Perspective: A Whole Different Hog

Harley-Davidson hasn't survived this long just by making cool bikes

It may come as a surprise to the admirers of chrome-coated fenders and the “potato potato” voice of V-twin motors that the actual task of selling a Harley-Davidson isn’t as easy as it looks.

Headshot of Robert Klara

It may come as a surprise to the admirers of chrome-coated fenders and the “potato potato” voice of V-twin motors that the actual task of selling a Harley-Davidson isn’t as easy as it looks. The Milwaukee-based brand plays in the premium category—a 2012 Road King Classic in all its spaghetti-piped splendor lists for $19,599—and that becomes a hard sell when the economy goes soft. (Harley survived the Great Depression by selling its bikes to police departments.) But a bigger challenge lay not with the bike or its price, but the ever-changing image of the rider. As the ads here show, the ability to shift gears quickly can apply to the marketing just as much as the motorcycle.

While the 1952 ad for the Hydra-Glide at right might look like a fella just out having fun, the message was both carefully aimed and engineered. In the postwar period, Harley understood that its bikes were growing popular with returning GIs. It also perceived that the suffocating conformity of the suburbs left men looking for a way to “combat the confinement of civilian life,” to quote some of the company’s official history. But the brand was also battling negative public perceptions of motorcycling that roared onto the scene in 1947 when Life magazine ran a now-famous photo of a porky, beer-swilling Harley rider “terrorizing” the town of Hollister, Calif., along with other members of his biker gang, the Boozefighters. As Jean Davidson wrote in her memoir Growing Up Harley-Davidson, “Soon the press was portraying motorcycle gangs as the new Public Enemy Number One.”

How to distance a brand from a rep like that? Well, one way was the ad at right—which not only features a very friendly, non-threatening guy on the saddle, but also focuses solely on the engine specs. It’s mechanical performance that’s being sold here (right down to the winning stats of the races on the lower right), and little else. “This was also the era of the unique selling proposition,” added Katherine Wintsch of The Martin Agency (no corporate relationship with Harley). “They’re pointing out the features no other brand has.”

While suburban America is no longer concerned about motorcycle gangs, Harley has had to continuously adjust its targeting in the decades since the ’50s. Refocusing its message on aging baby boomers in the 1990s was a successful tactic, but its predominantly male demo is aging out and nearly saturated. That’s led to the brand’s more recent overtures to people of color and to women. Wintsch, founder of The Martin Agency’s think tank The Mom Complex, believes that Harley’s 2012 ad (opposite) is both necessary and smart. For one thing, 60 years after the ad on the right, Harley is still carefully steering clear of negative stereotypes. “They’re avoiding the badass biker chick,” Wintsch said, referring to the very normal-looking woman at the handlebars. “They’re also avoiding the woman as paranoid passenger. She’s not gripping onto her man who’s driving.”

For its part, Harley has finally grasped the fact that the market for women bike buyers has grown from 5 percent to nearly 11 percent in the past 10 years. “Women in their 40s are reverting to their wilder and younger days, and this ad really gets to that,” Wintsch said. “They’re not just going for the ride; they’re also taking control.”

As far as the need to escape the suffocating conformity of the suburbs, well, some things never change.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.