How Harley-Davidson Took Back its Brand

 In Branding

When Life magazine ran the famous photo above of a beer-swilling Harley rider “terrorizing” a California town. It cemented a negative perception of the brand with consumers.

Back in the 1980s, Harley-Davidson was facing bankruptcy, the company was $90 million in debt and it couldn’t get a loan. Japanese competitors had taken a significant share of its U.S. motorcycle market, and as quality dropped so did customer loyalty and sales. In addition, Harley-Davidson’s image was linked to shaggy, tattooed motorheads in biker gangs. Its brand seemed damaged beyond repair.

But that’s not the Harley-Davidson we know today. Now, you’re more likely to see a Harley parked outside of Starbucks instead of a dive. Last year, the company made Interbrand’s list of Best Global Brands and was valued at around $3.5 billion. It’s now as American as baseball and apple pie.

How did Harley-Davidson turn a troubled 100-year-old brand into a marketing success few of its competitors can rival? By realizing its brand was its most important asset, and then taking ownership of its image.

It’s About More Than a Logo

Your brand is a reflection of everything you do – and that starts with the product or service you offer. By 1985, Harley-Davidson had let its quality slip so far that dealers had to place cardboard under floor models to catch the leaking oil!

So the company overhauled its manufacturing process to deliver the craftsmanship its loyal customers expected. Former CEO Richard Teerlink said, “If we hadn’t improved the quality and reliability of Harley-Davidson products, the company wouldn’t be here today.”

But its competitors offered quality, too, and loads of innovative design features which made Harley seem outmoded and conventional to serious motorcycle enthusiasts. In response, the company exploited the one differentiator foreign competitors couldn’t match: its unique American heritage – a rebellious attitude, a classic style and a history dating back to WWI.

Rather than mimic the competition, Harley-Davidson played the game on its own terms, spinning a negative perception into a positive brand attribute.

New Harley Davidson Ad

Harley Davidson took back it’s brand by focusing on the mainstream bike enthusiasts – telling women “don’t just go along for the ride.”

And yet that rebel image came with some baggage. Many still associated Harleys with outlaw biker gangs from its past. In order to appeal to middle-class consumers, the company smoothed the rough edges and repositioned its products as the road to freedom for aging yuppies. (It used the same strategy after WWII – selling bikes to returning GIs as a way to escape the suffocating conformity of the suburbs.)

In the last few years, as Baby Boomers aged out, it’s had to shift focus again. Now the company targets young adults, including young women, and markets Harleys as a hip alternative to a stuffy mainstream culture. In short, Harley-Davidson is selling an exciting lifestyle, not hardware.

Last year, Harley CMO Mark-Hans Richer put it this way: “The journey we’re on is about taking a strong brand equity centered in one customer type and growing that to many other customers, to scale that passion. The important thing is not to obsess with the logo. A brand is what it means in hearts and minds of customers.”

Drive Your Brand

Harley had to overcome steep negative perceptions about its brand: They leak oil like sieves. They’re behind the times and lack innovation. Only Hells Angels deperados ride them.

So Harley took back its image. It improved quality to become a premium product. It embraced its heritage and originality. And it refocused its image to sell the experience of freedom to everyone, everywhere, while at the same time making them feel like part of an exclusive club.

There are plenty of preconceived ideas about aviation businesses, too: Business charter is a wasteful expense. Flight training is too difficult and expensive. FBOs are glorified gas stations. All airlines are alike. Some preconceptions afflict the industry as a whole, while others may be associated with just one particular company brand.

The lesson: Don’t let someone else define your business. You must take control of your brand and the image it communicates to customers!

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