By Reinhard Cate
An iconic motorcycle takes its leather-clad rider into the sunset down the open road. This imagery has been quintessential to American motorcycle riding and over the last century, a critical component of Harley Davidson’s brand. Yet with the giant missing sales goals quarter after quarter and reports of millennials avoiding motorcycles altogether, Harley is experiencing what many other once-storied brands are feeling. They’ve just gotten a bit… stale. In this article we take a deeper dive into the beliefs around the motorcycle industry to diagnose why this happened to Harley and more importantly, provide three universal steps for any stale brand to find their way back to hotness.
To understand beliefs around the motorcycle industry, we used the Protagonist platform to analyze over 20,000 pieces of content including news, blogs, and social conversation on motorcycles over the past year. Our platform combines human cognitive science, NLP, and machine learning to quantify the deeper beliefs expressed in any form of content allowing our analytics team to surface meaningful context, insight, and actionable strategy.
So if you’re a stale brand today, where do you start?
Step 1: Know Where You Stand
Today the amount of digestible content available from news, blogs, to social media, exceeds that available at any other time in history. Yet despite the variety of authors and sources, each piece of content always has a key underlying belief within. These deeper beliefs, what we call narratives, help us decipher the dips and surges in trends, movements, and crises.
It’s absolutely critical for every company or organization to know what beliefs are present in the competitive landscape they exist in, whether that’s motorcycles or microchips. For Harley Davidson, we examined the greater motorcycle competitive landscape and surfaced 10 belief systems that are critical for any manufacturer operating in the United States to understand.
Positive narratives about motorcycles make up the largest share of our data set, at 56% and focus heavily on the buyer’s journey. Neutral narratives which together make up the next largest share at 36% of data focus on the image of motorcycles. One final negative narrative makes up 8% of the landscape emphasizing the dangers of the sport. Knowing where you are as a brand requires not just knowing all the beliefs in the landscape, but isolating focus beliefs that are important to your brand to both leverage and examine your brand’s signature.
Harley Davidson’s signature in the narratives tells a critical story about the power of public perception and belief to affect a brand. The company’s largest signature is in the neutral narrative Aging Culture. Showing up 62% of the time this belief is expressed, the Harley Davidson brand is associated with what some see as the death throes of traditional motorcycle culture, thanks in part to baby boomers aging out and millennials not adopting riding.
The Harley Davidson brand presence is also tiny when compared to competitors in the three positive narratives that focus on the buyer’s journey: Crowd Favorite, Smaller and Lighter, and Industry Rated. Two major negative things are happening to the Harley Davidson brand: first, they’re being associated with a lifestyle that’s losing popularity and second, they aren’t showing up in favorable narratives that potential new customers lean on or express.
Step 2: Pinpoint Where to Play
So how did Harley Davidson get here? When we look at how the beliefs change over the course of the year, we can start to understand more about Harley’s brand image in the temporal drivers of beliefs.
Despite reports of an overall decline for the motorcycle industry as a whole, positive beliefs are rising. Smaller and Lighter, a narrative that captures the belief that modern riders especially those new to riding require smaller, more agile motorcycles has grown consistently. Industry Rated and Crowd Favorite which also capture aspects of the buyer journey, did not necessarily surge, but their impact remained constant, a sign of enduring beliefs. As all three of these beliefs grow or shift, keep in mind Harley Davidson’s low association within them.
Part of the challenge for Harley Davidson as a brand comes arguably from its largest buyer: baby boomers. We see surges in the narrative impact in the unfavorable belief Aging Culture that is driven by coverage of motorcycle group rides, often done to raise money for causes, and major rallies like Sturgis. There are also parallel bumps associated with these events in Goodwill Riders and Freedom of the Road, both favorable narratives, but dominated by the baby boomer demographic.
These events, while allied to the brand in the present, keep it consistently associated with baby boomers and older generations and not a new demographic of buyers that would grow, or at least stabilize their business. It’s crucial for Harley Davidson to boost its presence in the three positive narratives we’ve identified if it wants to take steps to escape this stereotype and connect with a larger market.
Step 3: Develop a Narrative Strategy
When leveraged correctly, buyer beliefs can powerfully inform both communications and product strategy. Harley Davidson’s product designers can tap into the competitive landscape’s positive narratives. Bike design might emphasize lighter more agile configurations (Smaller and Lighter), while at the same time leaning on popular classic and iconic designs (Crowd Favorite).
Communication strategy can leverage the language and themes present in the beliefs. For Harley Davidson, this means promoting its smaller models like the Street Rod and Sportster. However, it is also targeting the right channels to deliver that message so it resonates.
A look at the top sources available in the motorcycle conversation shows us that traditional news sources such as CNN and the Montana Standard tend to carry entirely positive narrative content. While it’s critical for Harley Davidson to maintain presence in industry sources for first looks, reviews, and bike shootouts (Industry Rated and Crowd Favorite), it’s also important for the brand to increase its presence in traditional news sources that will likely express a positive belief, not to mention being channels new demographics like millennials are more likely to read.
The deeper beliefs present in data from the last year show us that the Harley Davidson brand is being pulled in two directions: one to maintain an image and popularity with its traditional demographic, baby boomers; and two to grow and tap into a new generation of riders. Narratives can serve as a compass, where tapping into and expressing the language and themes can activate either of these demographics. One thing is certain, the future of Harley Davidson is dependent on the deeper beliefs and public perception of its brand.