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Harley Davidson & Brand Deviation

What comes to mind when you think of Harley Davidson?

Big, tough, mean looking guys cruising on chromed up beasts of motorcycles, right? Now, what character traits come to mind when you think of a Harley bike? Masculine, all-american, rebellious and independent. This is the value of brand: the feelings and emotions evoked by a name, a logo, or even the thought of a company and their products.

Brand value accumulates over time, building upon the experiences and contact customers have with the brand.

In the case of Harley Davidson, brand equity has amassed to such a level that the brand is consistently ranked in the top 100 brands of the world. In 2013, the brand alone was worth $4 billion, placed as the 96th most valuable brand on the planet. In fact, the licensing of the Harley-Davidson brand and logo accounted for $40 million of the company's net revenue in 2010. The feelings associated with the brand have a powerful impact on the way customers live their lives, with many enthusiasts going to extremes like tattooing the corporate logo on their bodies. Through their association the branded motorcycles, fans channel the values and characteristics of Harley Davidson; they use the brand to express their identity—but, this isn't really news is it. What's the big deal?

Harley Davidson

The Harley brand is experienced and expressed through product design

The very specific aesthetic and emotion conjured by the Harley Davidson brand is exactly why their announcement of the Project Livewire Experience caused such a ruckus. For their first electric motorcycle prototype, fans and media alike were up in arms: blinged-out heavy cruiser bikes are what Harley does. It goes against everything Harley had spent the last 110 years building and positioning the brand around. Where’s the classic Harley rumble and rebellion in an electric bike? How can they diverge so extremely from their storied legacy?

In actuality, the EV (electric vehicle) is a very logical progression along Harley's trajectory for the brand since 2007. In fact, the heavy cruiser focused brand that the Livewire detractors know and love has only really been around since the early 80s. In response to the backlash against Project Livewire, Motorcycle USA published a well-researched piece on the brand history in terms of physical styles and sizes.

Harley used to make every kind of motorcycle: from scooters to sportbikes, not just heavy cruisers. They also weren’t as ‘all-American’ as their marketing may lead you to believe, since they owned an Italian and a Japanese sub-brand respectively, and even outsourced their manufacturing to Japan for a while.

In 1981 however, a collection of Harley executives led by Vaughn Beals bought the brand from holding company AMF (American Machine Foundry) discontinuing most of the brand’s product lines, and radically re-invented the brand. These executives recognized the so-called ‘Japanese Invasion’ of the motorcycle industry, especially in the lightweight class, so they set out to create a more competitive brand. The new and improved Harley focused on patriotic, American—bordering on xenophobic—messaging of the type we all recognize today. Coupled with their new product line of highway cruiser bikes based on the new heavy duty Evolution motor, the brand was positioned to differentiate itself from the Japanese brands taking over the lightweight market.

Harley Davidson & Brand Deviation

And the positioning worked… up until around 2008 when Harley ran into trouble once again. There were two factors at play which affected sales. The financial crisis in the banking sector was the first. No longer did people have access to easy credit to indulge in a $20,000 weekender bike or have the cash to fill up a large gas tank. Instead, budget conscious consumers needed a cheaper, fuel-efficient bike more practical for commuting. The Harley brand still represented independence, but high spending wasn’t something most Americans could afford anymore. Another challenge for was the demographic that Harleys attracted: riders tended to be Caucasian, middle-aged men. Changing times meant changing tactics since the aging baby boomer generation was riding less and owning their current bikes for long periods of time, well into the upper end of the upgrade spectrum. Ultimately, the company’s ability to grow was limited.

It marked a turning point for the brand which, following the relative success of the Nightster in 2007, released the Sportster Iron 883—a blacked out, heavily styled version of Harley's smallest bike (883cc engine) designed to appeal to a younger, more diverse audience. This trend continued with the addition of the 1200cc Dark Custom 48 (replacing the Nightster) taking both bikes under the moniker of the ‘Dark Customer Series’. Although they were highway ready, these bikes prioritized cruising in style around the city, rather than comfort for long road trips.

This set the stage for the Street Series. In early 2014, Harley unveiled their new, lightweight line of stylish city bikes called the Street 750 and the Street 500.

These bikes are the smallest the brand has seen in some tim, and marks the biggest departure from the ‘classic’ Harley style since the 80s. Targeted at urban commuters, this line was created for the young, culturally diverse audience that pre-2009 Harley held no appeal for.

Harley Davidson & Brand Deviation
Harley Davidson & Brand Deviation

This brings us to Project Livewire which released last summer as the most recent evolution of the Harley brand. Yes, they still sell their range of heavy-weight cruisers, but the brand has evolved and vastly expanded their appeal, becoming accessible to a much wider demographic as a result.

The electric motorcycle brandscape

Harley has set themselves up beautifully. Because of their earlier decisions, they now have a baked-in audience for their EV. Ideally a portion of their legacy audience will buy it as well, but it's far more likely that Livewire consumers will be the diverse hip, urban youth already familiar and attracted to the brand through the Dark Custom and Street series. They care about the environment, style, and practical commuting. So far, the EV market is dominated by brands like Zero and Energica which position their bikes as futuristic. This certainly appeals to tech-geeks and sport-bike riders, but has some limiting effects for widespread adoption.

The Harley brand is positioned to appeal to a much broader customer base, coupled with their existing dealer network and marketing dollars, they will likely be one of the strongest contenders in the electric market.

Brand deviation or...

Although it took some of their die-hard fans by surprise, the latest addition to Harley's product lineup is still true to the essence of their brand, while serving to deconstruct their own cliche. The solid build quality and presentation of Project Livewire are classic Harley Davidson: gutsy, rebellious and a little unexpected.

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