Harley celebrates ‘the customers’ brand’

Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson Inc. has one of the most celebrated, authentic and iconic corporate brands in the world.

It’s more than just the motorcycles. It’s a lifestyle.

The fact that people willingly and proudly have tattoos of the company’s logo burned onto their bodies is no accident or coincidence. Such loyalty has been carefully crafted over a 105-year legacy.

The company’s motorcycles, logo, branded merchandise, licensed dealerships, Harley Owners Group (HOG) chapters around the globe and dealer network are testaments to its heritage, history and traditions.

“Harley-Davidson and authenticity are almost synonymous,” said Bill Davidson, the company’s vice president of core customer marketing. “We talk about (authenticity) all the time and its relevance to our customers and new customers. And it goes back to our beginnings in 1903 with my great-grandfather and uncle, Walter and Arthur Davidson, and William Harley. It’s a major DNA component of what we’re all about.”

Harley-Davidson stays authentic through its connection to its customers, Davidson said. The company routinely sends many of its employees to events around the globe, ranging from the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D., to Bike Week in Daytona Beach, Fla., and events in Australia, Europe and even China.

At events such as Bike Week, Harley’s employees talk with as many customers as they can about engine output, bike designs, clothing lines and the company’s other products, Davidson said. And when they come back to Milwaukee, employees are gathered for multiple debriefings.

“In the after-action reviews, we talk about what people like or don’t like,” Davidson said.

“We make sure that the messages and feedback is absorbed into the right area of the company. It’s a continuous process.”

Although Harley-Davidson offers thousands of products with its logo, name or images of their bikes on them, part of the company’s authenticity is that it has never lost focus on its core product – its motorcycles.

“Without the motorcycle, none of these other things would happen,” Davidson said. “The motorcycle is the heartbeat of Harley-Davidson. As a result of all of the planning around motorcycles, we’re able to have parts and accessories, rallies and races. But the motorcycle is the main ingredient.”

However, the company has walked a tightrope since it was founded, Davidson said, balancing between its focus on the motorcycle and a desire to offer more to customers.

“We create and fulfill dreams for our customers – that’s part of the experience and part of the draw to our brand,” Davidson said. “The neat thing is that that’s not a new philosophy. We have documents in our archives showing that clothing and accessories very early on were part of the experience.”

In addition to its motorcycles, the company’s clothing, accessories, HOG chapters and events have evolved because of Harley-Davidson’s connection with its customers, Davidson said.

“In a neat way it’s in reflection to what we heard from our customers,” he said. “We never want to put something out that wouldn’t be real to our customers, that’s not part of their brand. And it is the customers’ brand.”

Every five years, Harley-Davidson gathers as many of its customers as it can in Milwaukee for a celebration of the company’s history.

In “Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want,” authors Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore cite Harley’s anniversary celebrations, saying companies can use anniversaries as a chance to promote their history, heritage and ultimately their authenticity.

Harley-Davidson held its first anniversary celebration in 1988 to mark its 85th anniversary, Davidson said. And even though the company knew its history, its connection to its customers and the role it played in their lives, it was surprised by the results.

“I’ll never forget that experience. I was riding up I-94 from Kenosha, leading a contingent of riders, and we could see people sitting on tractors in farm fields waving American flags and people on overpasses,” Davidson said. “It was such a welcoming reception. We didn’t know what to expect. It was a chilling experience.”

Every five years since, Harley has thrown another anniversary celebration. This year, the company is planning its largest celebration yet, to be celebrated Aug. 29-30. The two-day celebration will include 19 announced musical acts, capped off by a performance by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

The 105th anniversary also will celebrate the new Harley-Davidson Museum, scheduled to open in July. The museum is being built just east of Milwaukee’s Menomonee River Valley at the intersection of South Sixth and West Canal streets.

The celebration will include the 25th anniversary of Harley-Davidson’s Harley Owner Group (HOG), which has chapters located around the globe. That celebration will be held during the 105th anniversary weekend and will be marked by a concert by Kid Rock at Miller Park.

The company’s 100th anniversary celebration was headlined by Elton John – whose appearance generated controversy among many riders and festival attendees.

“There were a lot of people at the 100th that loved Elton John,” Davidson said. “And there were some that didn’t and they left. Music is one of those things that’s in the eye of the beholder. There are a lot of different tastes, and we try to appeal to what we feel our customers like.”

The lessons from the 100th anniversary played a role in determining the musical acts for the 105th, Davidson said.

“When I think of 105 years of perfecting and continuing to raise the bar and keeping our brand on a pedestal, it’s because of our experiences that we’ve learned,” Davidson said. “And we’ve learned what not to do in the future, and that’s still valuable to our company and our brand.”


corporate authenticity

Harley-Davidson Inc.
• Connection to customers – Harley routinely sends its employees all over the world to meet and gather feedback from customers at events, rallies and other large events. 
• Focus on product – Harley makes and sells thousands of different items with its logo, name and pictures of its bikes on it. However, the company’s focus remains its motorcycles, which it has built for 105 years.
• Celebration of heritage – Every five years, Harley gathers hundreds of thousands of motorcycle riders and enthusiasts from around the world in Milwaukee for a multi-day celebration, complete with live music, parades, scheduled rides and tours of its plants.

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

No posts to display