Mark-Hans Richer, the CMO of Harley-Davidson, demonstrated the power of the Harley-Davidson brand when he took the stage at LSB’s Brandworks University 2008 astride a new Harley Davidson V-ROD. The fact that Brandworks University is conducted in the round, with the 400 participants arrayed around the raised central stage only made his entrance more impressive.
It was difficult to tell whether the hearty round of applause that greeted Richer was for the beautiful bike (designed in cooperation with Porsche), the bold audacity of his entrance, or his deft ability to stop the machine before it tumbled off the very small stage and into the audience. In any case, Richer showed his strength, speed and agility before he spoke his first word.
True to Harley-Davidson’s Rebel brand archetype, Richer asserted that there is no conflict between short term sales and long term branding – or there ought not to be at any rate.
“That’s a false choice!” he said. “Everything is retail and everything is brand. Never think that brand is something rare, reserved for a brand campaign or new product launch. Your brand is happening every day with every decision that you’re making. Don’t think sales is just something the sales people do. Sales is something that all marketers have to think about.”
That’s especially true for a brand like Harley-Davidson because it might take someone 10 or 20 years of thinking about it before they actually buy a motorcycle. “Put that in your ROI calculator and smoke it,” he commented. “Short term and long term have to go together. It might take them years to cross over that line.”
Richer admitted, however, that there are times when the pressure for short-term results is unstoppable, and “Sometimes we don’t fight hard enough. But you have to know what ideals your brand stands for at all times, even when you’re caught up in the maelstrom of short term focus. You have to ask ‘how will this build or diminish my brand?’ It’s hard to execute to your ideals, but you have to do it no matter what the circumstances because your brand is not your logo or your tagline; it is your meaning. People who buy Harleys are buying meaning.”
For example, Richer said, people don’t buy motorcycles in the winter. “These things don’t do great in the snow.” So Christmas is dominated by sales of clothing and accessories. “So how did Harley-Davidson sell clothes and accessories during the holiday 2007 season with a tiny ad budget?
The answer was Biker Claus, a Santa with bad attitude and a sled drawn by eight snorting Harleys. The spot was so popular it was passed along online by viewers. Sixty-four percent of test viewers said “It made me want to visit a dealership.” Seventy-four percent said “It made me feel closer to Harley-Davidson,” and 76 percent said, “It made me dream about owning a Harley-Davidson.” But best of all, Richer said. Harley-Davidson’s holiday sales matched their 2006 levels while competitors were down 20-25 percent.
The company’s “We don’t do fear” promotion in the peak sales season of spring 2008 was another good example of Harley Davidson’s philosophy, Richer said.
“It was spring and the competitors were discounting. The people on TV who are getting paid to scare you were saying we’re going into a depression. There was the credit crisis. Those were real emotional barriers to motorcycle sales.”
But instead of discounting, Harley-Davidson cut production and launched a clutter-cutting promotion. “It’s cheaper to discount than to cut production,” Richer said. “But if you’re thinking about brand across all 4 P’s, this is what you do.”
Then came the attitude in the form of ads, a Web site and promotional items designed to build attachment with the core audience of rebels. “That’s our Jungian archetype; we do things others wouldn’t do. We took a stand and said We Don’t Do Fear!” The copy was designed to appeal to the Harley mystique: “Fear sucks and it doesn’t last long, so screw it. Let’s ride!”
A Web site invited visitors to modify the copy and submit their own entries. So far more than 18,000 have taken the invitation. “It’s a good focus group,” Richer said. “We can see what they’re seeing.”
So was that about short-term sales or long-term brand?
“We’re not doing ourselves a service if we think of brand and sales as separate,” Richer said. “We have to stand for one important thing and live up to it every year.”
Riding his motorcycle on stage at Brandworks University was not Richer’s only grand gesture in marketing. He was the man behind the give-away of 276 new Pontiacs on The Oprah Winfrey Show. During his involvement with Pontiac advertising and promotion, he was recognized as one of Advertising Age’s “Marketing 50,” and awarded a Cannes Gold Lion, two Gold Effies and the PMA Super Reggie for Best Overall Promotion. Richer also served as advertising director for both GMC and Chevy Trucks, following a career at DDB Needham Worldwide in Chicago. Richer has appeared on The Apprentice III and V, The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch, and CNBC. His point of view on marketing has netted him the cover of Promo magazine, Ad Age’s Point, and extraordinary coverage in Fast Company, The Wall Street Journal, USA TODAY, NPR Radio, the New York Times, Chief Marketer magazine, and Business 2.0 among others.