Harley Davidson – Born to be HOG wild

I can’t think of any other brand that generates as much buy, use, love passion as Harley Davidson. In a time when ‘American manufacturing’ is becoming an oxymoron, Harley Davidson is proudly carrying the banner of American innovation, industry and irreverence. Regardless of all the well-heeled Harley owners who just tootle around on weekends, Harley Davidson represents the irrepressible American spirit of legend that has captured the world’s imagination.

Over the years, Harley Davidson bikes have been vilified, glorified and caricatured in American popular culture but the sheer resilience of their iconic image is the envy of corporate America. Since opening it’s doors in 1903, the company has seen many highs and lows and even some near-death experiences. The juxtaposition of this chequered past and the utter devotion of its customers intrigues me.

Some would credit Harley Davidson’s survival and success to the collective nostalgia among American bikers or the protectionist tariffs on imported motorcycles in the 80s. However, I was convinced that some counter-intuitive product strategy must have played a part in reviving this American icon. Inquisitive as ever, I went looking and here’s what my sleuthing uncovered…

Don’t play your competitor’s game
When Harley Davidson was emerging from near bankruptcy in the early 80s they made a clear decision to ignore the competition and chart their own course to success. At the time, there was no doubt that Japanese manufacturers held the advantage in the mainstream market so Harley decided to focus solely on heavier premium motorcycles and retro designs. In fact, during the latest economic downturn, Harley Davidson decided to forgo market share to maintain their premium status while their competition was lowering prices and offering aggressive incentives. Product Managers are often under pressure to beat competitors and take market share by out-executing on the same tactics as everyone else. Harley Davidson’s example shows that success may not lie in beating competitors at their own game. Let’s all take the time to proactively define success instead of reacting to someone else’s.

It’s OK to be conspicuous
Early in my career, I worked for a company that helped Harley Davidson engineer new models that produced a perfect rendition of the legendary Harley growl. Much like the first iPod’s white headphones or the Toyota Prius’ odd shape, Harleys are designed to stand apart from every other player in the market (even though the competition is constantly trying to catch up). For better or for worse, Harleys grab everybody’s attention and fuel the aspirations of future riders. Of course, not all Product Managers get to manage aspirational consumer products but it always pays to design in ways to amplify your product’s differentiators. If your product is truly better than the competition then don’t be shy… be conspicuous. The good thing is, you’ll hear from the market very quickly if you’re all swagger and no spine.

Enable customers to innovate and learn from them
From the early days, Harley Davidson enthusiasts have refashioned their stock motorcycles to reflect their very own personal style. The company has supported and stayed close to these outside innovations and adopted some of the ideas to create new lines of products. All good Product Managers recognize that innovation can come from anywhere but only a few build platforms that enable innovation outside their own company. Whether it’s building choppers around your ‘Big Twin’ engine or services on top of your API, enabling customers and partners to innovate could be the best R&D investment your company ever makes.

As I was writing this post, the reasons behind the Harley loyalist’s passion became crystal clear to me.  The Harley Davidson spirit of individuality and rebellion is more than just slick marketing; the motorcycle itself embodies the spirit. Here’s hoping we can all create products that are physical manifestations of our ideals.

Author: Ravi Akella

Software and Web Product Manager, living the life in the Pacific NW.

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