MADISON, Wis. — The secret to worldwide consumer dominance isn’t about creating a product that has more bells and whistles than any other. After a certain level, top brands are pretty much the same, anyway.
It’s about selling a concept.
“Honda and Yamaha sell motorcycles; Harley sells freedom,” said Ken Schmidt, former communications director for Harley-Davidson USA, speaking to a Dairy Strong audience Jan. 23. “Other people have customers. Harley has disciples.”
The theme of Schmidt’s address could draw parallels to the experience of today’s dairy farmers, who are encouraged to engage neighbors, communities and customers on more than just what they produce, but how and why, and who they are. They’re advised not to sit back and assume that a public that is as disconnected from farming as ever before will understand and trust them and value the food they produce.
Back in the 1970s, Harley-Davidson was complacent, Schmidt said. It rested on its laurels and glided by on its success. But it didn’t make much of an effort to dominate the market, and sales leveled out. That’s when Yamaha and Honda stepped in.
“They started making really, really good bikes,” he said, using a lively, emotive speaking style salted with the occasional expletive. “We were victimized by our own laziness and arrogance.”
Honda and Yamaha moved in and said they were built for wonderful, beautiful people, and said Harley-Davidson was made for “thugs and cop killers,” Schmidt said.
He took spectators on a make-believe ride through the countryside — first on a Yamaha and then on a Harley –– with visuals of curving back roads and descriptions of the wind on their faces. Right down to the smell of the shade.
A Harley never will be able to do anything any other bike can’t do, he said. But Harley-Davidson represents something meaningfully different. Compare Yamaha with Harley-Davidson side by side. They even look the same, but the Harley costs a few thousand dollars more.
“Where is the value?” Schmidt asked. “It’s in narrative.” And in people.
What killed Sears? What’s tanking Best Buy? Not their products, not their prices and not the Internet.
It’s the frowning people in their boring smocks. They had no visible passion, Schmidt said. The products might meet our expectations, but if someone else offers a lower price, we patronize them instead. It’s easy to be loyal to the people behind a product. It’s hard to be loyal to a product.
“Our job is to get people excited not about what we do but about who we are,” he said. We like people who make us feel wanted, needed, necessary, desired.
“No one ever told a story about their expectations simply being met, because it would be the worst story ever told,” he said.
Who do we choose to do business with? People we like. Would we rather be around the person who’s laughing and having fun, or the hunched over grumpy person?
“We are heat-seeking beings — we want some of that joyfulness to enter us,” he said. “We return loyally to any source of joy or delight. It’s easy to be loyal to the people behind a product. It’s hard to be loyal to a product.”
One of Harley’s best disciples didn’t even work for Harley. He was a turbaned man from India who started his own local riding club whom Schmidt met while sharing a cocktail with his wife a few years ago on an isolated atoll in the Maldives. The identical Sturgis T-shirts the two were wearing drew them together. Schmidt saw the man walking along the beach and leapt out of his lounge chair while yelling, “You were not at Sturgis!”
The two hit it off, especially after he found out the Indian had convinced about 100 of his friends to buy Harleys. This was four months after Harley-Davidson branched into India.
They’ve been friends ever since, and Harleys keep rolling out of the company’s nearly 400 manufacturing plants and 1,500 retail stores.