Harley-Davidson is a quintessential American company. The brand itself is over 113 years old, founded in Milwaukee in 1903 when two friends built a small power-cycle in the back of a third friend’s machine shop. Today, nearly every American recognizes the distinctive roar, the classic chopper style, and the orange-and-black logo of a Harley. H-D was one of just two motorcycle companies to survive the Great Depression – but such economic success wasn’t destined to last.
For the decade between 1973 and 1983, H-D’s market share shrank more than 50 percent. High-quality, low-price Japanese bikes flooded the American market, driving out demand for Harley-Davidson’s American craftsmanship. Yet, since then, H-D has clawed its way back into Americans’ hearts – thanks to the power of branding.
Branding isn’t just a clever marketing trick; it’s a way for companies to connect with customers on an emotional level – and no brand proves that better than Harley-Davidson. Here are five methods Harley-Davidson has used to master the customer experience to retake their market share.
The Cultivation of a Core Audience
When most people imagine the rider of a Harley-Davidson, they think of an older, successful, white male – and they aren’t wrong. While some might view such a specific customer profile as disadvantageous, the truth is much of H-D’s success is due to their respect and understanding of their restricted core audience. H-D has worked hard to understand precisely who values the brand and how to cater to their unique audience’s needs. Plus, it isn’t a coincidence that white men over 50 tend to have plenty of money to spend; H-D has positioned itself so that its customers are wealthy and eager for a certain type of brand message. By limiting itself to a certain audience, H-D can be more certain in the effectiveness of its marketing strategies and provide a more targeted customer experience for those most willing to buy.
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The Real-Time Market Research
The primary way H-D collects customer data is through sponsored events and organized conventions, which are filled with Harley fanatics. For example, Daytona Bike Week is an annual gathering of H-D riders and lovers, and thousands of H-D data-gatherers join in the festivities to directly interact with customers, old and new. A former CEO, Rich Teerlink, calls this “real-time market research,” as it allows H-D unique insight into customer behavior and opinion. Armed with such information, H-D can improve on various aspects of their business, from the bikes’ performance to their selling strategies, to improve their customers’ experience.
The Relationship-Building Strategies
Once a customer purchases a Harley, that customer is a member of the Harley family for life. For more than 15 years, Harley-Davidson has organized an initiative called Harley Owners Group, or HOG, that aims to connect H-D owners with one another and the company. HOG helps members with all sorts of bike-related issues, from seminars on maintenance to assistance in building a local motorcycle club. By far, HOG is the world’s largest factory-sponsored bike club, claiming 325,000 members and 940 chapters. By encouraging customers to remain active in the H-D community, the company provides them with an outstanding experience and nearly guarantees their loyalty to the brand.
The Powerful Emotional Appeal
Though H-D products might look automotive, the brand is not focused on selling motorcycles. Harley-Davidson simply cannot compete with the quality of other bikes on the market – especially those coming from Japan and Korea, which tend to be less expensive and sometimes have more advanced mechanics. Therefore, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, then-Director of Communications Ken Schmidt decided to transform Harley-Davidson into an emotional brand.
To most buyers, a Harley-Davidson is more than a bike; it is freedom, passion, individualism, power, and mystery – and it roars satisfyingly as it helps customers come alive. Additionally, customers are not just customers; they are members of the family, ambassadors for the brand, and heirs of the traditional American spirit. Unlike other motorcycle manufacturers, H-D sells the emotions associated with the bike rather than the bike itself, which helps customers stay connected and continue investing in the brand.
The Unimportance of Price
For dozens of reasons, H-D isn’t concerned with the price of its bikes. As previously mentioned, the American brand is easily out-matched in cost by cheaper foreign brands, and its primary customer base has enough money to pay high stickers. However, Harley has also been smart in restricting the supply of their products, drumming up demand and increasing the prices of stock that is more than a year old. Thus, the only people who own H-D motorcycles are those truly devoted to the brand; those who will love their bikes regardless of when they get them or how much they cost. Harley-Davidson customers are addicted to the experience the brand provides, which makes H-D brand tactics the best in the business.