Sunday, September 05, 2010

Rebel Without a Plan

When I first caught the headline that Harley-Davidson and its long-time agency Carmichael-Lynch had parted ways, I thought it was the typical case of the client firing the agency. Turns out it was the other way around. Ad people love that kind of story. Kicking a big, stubborn client to the curb is the dream of many. 

Everyone knows that Harley is fairly stuck in a groove (perhaps a rut) of selling its wares to people of a certain demographic: suburban, middle-aged, professional, white; people for whom the motorcycle is a mere hobby, albeit a somewhat serious hobby - and an expensive one. Living in a state that attracts motorcycle enthusiasts, and particularly Harley enthusiasts, year-round for gatherings, events and hanging out, I can tell you that the stereotype of Barbie and Ken Biker is an accurate one. It's almost to the point that Harley is the opposite of what it wants to be - what it used to be: cool. How cool is it to have the same bike as everyone else when everyone else is a grey-haired guy playing biker on the weekend?

They were on a wild ride for a long time. Big, loud, shiny and expensive, with an official accessories line that includes branded clothing for infants and HD-branded doo-rags for the dudes who don't know how to tie a real bandana into a doo-rag, but Harley has finally been slowed down by the economy. You can't sell a $15,000 toy to a guy who isn't sure he'll have a job next month, even if you do offer your own easy financing. I'm not saying Harley didn't do things right. They had perfect pitch for the high-rolling times they thrived in.

But now is a dangerous time to be Harley, and if they keep doing what they've always done they will only sink further. There are a few directions they can take this, and each will require bold thinking and a fair amount of risk. But since Harley prides itself on the rebel image, maybe they'd be willing to prove that image by actually being what they've only pretended to be for too long. Harley's CMO, Mark-Hans Richer said, "the company feels good about its creative direction." OK, Mark-Hans, you keep doing it your way and we'll keep seeing headlines like this.

I hear Wisconsin is beautiful this time of year. Send the corporate jet down to fly me up and I'll give you the pitch. I'll do it off-the cuff, Don Draper style. Should only take a couple of minutes. Afterward, I'd like to tour that $60 million museum if there's time. Then maybe we can catch a Packers game from your skybox at Lambeau.

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  • But in the first quarter of 2010 they didn't suck AS BAD and were actually profitable. I guess I'm one of those Middle Age white people you're talking about. I ride every single minute I can. Harley has done a great job making me "want IT", and nothing else...and true enough, it's expensive. The joke is "HD" means Hundred Dollars. Except its no joke. It does. Love my Street Glide, tho, & it'll be interesting to see how they evolve. If I get more tattoos, will that make me less suburban? :)

    By Anonymous adchick, at September 6, 2010 at 10:17 PM  

  • Nothing wrong with being a white suburbanite - I am too. I'm just saying focusing on that existing market alone can't sustain them forever. They've about tapped it out.

    By Blogger RFB, at September 7, 2010 at 8:07 AM  

  • Isn't this a microcosm for anything cool? First its underground. Then its cool-rebel. Then it goes mainstream. Then it dies.

    I don't think Harley is going to die. But they might try to go down market with some machines that appeal to younger badasses.

    Or they can just decide to be like Mercedes and compete with Honda style roadcruisers.

    But can it get its street cred back as a rebel bike? Not as long as Jay Leno and his ilk are the main riders seen around town.

    By Anonymous Howie, at September 7, 2010 at 9:43 AM  

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