Harley-Davidson CMO on Millennials and Sustained Success

Harley-Davidson is known as the major American motorcycle manufacturer that has been alive and thriving for 113 years– even surviving the Great Depression. It’s no surprise that the company’s Dark Custom collection won an Effie for Sustained Success, a category emphasizing success that has been sustained for greater than 5 years.

For long-standing companies, it can be difficult to keep up with the trends and interests of newer generations, but Harley-Davidson has made relevance their goal in the Dark Custom collection. In a recent interview with Alan Hart, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of Harley-Davidson, Mark-Hans Richer, says, “The goal for us when we started Dark Custom– which started more like 7 plus years ago– was to drive relevance and the passions of the next generation of riders… Every generation has passed the baton from one to the next and the objective was to make sure that would happen with this next very large generation of young adults.”

The Dark Custom collection was released in 2008 and is characterized by its theme of blacked-out, retro-inspired models designed to appeal to generations new and old. “Our customers, younger ones or older ones, are very passionate about Harley-Davidson and want to find themselves within Harley-Davidson and our job is to liberate that,” says Richer. The focus of the collection was to bring something personal to younger generations of riders— whether it’s through the way the product looks with its sleeker, younger build, the new line of gear and apparel catering to a younger style, or the emphasis on its online campaign to reach riders in the digital age. The Dark Custom collection was meant to build upon the ethos of personal expression and relevance of Harley-Davidson, fine tune it, deepen it, and spread it throughout the nation and beyond– and its success was certainly rewarded.

“The reason why we won the Effie is because we gained more than 10 points of market share with young adults since 2008 and we are now the #1 motorcycle brand for young adults— and that was not true when we started,” says Richer, “[Marketing effectiveness] starts with increased relevance because it’s got to start with the customer…  the measurement of increased relevance is increased sales and increased share.” So how did they do it?

Harley-Davidson, contrary to many companies, thought twice before committing to the popular tactic of “out with the old, in with the new.” In fact, Harley-Davidson focuses on tradition to reel in the new generation. “Many businesses assume they need to change to keep up with new generations- think you need a totally new approach that isn’t anything like what you do in order to grow with the new generation. We look at it a different way in that we want to see what we already do that is already relevant and then [think about] how can we scale that and deepen that,” says Richer. He asserts that the challenge is to stay true to your initial objectives and strategies. It can be difficult to look at marketing strategies with fresh eyes without losing the center of the insights that you started with. “Keeping it consistent is about staying true to our customers.” Yet, Richer notes that they couldn’t have done it without a whole team of passionate and creative people behind the scenes. “We have people whose only job is to think about particular customer types and be their advocate.” The gears behind Harley-Davidson consisted of many agencies along the way, no one greater than the other. Ultimately, the company credits their success to the efforts of their team, praising that all talents come together to sustain success.

For other marketers battling for the attention of new generations, Richer suggests the concept of DNA level marketing, or hyperpersonal marketing, which he describes as marketing techniques that assess consumers on a personal level and build appropriate relationships with them. “People want to be understood and recognized- respected in the interpersonal relationship a company should have with a customer,” says Richer. It can be easy to jump after the new, shiny thing, but Richer maintains that while we should know about these new things, we shouldn’t overemphasize them. “Don’t overthink it too much; don’t rush toward the new thing,” says Richer, “take a look at what you’re already doing that already works.” In addition, Richer wants to warn marketers of the distraction of generalization. Marketers’ fixation on the construct of ‘generations’ is a focus that drowns individuality and diversity, which should never be forgotten when trying to understand and identify with an audience. The risk of an over-focus on millennials at the cost of other generations is a very real one. As far as sustained success goes, Richer leaves us with this: “Good marketers look at all, not just one.”

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