What can companies learn from the Harley-Davidson brand community?

Search for ‘brand community’ on Google and most searches will cite the Harley-Davidson brand community as the blueprint of how to do it well. Harvard Business Review even has a case study on some of the programs the company uses to develop relationships with its consumers.

Content and community agency Archant Dialogue has worked with Harley-Davidson’s membership community, aka H.O.G (Harley Owners’ Group) for the past 13 years, developing strategies and content both on and offline to build and engage the fans.

Who better to outline what can be learned from this brand community than Dialogue agency director, Zoe Francis?

Any brand community must sync with the overall marketing strategy

The customer journey to purchasing a Harley-Davidson motorcycle is a very emotional one. Seeing – and hearing! – other Harley-Davidsons on the road is what sparks interest – not because someone has sent you a brochure with the latest product specs. The overall marketing strategy must harness this emotion early and build the desire that will ultimately result in advocacy.

The content we create for the H.O.G. community is a continuous feed of storytelling that helps owners feel closer to the brand and their fellow riders; sharing ‘inside’ information, rich storytelling, and emotional and personal adventures on two wheels. This content is also what can spark the interest, build the desire and aspiration, and lead customers to the next stage in their journey – buying their bike! Harley-Davidson is not just a motorcycle, it’s a lifestyle, and in many cases, content needs to ‘sell’ the lifestyle first, then the product.

Brand communities have shared values

If you’re a member of H.O.G, you’re part of a ‘global family’. I have many personal experiences of being in other countries and meeting fellow H.O.G. members in fuel stations and in bars or hotels – usually identified by a t-shirt or a patch on their jacket as well as their motorcycle. There’s an instant connection and respect, and you know they’ll be there for you on, and off, the road.

We’ve shared stories about H.O.G. members putting people up when all the hotels are full or closed, helping out with bike repairs on the side of the road and chapters gathering at an hour’s notice to escort a fellow member to their next destination.

That’s what Harley-Davidson has done really well with H.O.G. during the past 35 years – it’s built an element of trust within its community. It’s facilitated it, but also let it develop, and without an agenda.

Community needs a strategy

Our strategy has always been to understand how to engage people in the community – what pushes their buttons?

Very quickly we identified some common themes. It seems very simple now: photographs of owner with their bike, with a mountain in the background, or with a baby, or with a dog… Our inbox was constantly full of user generated content – and most of it not the best quality – so we instigated lots of ways for the community to improve and then share their images and their stories. The member magazine was originally called Hog Tales, and it was so apt – a collection of ‘tales’ from the road… and not always tales of the journeys travelled, but the emotional reasons of how they got there in the first place and the life motivations that helped them on their journey to two-wheeled adventures.

While the stories remain of a similar nature, with digital developments, we have to constantly evolve our strategy to embrace the different ways people are communicating with each other and sharing those stories. It’s in constant change especially when you try to get new, younger owners interested in being part of a community that’s a bit deeper than just ‘I’ve got a Harley’.

But we’ve still got the same level of engagement – it’s just spread across more channels now.

Print still plays a part

If there’s passion, there’s a place for print – purely because passion is about losing yourself in something very emotional and you can lose yourself in a printed product that’s been crafted as an experience in its own right. You can’t do that with anything digital. You’re constantly distracted.

About eight years ago, we launched the digital version of HOG magazine with additional content. There was uproar! Members thought we were taking away their print magazine (we quickly explained it was to complement the printed edition and serve as a preview for those countries that wouldn’t receive their printed copy for some weeks). Still to this day there’s a lot of positivity about the printed magazine and it’s rated the number one tangible benefit of H.O.G. membership in all of the research we do.

It’s become very collectible and there’s always a good mix of evergreen content that makes each issue worth keeping as reference in the future. We try to ensure there’s something in every issue for everyone – and we’re talking to a very broad demographic. We want readers to think ‘I might need to check my battery over the summer or after I’ve gotten my bike out after winter’, or, ‘Spain’s on my list of places I’d like to ride – I’m going to keep that as that sounded like a great route’. And because it’s only quarterly, it becomes more collectible and less throwaway than a monthly magazine.

We’ve constantly evolved it too, in line with the Harley-Davidson brand, and the magazine is now a very premium product that encompasses content for the ‘traditional’ member as well as new audiences – more women, much younger riders, and soon-to-be ‘electric’ customers – joining the family.

Events consolidate community

Content engages the community and shares passions remotely, but you can’t beat a physical gathering of H.O.G. members to see how powerful their bond is. Harley-Davidson hosts a number of events globally; and chapters host many regular gatherings at a local level.

We use content to encourage owners who have never been to an event to come because it really does cement the love for the brand – it makes you a fan for life when you’re surrounded by hundreds or thousands of fellow Harley owners. It’s an undescribable camaraderie.

Measuring ROI

ROI is obviously a consideration when investing in a brand community, but the advocacy of an engaged group of passionate customers is pretty immeasurable. Saying that, H.O.G. members spend more than a non-H.O.G member on merchandise, parts and accessories. They renew their bikes more frequently than a non-H.O.G. member and they are generally the best advert a brand can get.