Imagine the typical Harley-Davidson owner. Look a lot like a character from "Easy Rider"? Or maybe "Mad Max"?
Well, wipe that image from your mind, because Harley Motor Co. is looking to prove that its customer base doesn't fit any set profile. In a YouTube video released in February, the company encouraged followers to use the Twitter hashtag #StereotypicalHarley with the idea that there's no stereotype at all.
"There are people who, in the back of their minds, they aspire to this lifestyle and this brand, but they have trepidation and fear of, 'Will I be accepted?'" says Paul James, director of product communications for Harley-Davidson. "When you see other people that look like you who are Harley riders, and maybe you don't expect them to be, I think it does change your perception."
According to the tweets he's been seeing, perceptions are changing.
In November, Harley-Davidson launched its Fan Machine app, which gets its 3.5 million Facebook fans involved in coming up with ideas for promotional campaigns. They can submit ideas, which other fans can then vote on. The company has a team of moderators that keeps an eye on everything so that "the best ideas kind of rise to the top," James says.
He adds, "We put out a one- or two-sentence brief that asked our Facebook fans to submit ideas based around the [question]: If you could convince someone who was new to motorcycling to ride, what would you do?"
Of the ideas submitted, one from Washington state resident Harold Chase stood out. He suggested playing up the camaraderie among Harley riders despite their diverse backgrounds. He used the Latin phrase from the Seal of the United States: "E pluribus unum."
"That was the germ of the idea we started to play with," James says. Harley-Davidson quickly called in its various advertising, marketing, and PR agencies to toss around the idea and give it a life of its own.
"From there, it developed into, 'We have 50,000 Twitter followers. What if we had a hashtag?'" James says.
Finding the non-stereotype
By mid-January, the campaign was shifting into high gear. Harley-Davidson put out a casting call on Twitter, Facebook, and its website in search of Harley owners of all stripes. On Twitter, the company used the hashtag #HarleyVideo to drum up excitement.
"We got hundreds and hundreds of responses," says James.
Out of that group, 18 ended up in the finished video. Among them were riders from Mexico City and Bahrain, a teenager, a soccer mom, a Chicago cop, and an honor student.
For the farthest-flung people featured in the video, the team made do with still photographs. Some riders sent in video clips of themselves. All the original footage for the video was shot in and around Austin, Texas, says James.
About a week before the video went up in late February, the Harley-Davidson Twitter account started using the #StereotypicalHarley hashtag to build momentum for the campaign. The company invited the riders in the video (identified by their Twitter names) to tweet the hashtag, as well as other influencers and celebrities. For instance, comedian Margaret Cho was happy to tweet about her Harley.
In most cases, people have understood the hashtag, says James. Occasionally he says he'll see a tweet from someone who misunderstands that the aim is to say there isn't a stereotype, but they're rare.
Twitter users have used the #StereotypicalHarley hashtag thousands of times, James says, and the video has gotten more than 100,000 YouTube views. Many people using the hashtag are Harley owners, but it's also resonated with what James calls the "dreamers," those who want a Harley but haven't taken the plunge.
"We could definitely see the effect on people who were on the sidelines," he says.
For example, one Twitter user said, "I'm pretty sure this will be the year I get my driver's license and my first Harley." Another shared that he was $3,000 away from his dream motorcycle.
James can't say what the campaign's effect on sales has been just yet, but he says its aim is definitely to broaden Harley-Davidson's customer base. Though the company certainly wants to grow its core constituency of white men 35 and up, it wants its "outreach" business among women, young adults and nonwhites to grow even faster.
For a company that is all about putting rubber to the road, creating a campaign that has been a completely digital one—from the kernel of the idea springing up on Facebook to the whole thing springing to life on Twitter—has been an eye-opener, James says.
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.