Monday, July 23, 2012

Association Management Lessons from Harley Davidson

Ran across this little nugget over the weekend.

Harley Davidson Upgraded by Fitch on High Profit Margins

Wow.  Haven't heard of S&P, Fitch or anyone else for that matter upgrading anyone in recent memory.  In fact, since the United States downgrade it's just been one hammer falling after the other both here, in the Eurozone and elsewhere.

And then...there's Harley Davidson....once again rising from the ashes and beating the odds.  And in my mind there are two reasons why they've done it again.

  • They know who they are.  They relentlessly focus on reinforcing their iconic brand.  They don't sell motorcycles they sell freedom and "cool." If I remember correctly, at one point their senior leadership mentioned that their major marketing goal was to take a mid-level manager from Hewlett-Packard and make them feel like a bad-ass on the weekend.  They've done it, over and over again.
  • They make decisions that are just as tough as their image.  Harley Davidson will cut when necessary. I am not completely comfortable with the way they recently froze salaries, and brought in part time workers to get back to profitable. I tend to believe there are probably other ways to cut costs without sacrificing quality and still keep the middle class intact.  But I can't argue with the fact that when their backs were against the wall, they had the courage to make some hard choices and came out on top again.
Associations could learn a thing or two from Harley.  Know who you are and focus on who your members are BEYOND their job description.  Harley doesn't sell "motorcycles," they sell a lifestyle ideal.  (And, by the way they don't care that their lifestyle ideal is not universally embraced.  That's a whole 'nother level of cool.)  How can you get beyond selling "memberships" to defining a lifestyle ideal for your members instead?  How can you infuse some "cool" into your people and your activities?

Secondly, when the chips are down, make tough choices.  What is permanent, what should stay and what can go. To my mind, the vision is the most important piece, not the strategic plan. Focus on achievement of the vision and don't get overwhelmed with the tactical details.  Sometimes setting the strategic plan on fire is the only way to keep moving forward.

Congratulations guys!  Here's hoping for another 100 year bike run!


  1. Good post, Shelly. Your readers may be interested to know that folks from Harley are going to be part of panel presentation on innovation at the upcoming WSAE Annual Conference. Details at

  2. Thanks for stopping by Eric -

    I am really stoked to hear about your panel presentation and I bet it will be fascinating! Please let us know how it goes!


  3. Are you familiar with "The Why" marketing philosophy? I validates what you're talking about. See it here: . Be sure to watch the video

  4. Harley-Davidson motor vehicles already gained trust from their customers over the years. And their products are the proofs why Harley-Davidson motor company is indeed an American Legend!

  5. Lucas - great points! And we love them for it!

  6. Any business could really learn from Harley-Davidson especially in handling their own brand. I do have a Harley-Davidson at home and I got it after I graduated college. Any one who have tried riding Harley would instantly know that it's a top class.


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