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Born to be wild, with a little bit of promotion

You see a middle-aged guy cruising on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle down Jumeirah Beach Road on a weekend and what's your first impression?
You see a middle-aged guy cruising on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle down Jumeirah Beach Road on a weekend and what's your first impression?

You wouldn't be wrong if you thought he was a forty-something successful corporate type. The bike's mythology today belongs to these well-to-do, would-be iconoclasts. Yet this story is forged more by accident than design.

The Harley narrative has been told in countless management journals as a classic business turnaround that goes something like this: the company restored product quality by fixing, among other things, the bike's notoriously leaky engine.

Then they got close to the customer through HOG (Harley Owners Group) days where company executives rode bikes with the customers, and then relayed their findings back to the manufacturing floor to suggest improvements.

Therefore, product quality and customer intimacy saved the day, and since the 1990s the company has consistently outpaced stock market indices.

This is one reason why so many companies have tried to copy the Harley formula for success. Few have succeeded.

The reason, according to Professor Douglas Holt of Oxford University, in his well-researched book How Brands Become Icons, is that the Harley story as it's been told by the company and business journals just doesn't add up.

In fact, the company had very little to do with its market position today. Rather, certain cultural texts (newspapers, films, magazines, articles, political speeches, newsworthy events) built the myth of the Harley and hence its market position.

Post-Second World War, the Harley myth was about the outlaw. War veterans joined city kids to form a countercultural scene centred on biking. The ethos of the motorcycle clubs was a libertarian life, physical domination, manhood, toughness, tribal allegiances and surviving danger as a frontiersman.

Three cultural texts stitched Harley to this outlaw myth. In 1947, Life magazine ran a piece on the damage done to a small town in California by a motorcycle club, where boozed-up bikers rioted and disrupted the town. They were riding Harleys. It sent shock waves through middle-class American society.

Then, the movie The Wild One developed the myth. In it, Marlon Brando leads a hooligan biker gang into a small town. The fathers of the town fight back and send his biker gang packing. Brando actually rode a (British) Triumph in The Wild One, but ask most people and they will tell you his bike in the film was a Harley.

And throughout this period, there are stories about the Hells Angels, pillaging small towns in the US. The Angels predominately ride Harleys.

According to Prof Holt, the Harley myth, without any involvement from the company, was then repackaged from the myth of the outlaw to that of the gunfighter. Where the outlaw was undesirable, the gunfighter was necessary to bring toughness to society.

Two cultural texts stitched Harley to the gunfighter. First, in 1969 at Altamont, California, the Rolling Stones played a gig where they hired the Hells Angels to protect them. The Angels parked their choppers between the Stones and the 300,000 fans. The Stones were late, the crowd was restless, a man pulled a gun on an Angel, and the bikers knifed the man to death.

In the media frenzy that followed, the impression given was that the Angels fought the hippies to maintain order. Conservative politicians such as president Richard Nixon felt the hippies symbolised instability (civil rights and peace movements) and so distorted the minds of the young. So the Hells Angels, although violent, were also patriotic and conservative because they were defending the nation's historic values.

The Angels staged counter-demonstrations at anti-war rallies and rallied around the US flag. The Harley-Davidson Motor Company at this time added the stars and stripes to its logo.

Second, the film Easy Rider depicted solo bikers moving through the frontier, which was filled with hippies, drugs and unfamiliar lingo. The film "portrayed bikers as lay philosophers of the frontier", and spoke of how large, city-based institutions stripped men of their masculinity. So Harley's myth was repackaged. It was now a steward of the country's traditional masculinity, the gunfighter.

To bring us up to date, Harley was repackaged from the gunfighter to becoming the icon of the wealthy man of action.

In the 1980s, the US president Ronald Reagan wove a myth around America's historic gunfighter. He routinely evoked Sylvester Stallone's John Rambo character, and John Wayne and others to illustrate his point.

One of Reagan's key allies, Malcolm Forbes of Forbes magazine, and his buddies would routinely fly off to politically sensitive locations such as Afghanistan, ride their Harleys, and then present the local authorities with a gift - a Harley. These Harley riders were championing capitalism and liberty in the face of a socialist, in this case Soviet, threat.

In 1983, Reagan aided Harley-Davidson by imposing a 49.4 per cent tariff against imported heavyweight motorcycles. Previously, it had been 4.4 per cent.

Harley, in Reagan's rhetoric, had been wronged by America's foes (the Japanese) and so the nation had to get behind the company.

But Harley needed to enlist the aid of wealthy men, not the rural, working-class guys. With the help of Mr Forbes they managed it, and in 1987 he and the Harley chief executive Vaughn Beals led a ride of 20 Harleys from the American Stock Exchange to the New York bourse, where a Harley was parked on the trading floor for the day.

Then in 1991, the ultimate action man, Arnold Schwarzenegger, signed on as the star in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Much of the film took place on the back of a Harley.

Harley connected men with Reagan's frontier call. Men who could afford it flocked to the bikes, causing one-year waiting lists. The company has not looked back since.

So next time you see a well-to-do guy on a Harley, remember it could easily have been an Indian or a Triumph. Some companies just accidentally end up successful.

Rehan Khan is a business consultant and writer based in Dubai

Published: October 25, 2010 04:00 AM

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