Web Articles   Digital Editions
Digital Edition Archives

Thinking Ahead–Letter from Chaille: Branding Wood – Harley Lessons
The forest products industry needs to do a better job of marketing itself to the world. This includes all sectors of the industry. In many ways, the radical preservationists are winning the PR war.

By Chaille M. Brindley
Date Posted: 11/1/2006

    You can learn a lot from a HOG, especially when it comes to building a strong brand. No, I’m not writing about swine. I’m thinking about the Harley-Davidson Motor Company, and the various strategies it has developed to combat stiff overseas competition and rebound after nearly going out of business during the 1980s.

    Clyde Fessler, a former vice president with Harley-Davidson, spoke on strategies for building a brand at the recent National Hardwood Lumber Association Convention. Given the current pressures on the hardwood industry, Fessler’s comments hit home.

   The forest products industry needs to do a better job of marketing itself to the world. This includes all sectors of the industry. In many ways, the radical preservationists are winning the PR war.

   From pallet and lumber companies to loggers and foresters, everyone can be an ambassador for the benefits of wood in construction, furniture, packaging and general consumer products.

   If you want to know what various industry groups are doing to market wood products, read “Industry Tweaks Promotional Efforts: Focus on ‘Green’ Benefits of Wood Construction, Potential in Non-Residential Building Market” on page 70.

   Why can the wood industry learn so much from Harley-Davidson? Well, it has built a powerful brand by turning negatives into positives, focusing on its dealer network, developing new businesses, and creating a sense of brand loyalty and identity. Many of these strategies could help change the tide of public opinion when its comes to the environmental qualities and strong performance of wood products. 

   One way Harley-Davidson turned a negative into a positive was by capitalizing on the “Hog” concept. Instead of the term “Hog” becoming a negative brand identity, Harley-Davidson turned it into a positive by linking the concept to reliability, power and of course, noise.

   Fessler and his marketing team found that one of the major selling points for Harley-Davidson is the loud noises its motorcycles make compared to the competition. Many motorcycle fans like loud noises and Japanese bikes just seem wimpy by comparison.

   Harley-Davidson focused its marketing efforts on existing customers who became extremely brand loyal and helped to carry the message to others. Fessler said, “Happy existing customers become your best sales people.”

   The company developed the Harley Owners Group (HOG), which now has more than one million members. HOG helps build a sense of community among Harley owners. This further emphasizes the brand and encourages customer loyalty. HOG chapters hold regular motorcycle gatherings, rides and parties. 

   Sometimes having a bad boy image can be a difficult thing for new customers. Marketers discovered that the average person was intimidated to go into a Harley-Davidson dealership. It decided to change that by re-inventing hospitality through store redesigns, new marketing efforts and training programs designed for novice bike riders.

   Creating a more inviting environment is not the only way the motorcycle company is reaching out to new customers. Harley-Davidson jumped into the street clothes market and has become a dominant player. Beyond simply building a new market segment, clothes help drive motorcycle sales and reinforce the brand to non-bike owners. 

   The clothes market presented a challenge to Harley because the apparel industry almost requires new fashions and styles on a regular basis. Harley-Davidson didn’t want to change styles that fast especially when its main designs are fairly static. The company decided instead to change customers regularly by putting the street clothes stores in high traffic areas near tourist locations. This way the customer base changes over regularly as people come and go. 

   Each store has a section for kids and women. Women make up an increasingly significant portion of bike riders. Harley targets children because they are tomorrow’s adults.

   Presentation can have a lot to do with how people view your product. Harley-Davidson learned that how you present bikes impacts how much people are willing to pay. Kessler said, “If it looks like a warehouse, guess what your customers are going to expect as far as pricing.”

   Instead of display bikes all lined up in a row, Harley-Davidson decided to display bikes more like a car show room where individual models are elevated up off the floor. Individual dealerships are encouraged to design the exterior of stores to reflect the feel and values of the community.

   According to Kessler, the major key to Harley is people, especially its dealership network. Kessler said, “If we give our dealers the tools to grow, we will grow with them.”

   Harley-Davidson provides a worldwide conference and training for dealers through its HD University program. Many of these dealerships are family businesses. Currently, the company has 640 dealers selling nearly 300,000 bikes per year.

   Each of the above points correlates to the current marketing dilemma for the forest products industry.

   Many people view wood products as bad for the environment just like Harley had to overcome negative attitudes about the term “Hogs.” Many kids today do not have the same affinity for wood products as adults do. The industry should develop a more targeted approach for tomorrow’s consumers, legislators and corporate executives.

   Wood products need to develop a sense of brand loyalty and even camaraderie the way Harley-Davidson has. A strong affinity for wood, woodworking and wood products will help the industry keep or increase market share in the future.

   The industry is increasingly seeing the need to market to existing customers. This is especially true when it comes to various types of wood species competing against each other.  

   Knowing how to appeal to customers’ demands and properly present the benefits of wood will be a key as various commodities compete for customers. And probably most
importantly, every person and company in the wood products supply chain needs to take personal responsibility for educating customers and debunking myths. This is where better tools and resources just like what Harley-Davidson gives it dealers are needed to help the thousands of people in the industry become the best advocates for wood. Like any tool, these resources are only as good as the people who use them.

   Look for more details on wood promotion material in a future issue of Pallet Enterprise.

Do you want reprints or a copyright license for this article?   Click here

Research and connect with suppliers mentioned in this article using our FREE ZIP Online service.