Harley Davidson Business Model and Marketing Strategy

There’s no doubt about it. The Harley Davidson business model is truly unique. At its core, perhaps, one could say that they sell motorcycles and so this effectively makes them a retail business. Although true, what is remarkable about the success of Harley Davidson is that it came without any vision or strategy whatsoever. If anything, one could say that this is the best example of the “I’m Desperate” business model.

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In the 1960s, Harley Davidson hovered near bankruptcy. Cheap imported motorcycles made it impossible to compete. It’s brand image was associated with rebellion and even gangs, giving it a stereotype that the average person avoided. In the days of World War II, everyone was embracing the brand. Just 15-20 years later, people were avoiding it. From 1969 to the 1980s, owning a Harley Davidson was considered stupid at best.

That’s when a strategy finally developed. Harley Davidson would reach out to their customers and get their feedback.

Why Is Customer Feedback So Important to a Business Model?

Harley Davidson was desperate because they didn’t have information. When the culture shifted and their brand was associated with negative feelings and stereotypes, they didn’t attempt to counter the message. The I’m Desperate business model is really the last chance to change the course of a business. You put everything on the table that you haven’t done, select the best option that can be implemented, and then give 100% to that implementation.

For Harley Davidson, they decided to reach out to their customers to discuss what they liked and didn’t like about it. Staff would attend motorcycle rallies and interview customers one-on-one to discover why the ownership experience was so negative. Many volunteered their weekends to accomplish this task and the end result was a lot of verbal abuse… and a lot of useable feedback.

Instead of ignoring the negative stereotypes this time, the 1980s version of Harley Davidson decided to do something about it. They began to incorporate some of the changes that current owners said would make the ownership better. The end result was that people began to take notice of the new bikes. Harley Davidson began to grace the covers of industry media once again. Yet people weren’t buying the motorcycles because the reputation of Harley Davidson was very bad.

Sometimes a Radical Change Can Create Radical Revenues

Harley Davidson needed to prove to the industry at large that they had taken the feedback of their customers seriously. Pictures might speak a thousand words, but riding a bike to experience it first-hand speaks a million words. The Harley Davidson business model needed to give people a trial of the product to see if they liked it.

At that time, test driving a motorcycle was something that wasn’t done. Harley Davidson took the new bikes back out to those same rallies where their staff was abused. Flashing a motorcycle license gave someone a 15 mile test ride. They also changed the message of their marketing, focusing on the passion of the customer instead of the craftsmanship of the bike. The results were amazing. Sales turned around immediately and in 2001, Harley Davidson became a brand of the year. Now when people talk about Harley Davidson, they talk about the distinctive noise the bike makes and how that relates to the Americana experience.

What Can Be Learned From the Harley Davidson Experience?

One lesson above all can be learned from the Harley Davidson business model: the feedback a customer provides is important. Sometimes customers can be rude, mean, and unapologetic. There’s a reason why they behave the way they do, however, and that must be noted by each company that sells goods or services to customer segments. The moment Harley Davidson started listening was the moment customers started paying attention.

Now Harley Davidson speaks a message of freedom. Someone can be whomever they need to be during the week at work or at home. When they’re on their bike, they can experience the freedom of the road. It’s a freedom that doesn’t judge, so anyone from any socioeconomic background, ethnicity, or race and be united by this common urge to experience true freedom.

Harley Davidson bikes make a distinct noise that identifies who they are. If your company’s noise is getting drowned out by the background chatter of the competition, then it might be time to try out a new voice. That way your message can be heard loud and clear.