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Brand Loyalty on your arm

The motorcycle company Harley-Davidson knows its customers.

As the website says, it’s one thing for people to buy your products; it’s another for them to tattoo your company’s name on their arm. But that’s exactly what Harley-Davidson’s most devoted customers do.

Harley-Davidson interacts with its customers at numerous touch-points: by phone, in the showroom, on the road, at bikers’ conventions, in shops that sell biker clothes featuring the Harley-Davidson logo, and so on. 

However, arguably the best and most comprehensive ‘portal’ into the Harley-Davidson world is the organisation’s website. The insights it offers into how Harley-Davidson sees its customers and strives to interact with them has implications for many other vertical sectors (business to business just as much as consumer) that are far removed from the world of motorbikes.
The Harley-Davidson website unashamedly seeks to be far more than just a website that sells motorbikes. Instead, it’s a world. The design and content of the site is all about enticing the surfer into a motorcyclist-friendly utopia that, in a sense, is as compact, coherent and comprehensive as The Lord of the Rings is for a lover of fantasy novels. The whole emphasis of the website is consciously to pay homage to the culture and world of the biker, and is so comprehensive, sincere and imaginative that it’s easy even for the non-biker to be convinced it isn’t a fantasy at all.

That’s the US website. It’s more expansive than the UK site, partly because the US is Harley-Davidson’s major market, but also because the US and UK websites seem to be aimed at somewhat different markets. The website’s implication is that the dream of riding for hours along vast straight, open roads - the kind of roads immortalised in Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road which contains inspired poetic prose such as in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast... - doesn’t need to remain a dream.

This is more of an American dream than a British one. It’s difficult to imagine Kerouac writing anything very poetic about being stuck in a traffic jam on the M25 in the pouring rain at seven o’clock on a Friday evening in February. But it’s a testament to the genius for knowing what makes its customers tick that radiates from every pixel of the Harley-Davidson website that any negative comment about, for example, the dangers of motorcycling and the likelihood sometimes of bad weather would just make the detractor seem like a killjoy. The Harley-Davidson website is as resistant to bitchy comment as American motor oil is to English rain.

The truth is the website is entertaining even for people who would never want to get on a motorbike. It also illustrates just how close Harley-Davidson’s relationship is with its customers: the point is that few other organisations have websites that show just how seamless their relationship with their customers is. So many other organisations, even successful ones, are unaware their websites make it painfully obvious that they see their customers as completely distinct from them.

This genuine empathy, genuine closeness and genuine liking for customers is surprisingly rare in business. It’s most in evidence when an organisation has managed to give the impression that its customers belong to a sort of club the organisation operates. Loyalty cards and frequent flyer ‘clubs’ try to offer this impression, sometimes fairly successfully though very often you can see the blatant marketing motive too close to the surface. Many organisations have specialised customer ‘clubs’; Tesco has its Healthy Living and Wine clubs, for example. Even children’s books have got in on the act: many publishers have created clubs children can join to get special information about their literary heroes.

Harley-Davidson’s passion for its customers, linked with the quality of its engineering, has enabled it to face tough times within the motorcycle industry and to maintain an enviable status and profitability as the last remaining mass market manufacturer of motorcycles in the US against intense Japanese competition. Harley-Davidson’s successful financials are as visible as its in-your-face engines: Harley-Davidson is among the most successful players in the industry with global revenue in 2006 of close to $6 billion and sales growth of 8.6 percent.

Plenty of companies generate customer loyalty, but not many achieve the level of customer enthusiasm Harley wins. Nor can it all just be down to the website. Maybe a vital point here relates to shared brand values - it’s not just the product itself that attracts people to Harley-Davidson, it’s the fact they see the product as a reflection of themselves.       

The loyalty, even love, Harley-Davidson’s customers have for the bikes and the world the bikes evoke in their imagination and in reality received a big test in the early 1980s, Harley-Davidson began to make subtle changes to the design of their much-loved motorcycles in order to give them more appeal, in Harley-Davidson’s judgement, to a new generation of bikers.

Very often, as for example Coca-Cola found to its cost, tinkering with a product to which customers are unnervingly loyal is a dangerous strategy. But Harley-Davidson didn’t lose loyalty but managed to retain its customers during and after this re-design process. The passion Harley-Davidson has is authentic. After all, what other organisation’s founder’s grandson - William G. Davidson - would spend time at Harley-Davidson conventions sporting a beard, black leathers and jeans in order to discuss the finer points of the bikes’ design with his customers?

Davidson had an important responsibility for the styling and redesign, and he went into the marketplace: bikers’ conventions, and talked to his customers face-to-face, not through the artificial constructs of focus groups and marketing committees. His most devoted customers know everything there is to know about the curve of the handlebars, the look of the engines, the design of the ignition system. They told Davidson how they wanted the bike, their bike, to look and feel. Davidson likened the process of communicating with his customers as akin to being in the fashion business.

A natural question arises: why doesn’t every product or brand inspire the kind of loyalty Harley-Davidson wins from so many of its customers?


As Stephen Nolan of Charteris points out, Harley-Davidson’s success in a tough marketplace has plenty to teach us about how to win and keep customers 

There are doubtless many answers to this.

Certainly, some of the reason has to do with the very nature of what Harley-Davidson are selling.

Bikers tend to be passionate about their hobby (some see it almost as a profession) and as their bikes are the centrepiece of their passion, bikers are in any case likely to be potentially passionate about the manufacturer of their bike. Not that this means Harley-Davidson had an easy job responding to and capitalising on that potential for passion. But certainly it’s hard to imagine anyone, still less a biker, feeling equally passionate about the utility company they use.

The real reason most organisations don’t win the level of love from their customers Harley-Davidson win is that most organisations too easily allow themselves to lose sight of who their customers are and what they truly want.

Very likely the organisations did know this, and were passionate about meeting the need, when they first started in business. Remember, William G. Davidson spends his weekends with his customers. He knows what they want. He responds, and they love him for that devotion.

How often do you really take the trouble to see your company, services and products through the eyes of your customers? How can you hope to stay close to your customers without placing them at the centre of everything you do? In truth, how do you become truly customer-focused, or - to use a more literal and in many respects more helpful term - customer-centric?

We at Charteris define customer centricity as placing the customer at the very heart of your business. In other words everything you do is done with your customer in mind.

Yes, but not slavishly. Not done as a chore. Not done because your boss will be cross if you don’t. Instead, you put your customers at the heart of what you do because you know that is what being in business is all about. Live by it.

Whether or not you were working with the organisation where you now work, you can be certain that when your organisation first started out, being in business was a thrill.  Starting your business was like your first date with someone you love, and winning your first customer was like your first night with that person. You won that first customer. You won more of them. You asked them what you could do for them and you were delighted to do more for them. You delighted your first customers, they bought more from you, and you found more customers and took great delight in selling them what they wanted, too.

You had great days running your business. But then you began to have the occasional bad day too. A competitor threatened to move in to your market. A key supplier let you down. A trusted member of staff walked off with the day’s takings. A new customer complained. The bank manager wanted to review cash flows. Suddenly it wasn’t so much fun. You spent too much time on internal business and stopped focusing on customers. On some days your customers even seemed like a nuisance.

This is the story of too many businesses. It’s a sad story, but it can have a happy ending. Because the truth is you can remain customer-centric even in the face of all these pressures. At Charteris we’ve distilled our practice and philosophy of Customer Centricity into three principles, which are as follows:

1.     Dedicate everything you do to meeting the customer’s needs  Customer centricity involves more than just lavishing attention on your customers when they are in the shop. Your shop is growing now, and you find you need to take on more staff - someone else in the shop, someone to look after telephone orders, someone to do the accounts.

You need to ensure these people share your passion for the product, for sure, but even more – you have to ensure they share your passion for delighting your customers. You need to ensure that everything you, your staff and your suppliers do, and provide through whatever channel, has the customer in mind.

2.     Know and understand your market and learn to love it You need to know and understand your market as intimately and closely as you know anything in your life that you love. And if you don’t love your market now or are not prepared to learn to love it - why are you doing this job at all? Go and find something to do you will love.  

3. Be agile Yesterday’s sales are history, what are your customers looking for now? You need to ensure you, your staff and your supply base are ready and willing to adapt. In these fast-changing times there are two types of business – those that respond and thrive and those that just survive. Keep up with what your customers need NOW.

The secret is to be agile, to be able to turn on a sixpence, to respond quickly to customer needs and so give your customers reasons to love you now and to keep on loving you. Learn these lessons and put them into practice creatively, sincerely and authentically in your organisation and you’ll kick-start a new momentum and ride off into the sunrise of your business - not the sunset.

Stephen Nolan is a consultant at the business and information technology consultancy Charteris plc.