When was the last time you felt this strongly about anything?" reads the headline, paired with a photo of a Harley-Davidson tattoo adorning a burly man's arm. For Minneapolis agency Carmichael Lynch, which created the ad in 1987, working on the Harley account for nearly 25 years has meant burnishing a 100-year-old connection between consumer and brand.
Harley, which celebrated its centennial with 100,000 of its closest customers over Labor Day, represents a lifestyle, an attitude, an "uncompromised philosophy of living," as vp of marketing Joanne Bischmann puts it. "[We're] not a milquetoast brand; it says something about you." But just because the name has built-in cachet, working on the account isn't necessarily an easy ride. "You don't want to be the ones who screw it up," Bischmann says.
During its tenure, CL has used glorious photography combined with clever headlines to equate Harley-Davidson with freedom and independence for a target that's as much yuppie weekend warrior as it is hirsute, leather-clad rider. The shop has created hundreds of concepts and won numerous awards, from a gold Lion at Cannes in 1997 (for a spot in which pigeons are careful not to poop on a Harley bike) to a Kelly in 2002 (for an ad that matches an open-road shot with the headline, "Somewhere on an airplane a man is trying to rip open a small bag of peanuts").
Bischmann, CL president John Colasanti and executive creative director Jim Nelson, who has worked on the account since 1991, recently delved into the archives to reminisce about highlights of the agency's relationship with Harley-Davidson and reveal some concepts that didn't make the cut because they were deemed too insider, too boastful, too outlaw or even "too gross."
Every Harley ad is intended to appeal first to the core customer: the rider who spends his (it's sometimes her, but mostly his) free time caring for the bike, customizing it or riding it. But beyond that is a group of Harley fans who are content simply to associate themselves with the brand in a token way, which could mean owning just one T-shirt or buying a Harley toy for their kids. "What is common is what they're looking for out of life," Bischmann says.
Harley wants its ads to appeal to both sets of consumers. The "Life should be so simple" ad above, created in1987, shows how immersed one can become in Harley culture: Food, shelter and a Harley is all you need for a complete life. "There are people who live like this and have this setup in their apartments," Colasanti says. "But even if you don't, it rings true to you."
To the contrary, Bischmann believed (and agency-sponsored research later backed her up) that the concept of six black Harley T-shirts on a clothesline and a plain black one for Sundays would intimidate those merely dipping their toes into the Harley lifestyle. "They [would think], 'If my whole life is going to get immersed in Harley-Davidson, I can't do that," explains Bischmann, who joined the company in 1990 as manager of advertising and promotion.
Carmichael Lynch had pitched the concept for a 1998 campaign, arguing it was "a brilliant portrayal of the affinity our target has with the brand," says Colasanti.
"I look at the T-shirt ad as the tattoo ad with a little more humor," Nelson says. "[But] if you're going to be a writer in advertising, you've got to get used to a little heartbreak. In the end, they will buy the best work you can possibly do for the brand."
Rebelliousness is an essential element of Harley's image. But the extent to which the advertising should emphasize it is the area of biggest disagreement between agency and client.
Bischmann doesn't want lawlessness to define the brand. "I know how much fun it is to dwell in the dark world," she says. "But it's only one little part of the brand. We can't afford to be that narrow." Harley produces only four or five motorcycle brand ads a year, which means each has to do some heavy lifting, Bischmann says.
She rejected the "Hassled by the man" idea below, presented as part of 1997's "Book of Harley" campaign, a series of ads written as chapters chronicling Harley's appeal (e.g., "Chpt. 16, The Hopelessly Addicted"). She also nixed another ad in the same vein that carried the headline, "Nervous townsfolk."
Colasanti still quibbles with the decision: "If you're going to write a book about Harley, you have to have this [outlaw] chapter."
A little advance warning might have helped, says Nelson, who had written body copy before he was told the ads would not be produced.
But there are ways to express Harley's darker side appropriately. Two years after pitching the "Hassled" ad, Carmichael Lynch came back with a similar concept expressed in a slightly differently way. "We felt the subject was right, but we served it up in a way that was more acceptable," Colasanti says. In this case, the headline—"May all your encounters with the law start with the words 'Nice Harley' "— makes all the difference. "It maybe survived because it had a happy ending," Nelson says.
"It's more truthful," explains Bischmann. "There's a dark side to it, but it's more respectful."
"That's just gross," Bischmann says of the "Bug flies in your mouth" concept, which was pitched for a 1998 campaign centered on themes of freedom and independence.
The agency well knew it was out on a limb with its locker-room humor. (Not to mention that "any bug-eating thing ... I've gotten the message to just stay away," Nelson says, because it's too cliché.) "But sometimes you go in with a little present for Joanne," Colasanti says. "You've got to throw a curveball once in a while."
That's not to say gross-out humor doesn't have a place in the Harley world. A television commercial from the same year for the lower-priced Harley roadster showed a motorcyclist inhaling a bee. But rather than spitting or swallowing, the rider simply belches.
Two years earlier, the agency won a gold Lion at Cannes, a silver Andy, a bronze Clio and a New York Art Directors Merit Award with a scatalogical commercial. In the 30-second execution, the camera slowly pans back on a Harley bike as pigeons roost overhead. As the camera reaches its reveal, the birds are seen carefully avoiding the area directly above the bike. As the words "Respected. Everywhere" appear onscreen, two pigeons make the point that their waste will not touch a Harley. Bischmann admits her approval is based more on instinct than anything else, but here, "we did ask a lot of people to make sure it was taken in the context of humor."
"They didn't even think twice about it," Nelson says. "How else are you going to make a message like that if you won't do it with some self-deprecating humor?"
"The Curse of Popularity," another chapter from 1997's "Book of Harley" campaign, came as Harley was expanding its brand, opening restaurants and adding to its clothing line. At the time, competitors and believers alike were asking whether Harley had sold out.
"That's not welcoming someone in," Bischmann says, explaining why she rejected the chapter. "That's responding to the public, and we're not going to do that." Plus, Harley wants to be known for its quiet authority. "We don't like to talk about ourselves as a brand," Bischmann adds. "If [Harley] was a person, it's a person who's unassuming. You never know what we're going to do."
Of course, when you have something to crow about, you crow. With a milestone like its centennial, the company loosened its modesty a bit, despite some hesitation on Bischmann's part. She admits the recent Lewis and Clark ad is not a favorite. But her department loved the idea, and "we don't make decisions based on one person."
"This is the 100th, and we wanted to have a bit of a different [attitude]," Colasanti says. And unlike "The Curse of Popularity," the Lewis and Clark idea doesn't take a defensive tone.
Nelson says the current campaign was particularly challenging. "I didn't want to do six ads about being 100 years old," he explains The solution? A simple line to run on every ad: "True for the first 100 years. True for the next 100 years."