| 100 Years of Harley-Davidson Advertising |
By Jack Supple
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You can call it a brand, a cult, or a phenomenon, but it's much more than a motorcycle.
For 100 years, the burning legend of Harley-Davidson has been fanned by the winds of change and fueled by an American spirit of freedom, individualism, and the quest for adventure.
What William A. Davidson, Walter Davidson Sr., Arthur Davidson, and William S. Harley put together in the little work shed behind the Davidson house on Highland Boulevard in Milwaukee was more than a machine. It was the beginning of a way of life.
Even that long ago, it became apparent that Harley-Davidson® motorcycles had a unique emotional connection to the soul of its rider. What may have started as an economic alternative to the motorcar and a speedier conveyance than the bicycle soon took on a wind-in-the-hair sense of freedom and exhilaration. Early advertisements proclaimed "Get the most out of life" (1916) and "Get a kick out of life" (l925).
This thing was fun.
Oh sure, there would always be rational reasons to buy a Harley-Davidson. But what chance would competitors in other sports have compared to an ad that argued "Motorcycling: The Greatest Sport of Them All" (1931)? It's that timeless attraction, that sense of wanderlust, that's resonated deep in the genetic makeup of every freedom-loving rider on earth. It's what makes Harley-Davidson motorcycles relevant today in the lives of motorcyclists all over the world. The promise is simple and true: How you feel on a Harley® is like nothing else in the world.
Those who understand this best are Harley-Davidson's core customers, lovingly called the "Enthusiasts." They come from all walks of life, although they would prefer, thank you, to ride.
To see the faithful converge on their annual pilgrimage to Daytona or Sturgis is to see America's "melting pot" culture at its blast-furnace best. A lifelong member of Hell's Angels. An accountant from Atlanta. A group of riders from London. A retired couple from Michigan with their dog. A CEO who would never be mistaken for a CEO. Six women, who teach school in Arizona, dressed in leather. A H.O.G.® chapter from Akron, Ohio. A newlywed couple from Germany. Some guy in buffalo horns.
What holds them together are their common values, shared with one another and with the Motor Company. Freedom. Individualism. The quest for adventure.
This deep and abiding sense of what Harley-Davidson represents to its customers has been the strength of the Motor Company, and maintaining that connection is one of its guiding principles. Throughout its history, whenever the Company forgot that central reason for its existence, its fortunes waned. But every time it reveled and celebrated in that connection to its customer, it would succeed.
It's the principle they would return to, time and again. Through wars and peacetime. Through ownership by AMF (American Machine & Foundry) and the buyback. Through Panheads, Knuckleheads, Shovelheads, Evolution®, Twin Cam 88s, and the Revolution V-Twin® engine. Through the introduction of the Harley Owners Group, MotorClothes Products and Genuine Motor Accessories, and an expansion of the brand's global appeal. Through it all, Harley-Davidson would strive to remain connected and loyal to its riders. Harley-Davidson's reward for this loyalty would be loyalty in kind.
Harley-Davidson is the one brand, the only brand, that is burned into the skin of its enthusiasts, the famous Bar & Shield tattoo second in the world only to "Mom." (Somehow, an advertisement in a magazine pales by comparison.)
Those of us who love the brand can only aspire to be Keepers of the Flame. We cannot create it, we can only tend it. The brand really belongs to the riders. The flame burns in their souls. In-2003, upwards of 500,000 of them will ride to Milwaukee to be part of the 100th anniversary pilgrimage. Similar celebrations will happen on five continents. The riders will heed the call from points all over the great wide world. Just to be a part of it. Just to feel the earth rumble.
Harley-Davidson may build it, but it's the riders' motorcycle. Their brand. Their way of life.
That's why when Willie G. Davidson and his styling team work on the next new bike design, they are just as likely to do it at a roadside rest stop surrounded by bikers as they are in the gleaming confines of the new Willie G. Davidson Product Development Center. When they're done, they will have created the newest incarnation of a legend. Just the sight of a Harley-Davidson pushes buttons deep inside the faithful. And the sound of it can make them downright misty-eyed.
Ads? Who needs ads?
A Harley-Davidson motorcycle is the perfect advertisement. It grabs the eyeballs and pounds the eardrums and pushes a wake of attitude in front of it. A Harley has presence. It is impossible to ignore. The easy, loping potato-potato-potato of the V-Twin sets up some kind of harmonic between your pulse and red blood cells. The machine seems to know it has a soul, and when it intertwines with yours, you are hopeless to resist it.
By comparison, the attempts of we mere mortals to capture the mystique of Harley-Davidson in two-dimensional advertising may seem small and insignificant.
But over the years, Harley-Davidson Motor Company has found those ads that hit the mark, those that Harley-Davidson enthusiasts pull out of the magazine and hang on their garage walls, those that hit with a resonant "thump" deep in the chest. Such ads can do as much to reinforce the Harley-Davidson mystique as the next bike week at Sturgis, or a Saturday morning at the dealership, or a wave from a brother in the other lane.
It reaffirms who you are. Or who you want to be.
The advertising is for those who get it, whether they own a Harley-Davidson motorcycle yet or not. Don't chase those who don't understand. Don't exclude those who want to understand. We're not trying to sell you a Harley-Davidson. We're trying to connect with the people who want to buy one "It's not a rational decision" (1985).
So we thought you'd enjoy seeing the 100-year journey of Harley-Davidson Motor Company captured in the advertising signposts along the way. The people who work at the Motor Company engineered the dramatic turnaround that happened at Harley-Davidson in the 1980s. It was their drive their spirit, their refusal to let this great name die. All the advertising was ever able to do was reflect the confidence they felt in the brand.
Historians can debate over when and how the brand caught on and became the legend that it is today. Moto-journalists will all have opinions about which Harley was the perfect combination of engineering and tradition to define (or redefine) its success. Advertising experts will argue over the potency of any given ad. But one thing is sure. As you page through the 100 years of Harley-Davidson advertising that follows, you will begin to experience that feeling unlike any other. Unless you're planning to buy your next Harley soon, you may want to take it a few pages at a time.
Partner, Carmichael Lynch
Excerpted from 100 Years of Harley-Davidson Advertising , by Jack Supple . Copyright (c) 2002 by Harley-Davidson. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company,New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top