From its humble beginning in 1903 today Harley Davidson has become one of the most popular and successful motorcycle brands in history. With being a highly decorated service motorcycle in the World Wars, Harley has made a name for itself like no other motorcycle brand. Beyond the purview of brand loyalty and emotional branding, HOG (Harley Owners Group) is a sponsored community marketing group which has transformed into a cult among bikers. From branded leather merchandise to Harley-Davidson logo tattoos on their skin, these bikers feel an association that is rarely witnessed towards any brand. The rallies organized by these bikers’ club in collaboration to HOG are seen as a freedom movement and this freedom is readily attributed to the brand and its brand image. Through a secondary research this paper focuses on finding the reasons for such strong affinity of bikers to the brand image of Harley-Davidson.
In a world of neck to neck competition for most of the industries marketing emerges to be a significant criterion for having an upper edge in competition. According to Malar et al., 2011) psychological bonds with a brand often referred to as emotional brand connections result in a higher level to brand performance and competitive advantage. This emotional linkage leads to increased commitment (Grisaffe & Nguyen, 2011), customer satisfaction (Bagozzi et al., 1999), loyalty and repurchase intentions (Ersoy & Calik, 2010). Furthermore, Bagazzi et al. (1999) defined emotions with respect to market as “mental states of readiness that arise from appraisals of events or one’s own thoughts”. In contrast with the traditional branding approach, emotional branding attends to the meaning of consumers interaction with brand. Thompson et al. (2006) extends emotional branding as a tool of analysis of how a brand has interacted with consumers life in order to either inspire passion, create stories/memories or develop experiences.
With the continued growth of the Harley Davidson brand over the years, its brand image and reputation evolved with it. The Harley brand logo was recognized by customers as a symbol of freedom and power. The brand embraced this notion of being rebellious in reputation with some baggage— implying that some groups linked Harley Davidson bikes with notorious gangs.
‘People buy on emotions and justify with logic’, the quote has made a significant influence in the field of marketing, through which tools like ‘emotional branding’ help develop meaningful relationships, and cultivate lasting customers by tapping on human’s affinity to certain ideas. In case of Harley Davidson, consumers consume the American muscle image of a veteran war machine, as it has served gloriously in both the World Wars. Harley Davidson was able to establish itself as a traditional part of the motorcycle industry by cultivating an identity built on the ideals of freedom, tradition, culture, and value. The devoted supporters of cult-like consumers know exactly what the brand calls for, and the impression of lifestyle they sell. Clubbed with the feeling of being a rebel and free through Harley Owners Groups, HOGs, company has successfully created a strong army of followers and future buyers.
According to Austin Gagne & Orend (2010), in the postwar era only British made- Triumphs, and US made- Harley Davidson and Indians were the most popular motorcycle brands around the globe. All these brands had proven themselves in the war and retained the image of a rough and young brand. In late 1950s the American motorcycle market was on a slowdown it was this market when Japanese were able to sell their small and reliable machines. The clean appeal projected by the Japanese could not wash off the then popular image of a rebel and outlaw attributed to bikers. Davidson (2001) further adds that Marlon Brando’s rebellious character from ‘The Wild One’ also slowed down the whitewashing from the company sponsored television show, ‘Then Came Bronson’ in which the host travelled across the United States in his Harley-Davidson. The goal was to present a tough, free yet a humane image of the rider.
But by 1980s the company abandoned its commitment to keep the clean image and embraced the rebellious, carefree, outlaw image from ‘The Wild One’ and ‘Easy. This was done in retrospect to the stock listing in New York Stock Exchange, regardless the market had been slow for Harley-Davidson over the past few years. Executives had realized the market potential in selling the motorcycles to that segment of consumers that seemed enthusiastic in the rebellious image of the bikes Rider’ (Austin Gagne & Orend, 2010). The gamble paid off, Harley’s marketing strategy hit well enough for the company to launch a series of black leather jackets, vests, pants, boots and hats. These merchandises became symbol of riders’ hipness and association to the population considered rebellious and carefree (Polhemus, 2001).
Harley Owners Group is a company sponsored community/club for enthusiasts, it also acts as a source of revenue by selling company merchandises including leather jackets, shoes, T-shirts etc. HOGs organize worldwide and local events for engaging young and veteran bikers to explore their interest of cruise biking. Regardless of age, wealth and professional status today all the members of HOGs greet each other with compassion. The strength of this community is an epitome of association with a brand, the community has also gotten itself engaged in philanthropic activities. Around the globe HOG chapters initiate efforts to raise charity money for the social causes. These philanthropic activities add to the image of Harley-Davidson itself and stir the emotion of future buyers (Schembri, 2009).
Author: Paritosh Joshi
B.Sc. Economics (Hons.) Symbiosis School Of Economics