Few companies succeed in building brands that eventually become cultural icons in our society and achieve iconic status. A brand can be forgiven for lower product quality when compared to competitor products if their brand story and identity resonates with their target audience.
One such brand is Harley Davidson. They have a pretty average bike. When you assess its performance compared to competitor bikes — it’s not the fastest and it’s not the best. But it still has a loyal fan base and customers love the brand. Why?
People had the same love for Coke. So when the brand introduced “New Coke”, because it did not taste good compared to Pepsi, it wasn’t received well. The company reported back to the previous product. We’ve made an article on this that you can check out here — (provide link)
The journey of Harley into becoming a cultural icon
So why is Harley Davidson such an iconic brand? Why is it not just a bike but became a way of life, an attribute?
Harley-Davidson Motor Company was formed in 1903 by four men, led by Robert Harley, who began their operations in a small shed in the Davidson family’s backyard.
People who own their product love the brand and pride themselves on owning a Harley Davidson bike. In spite of having occasional technical problems like oil leakages, people love the brand for its personality.
What’s the reason behind the love of the brand?
Sonny Barger, who is the founder of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, writes in his book the reason people love Harley Davidson,
“What it’s really about with a Harley Davidson is the sound…..everybody loves that rumble. Another thing Harley owners really crave about their bikes is the low-end torque, the raw power coming out of the gate. It runs out pretty quick once you get up past ninety miles an hour. Most Harley riders don’t care about high speed, they’d rather have that low-end torque, the one the gurgles down in your groin and gives you the feeling of power. The Japanese bikes, while they have the power, they don’t quite have the feeling of power”
Harley Davidson is a rugged, strong, and powerful brand image. It’s clear the brand, through its marketing, gives you the feeling of being yourself, freedom to travel, living a life without rules.
Because of the love of the brand, people not only buy their bikes but also tattoo their brand name on themselves. Capitalizing on this, the brand ventured into merchandise — selling t-shirts, socks, cigarette lighters, and more. All of them were tailored towards the masculine and powerful nature of the brand.
The brand made a major misstep by introducing Harley Davidson’s range of perfume and aftershave products. Their goal was more products equals more sales. That holds true for a while until the brand value and loyalty start declining. It ends up diluting the brand, resulting in the production of inferior products that tarnish the brand’s name in the future.
In the 1990s, they continued to alienate their customers through products such as wine coolers, perfumes, infant clothes, ties, and so on.
Charles E Brymer, CEO of Interbrand Group, said. “ Harley Davidson values are strong, masculine, very rugged values. For them to go into a sector that doesn’t live up to what those values would be disastrous”
The brand since then realized their mistake and the effects of this misstep were a limited one.
Lessons from Harley Davidson
Never lose sight of your brand values: If your brand values are strong, rugged, and freedom-to-explore in nature, you shouldn’t be selling perfumes and kid’s clothes. That’s where Harley Davidson messed up. It went away from its values and slowly alienated its existing loyal fan base.
A brand’s foundation is built on its values. Brands can evolve over time, but their values should not change. The primary driving force behind your brand, business, behaviors, and decisions are your core values; these uncompromising truths and principles define who you are.
You are guided in making your choices by your values, which have an influence over every decision of yours. People buy from a brand that aligns with them and their values because of the credibility and the trust the brand provides.
Avoid alienating your existing customer base: Harley’s goal of diving into merchandise was to gain access to more markets who might not buy the bike but can instead buy their merch.
They had brand loyalty and hence believed that more products will result in more sales and eventually more profits. But it was short-term. Instead, the brand risked becoming diluted by stirring away from its core product category — Rugged, Classic American Motorbikes.
Harley Davidson owned the category of rugged motorbikes. But adding more categories such as infant clothes, perfumes, etc. made the brand feel less differentiated in the market. That results in the loss of the key essence, values of the brand which people resonated with in the first place. A brand that attempts to become an “everyone’s brand” ends up becoming a no man’s brand.
Build an emotional connection with your customers — Kevin Roberts, CEO at Saatchi & Saatchi, studied the brand and concluded Harley’s bikes are “pretty average”. It’s not the fastest, not the most economical, and not the best in performance compared to competitors. What Harley consumers cared about were two things: Its signature rumbling sound (which stayed when you’re under 80 mph) and driving the bike with your pack of friends.
This is a “Trustmark” that the brand created. People connect and trust the brand because of it. And they stay true to it in their marketing messages as well. They connect with you on a deeper level every time you see their advert. They don’t communicate product specs. They spark emotions. And interested people can go and find out the information themselves.
In the process of branding, define your brand values and never change them. Your brand can evolve over time. But your values shouldn’t.