Passion fruit: the Harley Davidson story

JAIPUR: The Harley Davidson story is all about what passion can do for a brand. From dead on its feet no-hoper to ultimate in cult brand is the stuff of marketing folk lore.



America’s best known blue-blooded (red-necked some would say) iconic brand in 1981 was not only leaking like a sieve as far as revenues were concerned but critics also said that the way to know that a Harley biker had passed by was to check out if there was a big oil stain where it was parked. Not only did the Harley guzzle fuel, it leaked it like crazy.

Clyde Fessler

Clyde Fessler, former vice-president of business development for Harley-Davidson Motor Company, played an integral part in their dramatic turnaround over the past 24 years. And the inspiration as it were came after the core team locked themselves up in a motel for five days barnstorming over just what was needed to do to get Harley up and running again.

Says Fessler, they distilled the whole problem down to five Ps – product, price, promotion, place and last and most important people.

The product was a major problem as far as quality was concerned. It just did not justify the 30 per cent mark-up. That was addressed by a renewed attention to quality of the machine, inventory management (of spare parts in particular) and the most important – employee involvement.

According to Fessler, the marked up price was something that worked to the company’s advantage once the quality issue had been sorted out. This was because the bike had a resale value that was unmatched. This, was because the Harley is a evolutionary product and not a revolutionary one he said. The Harley lineage can be actually be traced back from the present generation to the first machines that roled out in 1903 and therefore the bike has an antique appeal that is impossible to match in any way.

Elaborating on the significance of the evolutionary product, Fessler said that was the main difference between Harley and the Hondas, Suzukis and the Kawasakis. The Japanese stress on constantly throwing up new brands junking the old is what he called the revolutionary approach to manufacturing.


Harley Davidson accessories

Another big revenue driver for the company has been in accessories. From helmets, clothes and even piggy-banks, it is an ever-increasing part of the company’s revenue stream.

Like a true marketer, Fessler “coincidentally happened to be wearing a Hawaiaan printed shirt while making his presentation. Most un-Harley-Davidson macho-like one thought – not Fessler, the shirt.

Promotion: The owners/bikers are their principal marketers who swore by the “American way” as it were and represented that heritage. All the campaigns that were developed around Harley stressed on that and it was the “the all-American brand versus the Japanese outsider that was played up in all the messages that went out.

Fessler pointed out that 80 per cent of all promotion and marketing efforts were targeted at existing Harley customers. The community experience being the USP.

Place: A Harley-Davidson store is certainly not about a common experience. Each store across the world has its own unique features, both architecturally and in terms of location. All to what end? So that the “buying experience is unique,” Fessler stressed.

For Fessler though, the most important ‘P’ by far is People – company management, workers, dealers and customers – all share the community feeling for the bike. This is best represented by the Harley-Davidson clubs mushrooming across the globe.

Harley Owners Group (‘HOG’) has 750,000 members in the US alone who pay $40 annually. To celebrate the brand’s 90th birthday in 1993, the company invited Harley owners from across America to drive to Milwaukee, Wisconsin: an unbelievable 120,000 bikers turned up.

Fessler himself represents that in every way. Though he retired from Harley-Davidson in early 2002, he is still active as a consultant and motivational speaker. He also enjoys exploring the world on one of his five Harley-Davidsons.

What has been the end result of all these efforts. In 1981, at the time of the management buyout from AMF 30,000 Harleys were sold per year. In 2003 the number will be around 300,000, a quarter of them overseas. The bulk of international sale ironically, comes from Japan.

One crib this writer had was that there was no screening of the kind of advertising that was pushed in Japan for instance. All that in your face Pax Americana was getting a bit much by the end of it all.

If there was one overriding message that came through in Fessler’s presentation though, it was passion. As he put it, the Harley riding experience as the day broke: “It’s like establishment of true north, when mind, heart, tummy, all are aligned.” And this was not some sound byte he was dishing out. “We fulfil dreams. People call it cult branding, we call it a family,” he said.

Fessler ended by saying, "If you do what you’ve always done, you’re gonna get what you’ve always got. How’s that for marketing mantra?"

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