The Harley Brand

I’ve been thinking a lot about legacy brands of late.  You see, I live with one every day.  It’s been around a long time, and although we were once considered the absolute cutting edge to the point that we defined our industry, we are now looked on as old technology.  Even though we’re still in so many ways on the cusp of greatness.

My post last week reminded me that I’m not the only one who wrestles with the problems inherent in a legacy brand.  If fact, there’s one brand that’s effectively turned their legacy, old tech image around into a positive attribute. 

Do you perhaps remember the 1970’s – back when Harley-Davidsons conjured images of Hell’s Angels and hootchie mammas, riding motorcycles that hadn’t really changed since the days when Harley’s chief competition was literally the Indian Chief?  I do, and I remember that they’d become a laughing stock, for providing bikes that were of utterly inferior quality when compared with the more refined products from the Japanese, or even the British and Italians.  The worst came in the late 1970’s when they were owned by AMF and produced bikes so horrible they almost completely destroyed both company and brand.

But they were able to come back.  And they did it the old fashioned way, by making good products.  They realized that they didn’t have to completely change the customer perception, they just needed to make it work for them.  Make the best products you can make, know your customers and work with them.  Now a Harley rider is as likely to be an executive or senior manager.  And the funny thing is, the “outlaw” nature of the thing is one of the strongest points of the brand; it’s the thing people like! 

Last week Mary Schmidt had a pointer to this post by Mike Wagner and he makes the salient point:

After leaders have had “their people” trained and maybe hung a few motivational posters in the break room, they realize there also has to be a change in behavior:

  • Change what I know about food, no weight loss
  • Change my attitude about certain foods, the pounds still don’t come off
  • Change what I eat and I’ll start to make progress on my waistline

Change behavior and now knowledge and attitude really mean something.

That’s how it is with branding. A brand is something you demonstrate, not just talk about. Demonstrate your brand and the marketplace takes notice.

I think the big change at Harley had little to do with marketing per se, it was the fact that they got behind their products, made the best product they could, and through that were able to answer the most fundemental marketing problem they had.  From that point, perception was able to shift just enough to make the image of the Harley rider something the main stream market could accept. 

Many of us spend too much of our time trying to run away or reinvent our legacy brands (especially if they’ve tarnished over the years).  We really need to fix our core issues, and find a way that we can perceptively adapt our legacy brand to fit our new view of the world.  Real change tends to come in increments, not in waves, especially in marketing.  Think about it, and let me know your thoughts.

(Thanks to Jill Cole for the excellent graphic…mnc)

3 Replies to “The Harley Brand”

  1. You’re right on the mark about how Harley changed their brand, but there are some specific characteristics of their market here.

    (Remember this joke? “What’s the most important accessory for your Harley?” “A pickup truck to bring it home in.”)

    Riders mostly have a gearhead streak somewhere in there, and riders have very personal relationship with their bikes. Generally it’s not like a car, where most people really want a black box type of product that goes when it’s supposed to and otherwise doesn’t trouble them. Riders tinker, customize, etc. And that means that you cannot hide from product quality issues, or bad design, or any of that. You can’t slap a longer warranty on it to try to deal with quality issues, because nobody cares that it’s under warranty when their weekend ride is ruined. You can’t avoid it with low prices, because it’s almost always a toy, not a necessity, and cheap but mostly works doesn’t cut it.

    If Harley hadn’t fixed those issues, they’d be dead now. But part of understanding how to fix your brand is understanding where you get more benefit from changes, and what’s non-negotiable. For Harley, quality is non-negotiable; for other brands, it might be some other issue that’s haunting them.

    Good post.

  2. Jaguar had a similar issue after they were bought by Ford. The old time customers actually bemoaned the lack of “excitement”, ie. breakdowns, that happened with the new ones. How do you deal with that?

     BTW, congrats on the new blog set up. 

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