Get your Harley runnin', head out on the highway

November 8, 2013

I, like many others of my generation, were heavily influenced by the 1969 film Easy Rider, which tracked the journey of two counterculture bikers traveling from Los Angeles to New Orleans in search of America. With a terrific soundtrack, including the biker anthem Born to be Wild, the film influenced a generation of future ‘bikers’, including yours truly.

As a result I found myself riding a Honda_CB750K motorcycle in the late 70’s, which I would often take to New Hope PA, a cool little artists community on the banks of the Delaware River, and a destination for just about every biker in NJ and eastern PA on summer weekends.

In New Hope, the streets would be lined with hundreds of parked motorcycles, the vast majority being a Honda, Suzuki, or Kawasaki, the Japanese brands that came to dominate the U.S. motorcycle market in the 70’s. Once in a while though, you would come across the odd Harley-Davidson and immediately one assumed the owner was a die hard biker, or someone who just couldn’t afford a new bike. Such was the depths to which a once dominant brand, and the brand featured in Easy Rider, had sunk.

As I grew older, I began to see the wisdom of driving the roads of America protected in a steel shell rather then sitting on a machine that could go from 0 to 60 in 5 seconds, protected by no more than a leather jacket. So I gave up motorcycles and paid them little mind.

Recently, I was back in New Hope on a summer weekend, and as I was looking at the line of bikes parked on Main St., I was struck by about the fact that virtually every motorcycle was a Harley-Davidson, and the Japanese brands were now in the minority. In only a few years, Harley-Davidson had come back from the brink of extinction to a position of category dominance!

How were they able to resurrect a brand that had sunk so low just a few years ago?

In the 60’s, Harley-Davidson found its’ leadership position being attacked by Japanese brands churning out excellent products. Unable to compete, the company was sold in 1969 to AMF, best known for bowling equipment and instead of leveraging a larger production capability to their advantage, Harley-Davidson became directionless. Thus, by the late 70’s, the brand was in the doldrums.

Than a group of long-time Harley-Davidson senior executives decided to buy back the company and they made a decision that would save it.

Instead of competing with the Japanese brands on their competitors’ terms, they decided to redefine the brand on Harley-Davidson’s terms.

So, rather than innovating with new technology and designs to try and catch up to the competition, they doubled down on the decades old classic Harley-Davidson V-twin engine technology and legacy cosmetic designs through re-engineering and modernization.

Rather than ramp up production to try and meet the demand that the Japanese brands were already satisfying, they improved their processes and production to improve quality, look and feel.

And instead of investing in marketing similar to what their rivals were doing, the brand targeted specific audiences with tailored messaging that leveraged Harley-Davidson’s legacy brand imagery: slightly rebellious, a little dangerous, breaking from the mold, the freedom of the road, and with a lot of leather to boot!

The results of those efforts are now well documented, as shown by the brand’s third-place ranking in CoreBrand’s Corporate Branding Index® (CBI)..

That said, despite Harley-Davidson’s resurrection to a leading position in the industry, challenges remain. As limited production capacity leaves unmet demand in the market, competing brands have stepped into the void, offering high quality options that mimic the Harley-Davidson’s iconic engine and cosmetic designs.

And, an old competing brand that has a similar legacy in the minds of many bikers, the Indian Motorcycle, which went bankrupt in 1953, has also been resurrected and they now offer high quality motorcycles with a brand promise that tugs at many of the same emotional strings as Harley-Davidson.

The extent to which Harley-Davidson will keep its brand motor running at its current level will depend largely on how they respond to the new challenges they face, but if they are able to respond like they did when it seemed the end was near, we’re likely to see the Harley-Davidson brand head out on the highway’ for a long, long time.

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