Harley-Davidson Motor Company

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Harley-Davidson Motor Company

3700 W. Juneau Ave.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53208
Telephone: (414) 343-4680
Fax: (414) 343-8230
Web site: www.harley-davidson.com



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 high-priced 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 in meeting 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.


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.


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.


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.


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 rider-ship 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-Harley-owning men.


As advertising campaigns went, Harley-Davidson's award-winning print campaign was fairly inexpensive to produce. Carmichael Lynch Spong's Rowley noted that in some cases the agency stretched its photography budget by using existing images. This was possible because, unlike new cars, Harleys were not restyled each year. For instance, one photograph from the campaign showed a glistening, black Fat Boy Harley-Davidson parked under a clothesline as the sun set behind it. Just a year earlier, the same bike had been a glistening, yellow Fat Boy, but, thanks to the magic of digital imaging technology, the expensive image could be reused.

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.


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.


Cooper, Ann. "Believers in the Power of Print." Adweek (Eastern Edition), April 12, 1993, p. 34.

Damashek, Harris, and Junu Bryan Kim. "Echo Award Winners Diverse but Represent Fields Top Work." Advertising Age, October 28, 1996, p. S4.

Flint, Jerry. "No Sweat." Forbes, April 10, 1995, p. 22.

"Harley-Davidson Returns to TV." Adweek (Eastern Edition), August 19, 1996, p. 36.

"Newswire Roundup." Adweek (Eastern Edition), August 10, 1998, p. 49.

"1996 Echo Awards: Spotting the Trendsetters." Direct Marketing, November 1996, p. 10.

"Partnerships in Engineering Excellence." Forbes, November 9, 1992, p. 218.

Smith, Geoffrey N. "Live to Ride." Financial World, September 26, 1995, p. 6.

Watanabe, Laurie. "How the Midwest Was Won." Dealernews, July 1998, p. 22.

                                        Patrick Hutchins