The Harley Factor – Makes Competitors Irrelevant

June 9, 2009 at 12:36 am 2 comments

Working for a non-Harley Davidson manufacturer in the motorcycle industry for so long, one tires of endless references to the Milwaukee icon. In fact, we often took Harley out of the discussion, excusing the historic brand as simply different from the rest. Different, absolutely. Excused? Well that’s just in-excusable.

Every product category has a Harley Davidson – an 800-pound gorilla in the room that can make competitors crazy, but is too often ignored. Executives and managers sit in meetings scratching the hair completely off their heads as they ask “Why?” Yet all along, these MBA-trained executives know the answer. Yet they’re most often unwilling to deliver the solution to their own brands – a solution that could put an end to the head-scratching and possibly even cause Milwaukee (or Atlanta, or Cupertino, or Portland) to ask a question or two.

Call it the Harley Factor, or the Apple Equation, the Nike Necessity or the Coke Conundrum. What is it that just makes people want a particular name brand – to the point of emotional overload?

It’s NOT about the product. Even if the product is superior (though most often it’s not), some brands just have it, and their fans gotta have them regardless of product quality. Many non-Harley motorcycle manufacturers are convinced their products are superior to those from the Harley stable. Better racing performance or prolonged durability or lighter weight, newer technology, etc. Similarly, Dell or Hewlett-Packard or even Microsoft might argue features and benefits with the Magicians of Mac. Adidas will put its soccer boots up against the Nike swoosh. And the Pepsi v. Coke battles are epic for the flavor-touting detail.

None of that matters. Okay, I exaggerate a bit. The product itself does play a small part in this, but only to the point of not completely alienating devotees. Harley lost some following during the days of the AMF ownership in the 1970s. Harley Davidson became “Hardly Driveable,” until 1980s and new old ownership brought the company back. And the infamous New Coke fiasco of 1985, when fans of the red-and-white decried the sweeter concoction and forced the chiefs to bring back Classic Coke.

But these are minor hiccups – of the sort endured in any long and emotional relationship. Relationship. There it is. Better than any motorcycle manufacturer, Harley relates to its customers. It understands the way they live, dress, travel, associate, and ride motorcycles. Apple – far beyond Mac computers – understands the way its customers interact with music and now with cell phones – with technology itself. In this way, the products become secondary to the lifestyle they allow, celebrate, encourage and expand.

Several similar Brands come to mind – though none to the degree of Harley-Davidson or Apple. Ralph Lauren’s Polo. Google. Mercedes-Benz. 3M. The Wall Street Journal. ESPN. Make your own list. More often than not, it’s not about the product. It’s about a relationship and an understanding that serves to make the competition irrelevant. Ask a Harley owner: “Is there a competitor?”


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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Guido  |  June 9, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    Competitor to H-D?
    For H-D riders who are fans of the brand: No.
    For H-D riders who are fans of riding: BMW, perhaps?
    I get your point: We all see many folks clad in H-D embossed apparel who don’t ride. Much like the “Guido” clad in Ferrari gear.

  • 2. Viktor  |  June 15, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    Most of Harley customers needs specially attention from their environment. H-D Company has recognized that need and developed its service and like more like any other MC Company.
    I would say that this company has focused more on the customer research and dealer development than others.


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