What makes a Harley Davidson motorcycle special?
You don’t have to be a motorcycle enthusiast to answer this question - almost anyone can name something. Harley bikes have a distinct sound, look and feel. Even if you’ve never been on one, they’re an iconic part of American culture.
But it didn’t used to be that way.
If you do actually know a thing or two about motorcycles, you also have this to say about Harley: they’re very expensive and not actually that different than many of it’s competitors, like Yamaha or Honda.
So, how did it earn it’s place in American history, and why do people shell out an extra $2800 (or much more) to buy a Harley Davidson instead of a Yamaha?
Ken Schmidt, the former director of communications for Harley Davidson, came to Super Forum 2016 to explain how Harley Davidson’s success was built on community.
When you need to buy something expensive, how do you normally know which brand to choose? You probably talk to friends, look at reviews online and read the specs for each brand you’re considering. But at the end of the day, what really influences your decision? People usually buy a product based on how they feel about it and who they associate it with.
Why buy a MacBook Pro when there are many good PCs out there for half the price? Because Macs have a certain look, and when you buy one it says something about your personality.
According to Ken, in this day and age, almost everything on the market is excellent - doing something well, from building motorcycles to computers, isn’t a competitive advantage anymore.
“The market won’t accept anything less than great,” he said. “No one exists in the business or the association world unless they’re damn good. There’s nothing we can do that somebody else can’t do that’s not faster and cheaper.”
Yet people will spend $2800 more for a Harley over a nearly identical Yamaha. What distinguishes them from their competitors the way Apple distinguishes themselves from a regular old Dell?
It’s because when you buy a Harley, you’re not just buying a motorcycle - you’re buying an experience, an identity and a ticket into their unique community.
You can’t go to the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota - a rally that attracts 1.25 million Harley-riding people a year - with a Honda or a Yamaha, even if it looks the same as a Harley. You can’t customize a Honda or Yamaha to show the world who you are the way you’re expected to with a Harley.
People go to Sturgis to see the power of community leveraged at the ‘quantum level,’ as Ken said. They go there because these are their people - they have much more in common with each other than just a motorcycle, but their love for Harley Davidson is what connects otherwise disparate people together.
“The goal of the Harley dealerships isn’t to sell a motorcycle - it’s to create memorable experiences for people that they’re going to talk about,” said Ken. “Every effort in this company is built on advocacy. We are going to make sure that everyone we come in contact with is going to become a loud vocal advocate for us.”
“We found that amazing and powerful things can happen when we tap into what we all share as human beings,” said Ken during his Super Forum keynote. “We have an innate human need to reach out to each other. Doing that can have tremendous benefits for business.”
How did Harley Davidson stumble on discovery?
When Ken joined Harley Davidson, the company was in bad shape. Ken said the company had three big strikes against itself:
So what did they do? Rather than convincing people it had the best product, or trying to attract different customers, Harley Davidson embraced its tough but passionate riders and leaned on their most loyal customers - creating an incredibly vibrant community in the process.
“What does it take to get somebody - anybody - to advocate for you? It takes effort, but most of all, it takes humanity,” said Ken.
People don’t fall in love with products or brands - they fall in love with the people that surround those products and brands, people who let them talk about themselves and feel a sense of belonging. That’s why customization and loud tail pipes are such big parts of the Harley Davidson community.
By embracing and cultivating their community, Ken and his team at Harley Davidson turned their company around and created the Harley Davidson we know - and many love - today.
“If we were rational, logical people, you’d always go with the Honda,” said Ken. “But we’re not. You’ll go with the way more expensive Harley. You could buy three Hondas for the price of one Harley.”
Why? Because of the community. You can’t buy community or transfer community - for better or worse, it's permanently attached to a product or brand. And since that’s the case, it’s best to embrace your community and ensure it remains vibrant and authentic.