Branding Lessons from a Hog

Imagine this: you are a manufacturer. Your product is three times as expensive as comparable products made by your competitors. Nevertheless, customers continue to flock to you to drop tens of thousands of dollars on your services. What are you doing right?

If you’re Harley-Davidson, the answer is branding. But what does that have to do with your tackle shop?


This week, the American Sportfishing Association is hosting their annual summit in St. Pete Beach, Fla. The event is designed as a sort of “state of the industry” pow-wow, and it’s jam-packed with keynotes, seminars and media members.  Among those key speakers was one of the men behind the resurrection of Harley-Davidson, America’s legendary motorcycle brand.

The most well-received function of the day was keynote speaker Ken Schmidt’s presentation on “The Harley-Davidson Brand.” Schmidt is the former Director of Communications Strategy for the motorcycle maker and brand icon, having joined the company in the 1980s when its outlook was bleak and its image in need of overhaul. He’s also an extremely avid angler — a musky fanatic — and offered a message and instruction as inspiring as it was enlightening.

Ken Schmidt
Ken Schmidt

Schmidt was hired to improve the image of Harley-Davidson and set about that task by asking three questions:

  1. What are people saying about us?
  2. What do we want them to say?
  3. What are we doing to make them say it? The way he answered those questions and the way Harley rebuilt its image resulted in one of the great corporate turnarounds and iconic brands in modern business history.

Some of the biggest takeaways of Schmidt’s presentation were his conviction that in order to change a business you must change the culture of that business and create a message that’s memorable, repeatable and ownable (you must live it). Customers (he insists on calling them and turning them into “disciples”) don’t want to hear your pitch about quality or price. You have to appeal to their gut — to their emotions.

His message regarding the resurrection of Harley-Davidson ties in with many psychological studies finding that we make most of our decisions with the limbic brain, which controls basic emotions. These decisions are then ratified and carried out by the more rational (sensible) parts of our brains. It’s how a customer (disciple) can walk into a Harley retailer and buy a $24,000 bike when he could get one of the same basic quality at the Honda dealer next door for one third the price.

Schmidt maintains that everyone is ego-driven — that we all want to be noticed. He cites this ego-drive as the reason for the success of Facebook and Twitter, adding that what companies need is not a social media strategy, but a social strategy with a strong message.

Schmidt has a point. Consider the recent success of outdoor brands like YETI or Salt Life. Both are theoretically outdoor companies that feel more like lifestyle companies. A booming, thrashing, $24,0000 motorcycle is a lifestyle choice. So too is a $300 cooler, $30 whiskey glass (well-played, YETI), or a $6 sticker that screams, “Hey, I went to the beach that one time but I actually live in Iowa.”

They might all sound ridiculous in a vacuum, but none of the products on your shelf live in a vacuum. Business ain’t space travel, we always say. Customers breathe air and exhale emotion. That’s why driving that emotion with a strong brand image is vital to your business.