Did you hear about the manager who always shot the messenger whenever they brought bad news? He eventually stopped hearing bad news. Unfortunately for him, this wasn’t because there was none to report.
Ask people to visualise the Harley-Davidson brand, and they’ll usually bring up Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper aboard mighty choppers, riding through the American countryside, all to the tune Born to be Wild.
But the iconic and longstanding Americana brand is also making a concerted effort to win over a wider audience including women and young adults, and is increasingly taking its aspirational and emotive message into digital, social and mobile channel, to do it.
Custodianship of the Australian Harley-Davidson brand is with local director of marketing, Adam Wright, who has 25 years' experience on the motorcycling industry highway.
Like many who have risen to marketing leadership, Wright didn’t kick-off his career in marketing but instead began with a technical degree. He then moved into sales, retail and operational roles looking after development of Harley-Davidson’s Australian distributor network.
After a short stint in London, he was given the opportunity to lead Harley-Davidson Australia’s project management efforts around its Sydney 2000 Olympic Games partnership. Wright then headed sales and marketing across Harley-Davidson Australia’s distributor network before moving into a sales and development role after a wholly-owned Australian subsidiary was established in 2006. Three years ago, he moved into a dedicated marketing position.
Given the long history of the Harley-Davidson brand down under (Australia was the first country outside the US to establish a dealer network in 1917), Wright said his job is to keep the brand fresh and relevant, while still upholding to its heritage and American roots.
This is a big challenge not just locally, but for the company globally. Over the past few years, concerns have been raised about the 110-year old brand’s reliance on the ageing baby boomer demographic, and its ability to attract new generations of riders. Harley-Davidson’s current average customer is 49 years and six months old, and has been ageing by six months every year for more than a decade.
Attracting a different demographic is therefore an ongoing focus, although in Australia marketing efforts have already proved constructive, Wright claimed. For example, the percentage of bike sales to women has grown from 4 per cent to 12 per cent in the past five years.
The key to getting the approach right is understanding customer behaviour and actively segmenting activity so that the brand emotionally connects with each target group, Wright said. As well as baby boomers, Harley-Davidson Australia breaks its audience into ‘outreach’ (women and young adults), and ‘sleepers’, or those 1 million Australian motorcycle licence holders that don’t currently own their mode of transport.
“From a young adult perspective, it can be hard for these individuals to engage with us in our traditional environment and we find we have to play in their space,” Wright said. “Some of that engagement is through activities like music and surfing. We also work the young stunt rider Matt Mingay, who does some fantastic things on a Harley-Davidson.”
Digital and social are also playing a significant role, and investment both in terms of resource and budget has doubled in the last two years, Wright said. One of Harley-Davidson’s current campaigns aimed at the younger market, Judgement Day, centres around Facebook and mobile interaction and capitalises on the brand’s reputation for customisation and self-expression. Consumers can vote on the best bikes, create their own tattoos, and complete a number of challenges to win weekly and larger prizes.
“That’s what our brand is about: Fulfilling dreams of personal freedom and self-expression,” Wright said. “We are also a brand that people like to talk about and we have a strong engagement level with customers. That’s where social and digital media work well for us.
“Every campaign we do, whether it be in print, digital or social, has to have that mobile application as well. That’s how we need to keep people engaged in the future.”
Aspirational-oriented activities are another major focus for Harley-Davidson worldwide, and Wright said it was important to plant a seed with consumers that may grow over a number of years. In addition, the organisation works with returning soldiers with mental health issues, and Hogs for the Homeless charity bike ride, as part of its corporate responsibility charter.
“These activities give underprivileged people meaning in their lives and something to aim for,” Wright said. “Harley is a brand big enough to do that for them, and it’s nice to help with that turnaround in people’s lives.”
As with any mature brand, Wright admitted it is easy to be perceived as being out of touch, and that’s where marketers need to be smart in how they execute. “We must continue to add value and innovate, and be intellectually curious in a lot of areas,” he said. “We are an iconic brand, but there’s a brotherhood aspect and sense of belonging, which pulls like-minded people together.
“We work hard on a PR front and for us it’s important people can relate to the brand ambassadors we put out there.”
As well as brand awareness, much of the strategy concentrates on driving footfall to its dealer network and ensuring the retail environment is a comfortable one for not only core riders, but also women and younger consumers. “If we drive more traffic to dealers, consumers get that first-hand experience. We are a touchy feely brand and we drive excitement and passion... it’s about people getting engaged in the brand as best we can,” Wright added.
Metrics versus creativity
Like most customer-centric companies, Harley-Davidson is committed to data analytics and technology, and is in the final stages of implementing a global CRM system in order to close the loop on engagement and purchasing. The platform should be live towards the end of the year.
But while everything has to be measured and ROI is paramount, Wright said the company is not shy about giving something a go. One such example in Australia was a 24-hour test ride campaign, which allowed people to experience Harley-Davidson’s touring motorcycles out on the road. The campaign triggered a healthy 6 per cent conversion rate.
The activity was complemented by the Open Road Film Festival, which was supported by Australian actor Bryan Brown and involved local filmmakers compiling a six-minute film that included a final 40-second frame produced by Harley-Davidson. The activity tied into the brand’s film roots and again, was about establishing an emotional connection, Wright said.
A game of chess
It’s not surprising therefore that innovation and adding value are at the top of Wright’s list of musts for modern marketers.
“You need to be creative – without that there are no new ideas. As marketers, we have to try things to see how they work and take calculated risks,” he said. “Most importantly, you have to understand your consumer base and what those customers want, and make the experience one they’ll never forget.”
Having spent 25 years in motorcycling, Wright said his focus is now on guidance and leadership. “I see my position as like a game of chess – you have to be strategic, plan your moves well, but it’s also about the support team around you executing the right moves to win the game at the end,” he added.
“As a company we have a mantra: One company, one team, one direction. That’s what it’s about for me.”