chapter from ‘‘The Book of Harley-Davidson,’’ although only three actual chapters were represented in the campaign. These chapters were supplemented by a series of similar spreads selling parts and accessories, although not in chapter form. Headlines in the series said, for instance, ‘‘She’s a full-figured gal,’’ referring to a fully decked-out Electra-Glidecruiser, and ‘‘Drop the wrench. Stand back and look. Laugh evilly,’’ over a gorgeous shot of a Heritage Softail Classic. The ads ran in media catering to motorcycle enthusiasts, including Harley Woman, and also in national general-interest men’s magazines such as Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone, and Sports Illustrated, a sure indication of the company’s focus on the large secondary market of non-Harleyowning men.
It should be noted that the campaign was supplemented by Harley-Davidson’s exceptionally thorough dealer support programs, which included a catalog that was virtually a collector’s item among Harley enthusiasts. Rowley reported that many dealers would not give a catalog to a prospective customer until he bought a bike, the catalog then serving as a surrogate until his motorcycle was delivered two years later. The company also earmarked a significant portion of its marketing budget in support of its owners groups, known as HOGs, or Harley Owners Groups, a practice that Harley-Davidson had pioneered long before Saturn automobiles, for instance, began announcing picnics for owners and related support programs.
Any company that owned 50 percent of its category, as Harley-Davidson did of cruiser motorcycles, might easily be thought of as not having serious competition. Yet because demand was exceeding supply and creating a remarkable two-year waiting period for buying a Harley, the door was open to a handful of competitors, each looking to increase its share of the market at Harley-Davidson’s expense. Foremost among these were the four big Japanese motorcycle manufacturers—Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, and Suzuki—each of which had begun building its own heavy cruiser motorcycle in the previous three years. These Harley clones were characterized by big engines and an authentic look. Each could be mistaken by a non-Harley novice for the real thing. Unlike the real thing, however, these motorcycles were ready to be driven away from the showroom. More troubling in some ways were a pair of companies preparing to offer an alternative American bike right in Harley’s own neighborhood. In Minneapolis, Excelsior Henderson, a classic American motorcycle company that had failed, was threatening to come to life again and produce its own, truly authentic line of bikes. At the same time Polaris, a large manufacturer of snowmobiles, had plans—and the resources—to market a moderately priced cruiser in the $8,000 to $10,000 range. Against this background Harley-Davidson was not content to rest on its laurels, even if it could still sell many more bikes than it actually produced.