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Building Retro Brands: Harley Davidson and the 4 As

After a seemingly unstoppable growth period during the beginning of the 21st century, the iconic American brand Harley Davidson was in serious trouble. Not only did the 2008 global economic crisis hit it hard, but more importantly, its core target market was shrinking fast (Seizemore 2013). Composed primarily of American Baby Boomer males, this aging demographic had plenty of disposable income and sought an escape from the monotony of daily life by indulging their long-lost aspirations of rebellion (Holt 2004). As profitable as this market segment once was, Harley Davidson had no choice but to shift branding gears and create new customer experiences.

Key Takeaways

WHAT? The iconic American brand Harley Davidson has experienced a dramatic shrinking of its original Baby Boomer target market. 

SO WHAT? Harley Davidson has shifted branding gears by adopting the principles of retro branding in an effort to create customer experiences that appeal to the new Millennial male market.

NOW WHAT? For marketers, the key elements of a retro branding strategy include a moralized brand story (allegory), an idealized brand community (arcadia), an authentic brand essence (aura), and an irresolvable brand paradox (antinomy).
 

In an effort to capture a younger, Millennial male market without completely alienating its original fan base, Harley Davidson adopted the principles of retro branding, defined in an influential article in the Journal of Marketing by Stephen Brown, Robert V. Kozinets, and John F. Sherry Jr. (2003) as “relaunched historical brands with updated features.” Specifically, the four key elements ensuring the success of a retro branding strategy (Allegory, Arcadia, Aura, and Antinomy) can be found in Harley Davidson’s current brand revival efforts: 

Allegory (brand story): According to the authors, a successful retro brand rests on a symbolic story with a strong moral message. In the case of Harley Davidson, the brand maintained its narratives of freedom and independence, but now with the added moral twist of environmentalism. In August 2015, for example, the company teamed up with a nonprofit environmental conservation organization (the Nature Conservancy) to launch a preservation program dubbed “Renew the Ride.” This new customer experience is designed to instill in consumers the moral duty to care for nature in order to be able to continue riding free.

Arcadia (idealized brand community): For Brown, Kozinets, and Sherry (2003), a retro brand community is unique in that past communities from this brand are idealized and heralded as utopian, special, and even magical. For instance, although Harley Davidson’s new Sportster line presents rider communities no longer on the open highway but in various cityscapes, it nonetheless draws on its utopian past rider communities when telling new target customers “there are things in its past you should know about.”  

Aura (brand essence): According to Brown, Kozinets, and Sherry (2003), a retro brand’s aura pertains to a powerful sense of authenticity and uniqueness. Harley Davidson continues to deliver on its promise of freedom and rebellion, however, with the Sportster and Street lines, this message has been successfully blended with technological innovation and sleek designs. Thus, the brand can reassure new millennial consumers faced with high-levels of anxiety caused by rapid social, economic, and environmental changes through offering a sense of permanence, authenticity, and legacy.

Antinomy (brand paradox): Lastly, a retro brand, particularly a technology product, contains a few cultural paradoxes within its brand meanings. The paradoxes observed in the case of Harley Davidson’s customer experiences are those between old and new, past and future, tradition and technology, and the open road versus the cityscape.

With increased sales of the Sportster and Street lines in the first quarter of 2015 (Held 2015), it is clear that this iconic American brand is not ready to loudly ride into the sunset of irrelevance. 

Key Takeaways

·      The iconic American brand Harley Davidson has shifted branding gears to create customer experiences that appeal to the Millennial male market due to its shrinking original Baby Boomer target market.

·      Harley Davidson has adopted the principles of retro branding in an effort to revive its brand message.

·      The key elements to ensure the success of a retro branding strategy include a moralized brand story (allegory), an idealized brand community (arcadia), an authentic brand essence (aura), and an irresolvable brand paradox (antinomy).  

References

Brown, Stephen, Robert V. Kozinets, and John F. Sherry Jr. (2003), “Teaching Old Brands New Tricks: Retro Branding and the Revival of Brand Meaning,” Journal of Marketing, 67 (July), 19–33.

Held, Tom (2015), “Sales drop, profits rise for Harley-Davidson Inc.,” (accessed October 8, 2015), [available at http://www.bizjournals.com/milwaukee/news/2015/04/21/sales-drop-profits-rise-for-harley-davidson-inc.html].

Holt, Douglas B. (2004), How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding, Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Sizemore, Charles (2013), “Blame Harley-Davidson's Downfall On Baby Boomer Demographics,” (accessed October 1, 2015), [available at http://www.forbes.com/sites/moneybuilder/2013/11/13/harley-davidsons-downfall-baby-boomer-demographics].

Authors

Juan Aja Aguinaco, Ritish Bansal, Raheem Ladha, Nidhish Nair, and Marina Proskurovsky are students in Markus Giesler’s and Ela Veresiu’s Customer Experience Design MBA elective course at the Schulich School of Business.