Why the Harley brand's so hot

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This past holiday season, I spent hours in malls, supermarkets, electronics stores and online. I couldn't help but put on my marketing cap and look at the experience as an informed consumer. What I realized is how few true "brands" there are.

Most products and services masquerade as brands. They have logos and positive associations to which they can lay claim, but most lack that deep, visceral connection and unshakable loyalty that characterizes true brands from fungible products and services. When competing products drop their price or add a new feature or benefit, you've often got a turncoat customer on your hands. The reason is simple: The depth of connection is weak. The marketer failed to create sufficient rational and emotional "switching costs" for the consumer.

Marketers that understand the power of building deep connections to customers are the true builders of real brands. They benefit from long and dependable life cycles that serve as annuity revenue streams and withstand competitive attacks. What separates them from others? A core belief that the consumer owns the brand, not the company. When viewed in this way, consumers become individuals with whom you need to build relationships. The rational side of any purchase decision is important; it's the emotional side that keeps `em coming back.

If it's the emotional bond that separates weak from strong brands, who has cracked the code? The Harley-Davidson Motor Co. has. No other brand has the degree of unshakable loyalty and advocacy that its customers ascribe to it. Harleys are synonymous with the world's most recognizable motorcycles and deeply connected to American culture and values. They have become symbols of rugged individualism, freedom and rebellion. Buy a Harley and you're not just buying a finely made machine or a mode of transportation (the rational/price-of-entry stuff); you're buying into a way of living, a mystique cultivated over the company's storied 100 years in business. But how did Harley-Davidson do it?

360-degree marketing

It didn't happen overnight. Harley cultivated its image and relationships over a long period of time and effectively wrapped itself around its customers using multiple marketing techniques-an approach I refer to as 360-degree marketing.

Too many of us take a one-pony approach to marketing, relying too heavily on advertising and promotion alone without giving thought to leveraging the many touch points that can influence perceptions and build relationships with customers. Every touch point-the product itself, its distribution channels, sales, customer service, design, communications, brand extensions, etc.-should be harnessed to enhance relationships. But you need to connect the dots or it just won't happen.

Harley-Davidson over its 100 years has been very smart in its approach. It established its reputation based on producing tough, high quality and reliable motorcycles. Word of the durable bikes spread rapidly and they became the motorcycle of choice for police departments across the country. During World Wars I and II, most of Harley-Davidson's production was devoted to supplying U.S. and allied troops with motorcycles-an action that further strengthened its linkage to American culture, values and imagery. Following World War II, returning troops had a strong affinity for Harley's tough and reliable motorcycles, creating significant demand for the company. During the entire period, Harley-Davidson motorcycles retained their distinctive styling, creating a sense of nostalgia and continuity that has been carried forward to this day.

What Harley-Davidson clearly understands is that the people who buy Harleys want to be part of an extended family-a community of free-spirited adventure seekers. While the outlaw bad-boy biker image is what we might typically associate with Harley riders, they're just as likely to be CEOs and investment bankers.

To build and reinforce this strong sense of community, Harley-Davidson creatively leverages all its customer touch points: It gives plant tours, conducts special events and races, holds bike rallies. It launched a line of durable, branded motorcycle clothing and accessories. It selectively licenses the Harley brand on products (there's even a Barbie Biker doll and a chrome Visa credit card). And there's the H.O.G-the Harley Owners Group. H.O.G. comprises 650,000 members worldwide and provides an organized way for Harley riders to share their passion and show their pride. At the celebration of the company's 100th anniversary last year on Aug. 30, more than 250,000 people from around the world descended on Milwaukee to celebrate the event. How many of your customers would attend a celebration of any one of your brands?

I think you get the point. True brands are measured by the intensity of the relationship and the degree to which you've created unshakable loyalty and advocacy for them. If it were up to me, I'd do away with brand and category development indices (BDIs and CDIs) and create a new and more powerful metric: a Brand Relationship Intensity Index. Who knows? It might one day catch on.

About the author: James D. Speros is chief marketing officer, Ernst & Young, and chairman of the Association of National Advertisers.

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