Thursday, November 28, 2013

Sons of Anarchy

This post isn’t about a grand theme. It’s not a cri de coeur, or a polemic, or a rant. It’s just a simple love letter to the magic that happens when sound strategy and sensitive art direction come together. You have to call this stuff out when you see it, however you may think it should be taken for granted. You have to let smart marketers know someone is paying attention, if only so that they keep doing it. Here’s the story:

The near and dear will recall that my beloved horse passed away earlier this year. It was a tough loss and he was sort of one of a kind, so I wasn’t ready to think about replacing him right away. Instead, guessing it might make for a less demanding relationship, I did the only thing stupider than owning a horse. I bought a motorcycle.

Well. The motorcycling world, it turns out, is a branding theme park. It’s an intensely tribal culture, and each tribe has its own set of approved brands, its own mode of dress, its own acceptable makes and styles of bike, and in some cases even its own prescribed pop culture regime. The language of the sport is rich and deep, and profoundly consensual. This is, without a doubt, part of what makes it so infectious.

Over the last few years, a new tribe has joined the motorcycling world, one that – believe it or not – owes something to hipster culture. Firmly retro in its agenda, it’s seen the ‘standard’ motorcycle make a comeback, reviving once obscure British and Italian marques, along with 70s-era Japanese bikes. Even the fashion world has joined the fun, with brands like Britain’s Belstaff catching such a tailwind that they’ve crossed over to the mainstream (Harry Rosen’s fall magazine even featured an entire collection of motorcycle-inspired couture). Around the world, bike manufacturers are rushing dainty retro-styled machines to market to feed the nostalgia-tinted false modesty of the urban hipster.

So imagine Harley’s dilemma.

Harley Davidson makes, I’m sure, a fine motorcycle. But dainty and urban it is not. It would seem no more reasonable to have ZZ Top modeling Tom Ford suits than to market a Harley to the hipster biker market, right? I mean, what could they possibly say that would win them a spot in the hearts of all those sensitive, The National-listening kids who probably fell into motorcycling because their Vespas were too slow?

And the smart answer turns out to be, nothing. Say nothing. Just show them you get it. That’s what caught my eye in the picture at the top of this post, clipped from Harley’s web site. Yes, they’re now building bikes for this market, but that was the easy part. The hard part was connecting with it, and they chose to do that using motorcycling’s essentially native language. Look again at the photo: the stylish desaturation, the vaguely Brooklynesque setting, the rider’s ambiguous ethnicity, his open face helmet, Warby Parker-ish glasses, rolled jeans, and vintage-y lace-up boots. This thing is a festival of semiotics, which is exactly how motorcycle culture communicates.

If Harley had even hinted out loud that they were trying to penetrate this new segment of the market, if they had called out any of the symbols and myth that define it, they would have fallen flat. Even flatter if they’d made too much of a point of BEING Harley, or for that matter too little. Instead, the writers just got out of the way and let the art director demonstrate Harley’s fluency. The result - a credible alloy of hipster sensibility and Harley’s trademark loner aggression - gives new life to a brand that, in different hands, could easily have perished under the weight of its own history.

You have to be a branding nerd to appreciate this kind of stuff, I guess. But I love it when someone in this game cares enough to consider who’s doing the talking, and to whom. And I love audacity. That’s the best kind of branding there is.


Valerie said...

I love it..Love the branding :)

Herry Pat said...

I absolutely feel delighted once I realize articles appropriate to my work and my subject. brand

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Natasha Malhotra said...

Brilliant brand communication strategy displayed by the motorcycle company. Thanks for sharing!

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