4 Lessons From Harley Davidson on Creating Tattoo Worthy Relationships

*This post was originally published on the Eloqua blog.

If we surveyed 100 people at random  à la “Family Feud” asking them to name a motorcycle brand, results would likely skew Harley Davidson. Even if you don’t ride, or have an interest in motorcycles, you know the brand, and it’s synonymous with the machinery.

While I preserve this hypothesis, regardless; full disclosure: I’m the daughter of a “Harley guy.” My 69-year-old father, who has traveled the country on his motorcycle, hasn’t so much as sat on one of his three Harleys in years, though he still keeps them in the garage. Each has been left to me in his will, he says, under the condition that I never sell or ridethem. So my dad doesn’t want me to risk a boo-boo, or reap the benefits of their worth, but I must keep them. If that’s not brand loyalty, what is?


The Low Rider is a little higher…(A six-year-old me poses with Pop’s first bike)

My dad is, in every sense of the phrase, a “tough customer.” He’s not impressed by specs, and he doesn’t ask his peers for advice. In fact, he likes to call his own shots when it comes to everything — especially purchase decisions. Most telling about his purchase behavior: he won’t patronize a brand he doesn’t feel connected to. For more than 20 years he’s been a devoted Harley owner. Other manufacturers sell comparable models at significantly lower costs, but he went for Harleys.


Because Harley Davidson is not a product story or a brand story. It’s a human behavior story, according to Ken Schmidt, former director of communications for the Harley Davidson brand. He shared amazing sentiments about the brand and its loyal culture, during Eloqua Experience, last October in San Francisco.

The longtime motorcycle enthusiast’s formal association with Harley-Davidson began in 1985. As a specialist in corporate positioning and media relations, he was asked to work with the then-struggling Harley-Davidson to help restore the company’s image and create demand for its motorcycles. Within a few short years, Harley-Davidson became one of the most visible and frequently reported-on companies in the world, while sales of its motorcycles rocketed upward.

The short version of the story is: Ken’s kicks work. Here are 4 great takeaways from his super session:

1. Empower your audience to tell your brand’s story (by giving them a great one to talk about!) “Our culture has evolved from ‘selling’ to engaging and getting people to be salespeople for us,” Schmidt said. What would you like people to say about you? What are you willing to do to get them to say it?

2. Relationships are emotion based, so keep the product specs out of the equation. Take a look at a Harley Davidson TV spot, or any of its marketing content. The experience is completely centered on the rider. Talking about quality, workmanship, breadth and depth of product, or sharing that it’s “low and fast” is how you alienate your customer, Schmidt said. Don’t do it!

3. Don’t ever use the C-word [get your mind out of the gas tank!] These are not customers. These are DISCIPLES! “When we go for the brain, we create pain 100%,” Schmidt said. “We don’t want to think. We’re not a thinking species; we’re an emotive species.” Create engagements that dazzle and delight. That means that your marketing agenda may have to change.

Keep the passion alive! “Visible passion is also the most instantly mimicked of all human behavior,” Schmidt said. 


On the same bike, the Low Rider, circa 2010.


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