Mark-Hans Richer came to Harley-Davidson in 2007 from General Motors, where he had been in charge of marketing for the Pontiac brand, including the famous promotion where all of the members of Oprah Winfrey’s studio audience took home cars.
And while he hasn’t given away hundreds of hogs on TV yet, Richer has reshaped marketing for the iconic motorcycle brand, which is celebrating its 110th anniversary in September with a full slate of activities, including concerts by Kid Rock and Aerosmith at its hometown of Milwaukee, and a 2,000-bike ride in Rome with Pope Francis blessing the bikes.
As senior VP and global CMO, Richer is in charge of all marketing and advertising activities, including promotions, motorcycle product planning, the Harley-Davidson Museum, and the aptly named Harley Owners Group (HOG). During Richer's tenure, Harley has been expanding its customer base by reaching out to a more diverse clientele, including women, young bikers, and multicultural consumers. In addition, the company has diversified its marketing tie-ins beyond the more traditional sponsorships in racing and other sports. It launched sponsorships of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and a tie-in with the comic-book giant Marvel and its movie properties, continuing this summer with the release of Iron Man 3.
While in New York for the annual digital newfronts presentations, Richer sat down with CMO.com contributor writer Mercedes Cardona to discuss the philosophy behind Harley’s new direction, the early results of this strategy, and some hints of what’s to come.
CMO.com: After more than 30 years, you split up with your agency, Carmichael Lynch, and launched what was called a “crowdsourcing” approach. How does that work?
Richer: The principle of it is to get as close to your customers as you can. Our design and style is really inspired by the street and by the things that are happening in the world--the creativity of our customers and our events. Now we have the means, through things like crowdsourcing, that allow you to reach out to people in real time.
It’s usually a very specific challenge that we had, much as we would give to an agency: “Here’s what we’re trying to help people understand. How do you think that could work?”
There is wheat and there is chaff, and you have sort thought it. It’s the nature of ideas, whether it’s an agency or not. It’s not like we don’t work with any agencies; we have media-buying agencies and agencies that help us in the digital space [for] search engine optimization and techniques and disciplines that we can’t turn to our customers to do. [Yet] when it comes to connecting with our customers in the most emotional way possible, we felt it would be best to go to the customers themselves.
CMO.com: Where do traditional media and digital media fit in your marketing approach? How do they play together?
Richer: The tactics you employ don’t matter as much if your meaning is well-developed. You know what your customers are looking from you, you know what you stand for, and then you reinforce that. Whatever you’re doing--whether it’s online or something in the real world around a rally--the meaning comes through.
The trick is to not think of these media of any kind as pursued in a vacuum. Even if you’re doing the quote-unquote “traditional television,” the connection between the television and a mobile device is immediate. So if the TV ad will turn into a search, even though one is digital media and one is traditional media, there are no silos there.
It should not just be about the consistency of the message if the message has no meaning. Having one tagline doesn’t do anything for it. It’s breaking it down into what’s more relevant to [customers] and what’s true to Harley. So there may be inconsistency of execution, but the consistency of meaning is what’s most important.
CMO.com: Has this approach affected media spending?
Richer: Our media mix has changed. Obviously digital has become more important, not only because we have to be there, but because it is how our customers want to engage with each other and with us.
Television is still the No. 1 consumer media even among young adults today, but as I’ve said before, even as they’re consuming television, there’s a Web-enabled device nearby--a tablet, a phone, maybe a desktop. So the ability to facilitate those dialogues and experiences in real time now is much more rich.
CMO.com: How do you home in on your message? Are you struggling with big data?
Richer: It’s tech and touch. Technology allows you to have more data than you ever had before. Touch is what you have to have to understand, the insight that comes from that data.
The downside of big data is how big and overwhelming it can become, and does it actually push you away from the truth of our customer? Because that truth is sometimes realized in human insights that you can only pick up in a personal way--riding the road and meeting them on their terms at rallies.
We have a very individualistic community, and we have a very big community at the same time. There is a mass community, but they are all radical individuals in it, which is an interesting dichotomy. [For example], a second-generation Hispanic living during the same generation as Gen X might be having a different cultural experience during that same cultural period as a Caucasian man whose family has been here for seven generations.
CMO.com: How are those new customers affecting your company’s growth?
Richer: The proof of all that is we’re now the No. 1 market share with young adults. That was not true five years ago. We’re also the No. 1 seller to women, to Hispanics, to African Americans, and to Caucasian men simultaneously. And those trends have increased double-digits in every single one of those segments in the past five years. So not only have we become No. 1, our lead has been increasing in the past five years, not only in the Great Recession, but coming out of it.
Our challenge is to have a very robust community of riders, and we’re very happy that it’s getting more robust all the time. We create these rallies, and they become bigger and bigger and become cultural forces in their own right all over the world. We just started Rio Harley Days; it’s quite amazing to see it happen all over the world.
CMO.com: What lessons have you learned regarding digital marketing and your consumers?
Richer: In the past we may have been too focused on individual product lines and not in who are the customers for these product lines. Are they really thinking about platforms, or are they thinking: “This is a really cool Harley that I wanted this way and with these kinds of things?”
The lessons are finding meaning: What is the ideal that you’re talking about for a customer? Don’t worry about the campaign tagline and that everything has to look the same. GEICO is an interesting example. How many campaigns do they run simultaneously and they still deliver the same idea--whether it’s cavemen or talking pigs or whatever? People tend to overprioritize consistency tactically and not consistency on an idea level.
Another lesson is your customers are your brand. Your customers own your brand; your customers built your brand. You have to respect that, and you have to enable that. If you don’t and you think you’re the one doing it, you have your focus on the wrong place.
Be brave; be ready to do different things. We jumped into the UFC [sponsorship] when it was risky to do, and we decided not to have a lead agency anymore and go to crowdsourcing.
These are things anyone can do. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t, but that’s the nature of growth. It’s seeing where the growth really takes flight and other times it doesn’t, and you have to learn and move on.
What’s next for Harley?
Richer: I think the essential truth of the brand isn’t going to change in another 110 years. Five more CMOs or 100 more CMOs from now, I’m hoping they’ll all be talking about these truths. But it’s a brave new world out there that allows us immense growth opportunities.
We just launched an e-commerce channel that allows customers to engage in commerce for clothes, parts, and accessories--everything but motorcycles--that works with our dealer channel, not against our dealer channel.
We have 650 dealers in the United States, 10 in India, a dozen in Brazil, 10 in Russia, and maybe a dozen in China. Think about the scale of those opportunities, as well as the future growth opportunities in the United States with our outreach customers, continuing to grow with them and creating experiences with them and for them.
The exciting thing for me in terms of what’s next is the growth opportunities for us, even as we’re 110 years old. And how many people I have a chance to meet and learn their stories. It’s the most enjoyable part of my job.