Brand Love, Part 2: Buying What Harley-Davidson Really Sells (Hint: It’s Not Motorcycles)

“When writing the story of your life, never let anyone else hold the pen.”

By Rich Hines

I owned Honda and Yamaha motorcycles for years. Nothing wrong with that except they were not Harley-Davidson machines. You see, from the time I could reach the foot pegs, I always wanted a Harley. Not sure why. Might be that the “voice” of the Harley-Davidson brand always spoke to a part of me that seeks freedom to live life a little on the edge.

Or perhaps it goes all the way back to the 1953 iconic biker flick The Wild One starring Marlon Brando. Anyway, I’ve been hooked for a while.

Ardin Van Sycle - 13 Rebels

Ardin Van Syckle, member of the famed 13 Rebels Motorcycle Club and inspiration for the Harley-Davidson brand voice as well as for the iconic movie The Wild One

If you know the history of Harley-Davidson, you can see how the voice of the Harley-Davidson brand today has its roots in the voices of post WWII bikers like Ardin Van Syckle, member of the famed 13 Rebels Motorcycle Club, and inspiration for the iconic movie The Wild One.

Ardin and his fellow 13 Rebels members were former flyers and servicemen. They were good guys, solid citizens and honorable men who found motorcycling to be a really cool way to keep the rush of WWII military life alive.

So, like so many before me, I set out in 1999 to “keep the rush alive” with Harley-Davidson motorcycle ownership only to have my hopes dashed by (of all people) my Harley dealer! You biker people may recall that way back in ‘99, there were way more Harley-Davidson prospective customers than Harley-Davidson motorcycles. And that pressure on bike availability caused some Harley dealers to get a little greedy and at times downright rude!

Here’s my story.

I had some cash. So when I set out to buy a Harley, I expected my dealer to treat me like a customer. But, that didn’t happen. Instead when I went to my local Harley dealer:

  • I had to beg for attention on the showroom floor.
  • I was dismissed as a “tire kicker.”
  • I was given a price quote that was at least $1,000 over MSRP.
  • I was told I would have to “wait in line” for a year to get my bike.
  • And finally, the dealer suggested I give him an extra $500 of my hard-earned cash up front to “move me up” the waiting list so that I “might” get the bike a little sooner.

I remember I actually considered paying the $500 extra. That’s just sick, isn’t it? I know, you’re thinking, “whine, whine, whine.” But get real. None of us would tolerate that kind of treatment from a plumber or a car dealer. So why tolerate it just because the guy wears an “HD” badge?

A few of us revolted. As for me, it was not long before the brand voice and message of a new American motorcycle company, Victory Motorcycles, got my attention.

The voice reflected my voice, which was more than a little miffed at HD. And the message rang true for us: “Harley-Davidson is not as all-American as you may think. Victory Motorcycles offer a higher-quality, better-performing American-made alternative. Ride one. See the difference.” That message was supported on the street by a small but determined group of friendly Victory dealers who were eager to succeed and to treat us right.

And even though the Victory Motorcycle company and its products were somewhat unknown, there was a passion in the brand voice that resonated well with about 50,000 of us who purchased machines that year. (Harley sells about 350,000 bikes a year)

Rich Hines and brother Jim on highway to the sky

Rich Hines and brother Jim taking a break along the “highway to the sky."

For me, that Victory test ride was all it took. I bought a new 1999 V 92 C and headed for the mountains.  And for Victory, that was the year that brand really began to get market traction. Enough traction to propel it through a few years of ugly bike designs with me-too features.

During the next 12 years, the Victory market share grew and we all enjoyed flying our rebel (read anti-HD) flags and spreading the word about Victory quality and performance.

VICTRY plate

The 1999 Victory V 92 C - Check out the license plate.

But my bike was aging and repairs were becoming more frequent and less predictable. I experienced a series of three breakdowns on trips to the Rocky Mountains. Each occurred at least 100-150 miles from a Victory dealer and always within 5-10 miles of a Harley-Davidson dealer. Frustrating! I guess it gave me the excuse I was looking for. It was time to replace the machine, and I would have purchased another Victory except for three things:

1. I still wanted a Harley

2. I still wanted a Harley

3. I still wanted a Harley

So, there I was, sitting on a new Harley-Davidson Electra Glide® Ultra Limited at Thunder Mountain Harley Davidson, Loveland, Colorado, and talking to JP (the sales guy) about storing my Victory until I could get back to pick it up in the fall.

Harley-Davidson Electra Glide®

Rich’s new Electra Glide® Ultra Limited

I thought I had been anti Harley-Davidson for a long time. But was I? Really? I think not. Because there I was, riding that black ribbon of asphalt (US 36) east across Kansas, wearing a new Harley-Davidson jacket and listening to the very cool sound system of one of those over-priced, underpowered Hogs I’d been comparing my vastly superior Victory to for years. What was I thinking?

Being the marketing guy I am, it did not take long to figure out what just happened here. Fact is, when a brand has been positioned as well in our minds as the HD brand has been for most of us, time really does “heal all wounds.” Even the wounds of abused Harley shoppers of the 1990s.

And when the time is right and the need is real, we may be moved to action by that consistent brand voice and the message of a single headline or idea. For me, I think it was a headline in the 2012 Harley-Davidson literature that helped me lean into the corner and make that buy decision:

“When writing the story of your life, never let anyone else hold the pen.”

 Rethinking the emotional impact of that headline helped me realize that Harley-Davidson is really not selling motorcycles at all. What they are selling is the joy of rumbling down the road free of the “cages” that some of us trade our time for every day.

The HD brand is about freedom and living life on the edge a little.  Perhaps heading for New Orleans on an October evening or riding the Rocky Mountain National Park Trail Ridge Road (the highway to the sky) with your right foot peg a little over the white line on an outside curve.

Want to hear that brand voice and see what it looks like? Check this out!

That’s powerful stuff for us biker believers! That’s the same clarity in a brand voice and power of message we set our sights on everyday at IDC.

Want to discover how to create your brand voice and develop a story that will connect with your customers in a more powerful way? Send me a note or give me a call at 765.423.5469 x106.

P.S. To all the folks at Victory Motorcycles: Please forgive me. I did fix my ’99 Vic and it’s fine. You build a great product. Think I’ll keep it, too.

*Dear reader, for what it’s worth, should your bike ever break down on vacation with your buddies and you call home to discuss purchasing or repairing that bike with your wife, the words, “When have I ever told you what to do with your money?” do NOT constitute permission to buy a $26,000 motorcycle.

About the Author: Rich Hines is vice president of idc, a strategic marketing firm. Aside from spending a little time on two wheels when he can, he is devoted to helping his clients grow their brands and their businesses in a variety of industries including industrial markets, the process industries, and agriculture including seed, professional services, ag products and ag facilities. Get
connected to Rich at LinkedIn, or email him at
This entry was published on April 30, 2012 at 8:10 pm and is filed under advertising, brand, brand affinity, consumer goods, marketing, retail, Rich Hines. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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