Harley-Davidson CMO: We Aren't an Auto Brand

Mark-Hans Richer Explains Why the Motorcycle Marque Is More About Lifestyle Than Transportation

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Mark-Hans Richer, CMO, Harle-Davidson
Mark-Hans Richer, CMO, Harle-Davidson

Harley-Davidson CMO Mark-Hans Richer prides himself on using nontraditional marketing to reach motorcycle customers.

Most recently, he pulled off a high holy day of event marketing by having Pope Francis bless thousands of Harley riders and their bikes as part of a four-day Roman holiday celebrating the company's 110th anniversary. In photos flashed around the world, Mr. Richer showed off bikes and Harley leather gear to the pope himself. Harley customers also paraded around the Colosseum and received guided tours of the Eternal City.

Under Mr. Richer's watch, Harley spends just 15% of its marketing budget on traditional media -- the brand spent $12 million on measured media last year, according to Kantar Media. The rest is spent on riding with customers and trying to create "epic" experiences like the big bike party in Rome.

"We think the best form of advertising is great experiences spread by word-of-mouth," said Mr. Richer, who's served as senior VP-CMO since 2007.

A motorcycle rider since he was 19 years old, Mr. Richer joined Harley from General Motors, where he spent nine years in the automaker's Pontiac, GMC and Chevy Truck divisions. He said he loves having a job where he can ride his bike to work, alongside customers at road rallies and in exotic locales such as Tibet. He describes his own two Harley bikes this way: "They're both fast -- but one's faster."

Like the auto industry, Harley took a hit during the recession, closing plants and laying off workers. But the marketer rebounded, with retail sales of new Harley motorcycles growing 6.6% in the U.S. and 6.2% worldwide, in 2012. Mr. Richer points out consumers are looking for very different things when they buy a car vs. a bike.

"Harley is not automotive. It might have an engine, it might have wheels, and it might run on roads, but that's where the similarities stop," Mr. Richer said. "They're really different customers. ... The ideals they reach out for when they buy cars are different from what they're reaching out for with Harley-Davidson. We're really not about transportation; it's not about getting from Point A to Point B. It's about living life in the way you choose."

Despite the outlaw-biker image, Harley's customers run the gamut. It is the No. 1 seller of motorcycles to women, African-Americans, Hispanics, young adults and baby boomers. The company's varied customer base was the inspiration for the current #stereotypicalharley ad campaign, Mr. Richer said.

That campaign includes a set of digital videos featuring real-life customers. Titled "E Pluribus Unum" or "Out of Many, One," the campaign depicts the diversity of Harley's customer base by showing actual riders ranging from police officers and soccer moms to gourmet chefs and grade-school teachers.

A few years ago, Harley soured on the idea of outsourcing its creative strategy to a traditional agency. It parted ways with longtime agency Carmichael Lynch in 2010 and teamed up with crowdsourcing shop Victors & Spoils, now affiliated with Havas. Harley now invites its freedom-loving customers to share and create their own stories via a "Fan Machine" app on the company's Facebook page, where it has nearly 4.7 million likes. It then casts real riders, found among its 133,000 Twitter followers, in the ads.

The latest campaign to use that approach is the #stereotypicalharley effort, which is based on an idea submitted by Harold Chase of Tukwila, Wash.

"All of our main creative ideas are sourced through our Facebook page. So we don't have a lead agency anymore," Mr. Richer said. "We cast for all of the people in the ads through Twitter. So they're all riders who've nominated themselves for our advertising through our Twitter feed. Then we chose the ones that best represented the diversity of our customer base and created #stereotypicalharley. There really is no stereotypical customer. That's the whole point of it."

Mr. Richer conceded many of the ideas they get from average Joes are not exactly advertising gold: "Sometimes you have to sort the wheat from the chaff." But the customers "love it" and many ideas are "rich," he added. The approach has worked well enough that Mr. Richer sees no reason to change. What's the difference, he pointed out, between asking customers for suggestions on products and services and asking them for ad ideas.

Harley does work with shops for media buying, digital and special projects, but it plans to continue to rely on customers for creative ideas. The approach goes "straight to the source vs. trying to get it translated by an agency that's in the middle," Mr. Richer said. "It might not work for everybody but it works for us."

On the sports front, Harley also takes a nontraditional approach. Back in December 2007, it became one of the first major brands to sponsor the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a league once derided as "human cockfighting" by U.S. Senator John McCain. Now the UFC is fast becoming one of the most popular sports in the world. The relationship has paid off with Harley's rebel clientele.

"When the biggest brand involved in the UFC was Mickey's Big Mouth Beer, we jumped into the center of the Octagon," Mr. Richer said. "We felt it was the right kind of attitude for our brand. And the right audience: young adults and passionate people. We felt it was going to grow. I think our judgment was right."