H-D and the branding of sub-culture.
Brand. A hideous modern word which is now everywhere.
Everything’s now a brand, right down to individuals. The networking site LinkedIn regularly sends emails to members with advice on how to improve their “brand”, as if people had all the intrinsic depth of a box of washing powder.
Like it or not though, brand matters when it comes to selling motorcycles and no company has so effectively mastered the art of branding as Harley-Davidson.
Despite roller coaster decades of success and failure, bankruptcy and high sales, appalling quality and grudging improvement, HD clung on to the one thing which always endured – its brand. In fact during the global economic meltdown of 2008/9 the company actually made more money selling HD-branded accessories than it did selling bikes.
For most of the 20th Century in the US the HD was ‘the’ motorbike. Sure other companies, American and otherwise, flogged the odd bike, but HD was basically it. Yet here in Europe that’s never really been the case. Sales are now surging, but for many years Harleys weren’t the thing for a more performance-savvy European bike market. They didn’t much go, they rarely stopped and whilst they would, technically, go round corners it wasn’t advisable to get cocky and keep trying it.
Moreover, just as Japanese reliability and German quality killed the UK bike industry, imported metal did for Harleys here too. They were seen as vastly overpriced and laughably mechanically basic, even compared to the last of the “first gen” Brit bikes of the 70s and 80s.
But more than all of this, the brand didn’t work here. Aside from Hells Angels, who are expected, if not required, to ride a Harley, ownership of Milwaukee’s finest spoke of a desperation to be in an American road movie, a needy requirement to appear “bad”. Riding down the A34 in the rain on your way to the office was not, in the eyes of observers, as cool as blasting through the Utah desert, however many tassels the rider’s jacket had. Easy Rider my arse, said the UK, laughing behind its hand.
But Harley, to its credit, is bigger than that. It has ridden the waves of giggling and pointing and is now flogging bikes hand over fist. The greatest reason for this is not a change in the bikes (although there’s been plenty – improved performance, less chrome and so on) but a change in the riders. As UK motorcyclists have become older and roads more crowded, screaming litre sports bikes have become less and less attractive. The modern new bike buyer is older, wealthier and well used to dealing with the complexities of financing his purchase.
There’s also is a lot to be said for thumping along on a low, and thus easy to manage, bike if you’re in your late forties or early 50s (Harley’s sales sweet spot here). And again, the thing these guys are buying is not the bike so much as the brand.
My local HD showroom is 50% bikes, 50% clobber. You can buy a Harley anything. I don’t know if they sell Screamin’ Eagle condoms but I bet they do. If not, you can have that one for free Milwaukee. Every Sunday the in-showroom coffee bar is packed with rotund men in leather chaps and denim waistcoats, all HD branded of course. Some of them, genuinely, wear bandanas. Not one of them is an outlaw of the road. I suspect most of them have excellent tax and pension arrangements and manage to store both a Blackberry and an iPhone in those chaps, in case the office emails about a conference call. It’s basically two-wheeled golf.
Top of the list of this branding genius is the “HOG”. The Harley Owners’ Group. A “sponsored community marketing club” run by Harley-Davidson itself. It even has “marketing” in the company’s own description of it. They’re not even bothering to pretend.
Like “charters” of the Hells Angels, it is divided into countless local units. HOG Surrey, HOG South Dakota, HOG Iceland. Members wear huge back-patches proclaiming their particular local group on leather jackets, together with various rank and sub-set patches. It is, unashamedly, a take-off of the uniforms of real “back-patch/one-percenter” bike clubs, notably (but far from exclusively) the Angels. It’s little different to those guys who go paint-balling at the weekend dressed as members of Marine Corps 1st Recon Battalion.
This used to annoy me. One of Harley’s latest adverts, illustrated above, summed up my annoyance. For God’s sake, their latest offering is called “The Breakout”. Break the mould and live on the edge, from only £15, 645 with easy monthly payments. Seriously? Fuck off.
The thing none of these men ever seemed to grasp is that the life-style they hankered after is free. It doesn’t take an £18,000 motorcycle, it takes a willingness to make the sacrifices which come with living that way; something they were clearly not prepared to do. So they just bought an expensive mock-up.
But I’ve come to realise that if it makes them happy and it gets them on to two wheels, who the hell am I to criticise? Moreover, I’ve also come to enjoy riding Harleys when occasionally presented with the opportunity. It’s a different way of riding and no less pleasant for that, although it’s the only time I feel in danger of being mistaken for a respectable tax accountant rather than what I am, which is a ne’ er’ do well.
So Harleys are here to stay, but for the UK bike crowd they’re still not cool. Except, in a funny way, they kind of are.
As the company’s new offerings have got yet more expensive, and the clientele has become less hip than a tipsy dad throwing shapes at a school disco, the sub culture around the brand has grown too. There have always been chopped and bobbed HDs out there; dirty, not covered in chrome, actually mean as opposed to faux mean, as those of us who spent our youths flicking through the classifieds in Back Street Heroes remember all too well.
One of Harley’s darker periods came when the firm was sold to the American Machine and Foundry company in 1969. The next 12 years, before it was sold again, was marked by strikes, lay-offs, industrial unrest and a steady decline in quality (and they were hardly Honda at the beginning of AMF’s tenure). For years 1970s AMF Harleys were cheap as chips. Not now though. These days they’re fetching big money, as are early 80s bikes, and the prices are going up.
They are, not to put too fine a point on it, cool as fuck. Moreover, low original build quality matters a lot less on a 40 year old bike than how well it’s been looked after.
There were plenty of HDs to be found at this year’s BSMC show in London, where previously they’d been rare as hens’ teeth. From pristine one-off builds by small builders more associated with Jap metal to the raw choppers owned by the guys from Hard Luck Tattoo (which they rode in on to ink show-goers for the weekend), right up to Warr’s Harley Davidson taking space at the show to display the kind of £40,000+ custom builds it’s done (including for the likes of F1’s Jensen Button), Harleys took their place amongst the cafe racers, brat bikes and trackers more usually associated with the BSMC crowd.
And underneath this, much as the younger crowd might not like it, still sits brand. A 1970s Harley chopper, or an 80s Harley bobber, are cool things; but that’s still because they conjure images of that Utah highway, or that Detroit diner. The difference is that the riders of these retro machines often do live the lifestyle that buyers of new Harleys hope will rub off on them.
There’s a beautiful synergy in the fact that this sub-culture continues to help Harley drive new sales. Multi-million pound Harley franchises may turn their nose up at battered 1970s HD metal, but I bet a good percentage of the blokes coughing up £20,000+ for a new Soft Tail Slim with Screamin’ Eagle accessories did so after being overtaken in their Range Rover by a chopper ridden by a tattooed fella with a fag in his mouth.