Harley Davidson – a great early example of working the social nets

A couple of weeks ago I went to visit my friend Jim Fricke in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Jim is the head curator for the Harley-Davidson Museum, and I spent an afternoon and the following morning browsing the museum and lending a bit of help to Jim and the crew who were installing the new Evel Knievel exhibit.

I’m not a motorcycle rider, and I didn’t really know very much about Harley’s history, so this was a voyage of discovery for me. The Museum is really good, loads of cool bikes and interesting exhibits and explanations. I loved the “engine room” where you could see why Harley’s engines are different than others, leading to the characteristic Harley sound. There’s a wall that shows the various engine variations over Harley’s history and you can listen to recordings of the different versions – how cool is that?

The story of how Harley was acquired by AMF and became part of a large corporate enterprise in the 1970s, with subsequent declines in quality and reputation, and then had a remarkable rebirth after a group of company executives repurchased the company in 1981 is legendary.

But what I was struck by as I went through the museum exhibits covering those events was the amazing foresight that those executives had in leveraging two overlapping social networks to resurrect the company’s quality and reputation. They realized that using the network of Harley dealers and through them rallying the owners of Harleys to help the company would be key to their effort. The creation of the Harley Owner’s Group (HOG) in 1983 is frequently cited as a stellar example of brand management, but I think it’s more interesting as a very successful pre-online example of using social networking to help inform and support corporate strategy.


One thought on “Harley Davidson – a great early example of working the social nets”

  1. The Harley museum. Drooool.

    I must say tho..that having ridden two wheels since 1962 one cannot understate the devotion Harley riders have for the ‘brand’. Most do disappear with the change to the ‘winter’ weather and the all-weather Beemer aficionados are as loyal if quieter 😉 but the amazing devotion Harley riders have is probably unique. I doubt that a similar effort by other motorcycle brands would work as well.

    Back when AMF owned Harley the bikes were a mess and spawned lots of after-market-fix-up services. I worked on a few and found wiring taped to the underside of fenders! We thought Harely might succumb.

    Riders of those bikes did not respond well when we asked if the bikes also set (bowling) pins.

    The recovery of Harley does seem to be a model for others.



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