Is Your Product Masquerading as a Brand?

December 1, 2003

I spent many hours shopping in malls, supermarkets, electronics stores and online. While it all seems like a blur now, I couldn't help but put on my marketing cap and look at the experience through the lens of an informed consumer. What I came to realize is how few true "brands" there really are in the marketplace. The fact is, that most products and services out there are just masquerading as brands. While they all have logos and have some positive associations to which they can lay claim, most lack that deep visceral connection and unshakable loyalty that characterizes true brands from fungible products and services. Often-times, when competing products drop their price in a category or add a new feature or benefit, you've got a turncoat customer on your hands. The reason for this behavior is a simple one: the depth of connection is shallow and weak. The marketer has failed to create sufficient rational and emotional switching costs for the consumer.

Marketers that understand the power of building deep connections to their customers are the true builders of real brands. They're the beneficiaries of long and dependable life cycles that serve as annuity revenue streams and withstand competitive attacks. What separates these marketers from others is a core belief that the consumer owns the brand - NOT the company that manufacturers or markets the product. When viewed in this way, consumers aren't considered to be target audiences or gross rating points in a media plan, they become people - individuals with whom you need to build relationships. While the rational side of any purchase decision is important (speed, color, reliability, styling, packaging, etc), it's the emotional side that keeps 'em coming back. You've got to win their hearts and not just their minds.

So, if it's the depth of the relationship and the emotional bond that separates weak from strong brands, who has cracked the code? The answer - the Harley Davidson Motor Company. While it's only ranked 44th on the 2003 Business Week/Interbrand 100 Most Valuable Brands list with a brand value of $6.8 billion, I'd rate it #1 on the basis of the intensity of the relationship it enjoys with its customers. I can think of no other brand that has the degree of unshakable loyalty and advocacy Harley Davidson motorcycle owners ascribe to it. Harleys are synonymous with the world's most recognizable motorcycles and are deeply connected to American culture and values. They have become symbols of rugged individualism, freedom and rebellion. When you buy a Harley, you're not just buying a finely made piece of machinery or a mode of transportation (the rational/price-of-entry stuff I mentioned earlier); you're buying into a way of living. It's a mystique that has been cultivated over the company's storied 100 years in business. What started as nothing more than the dreams of two young entrepreneurs, William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson, working in a 10x15 foot shed in 1903, has become one of the strongest brands of all time.

Building a fiercely loyal customer base didn't happen overnight for Harley. They cultivated their image and relationships over a long period of time and effectively wrapped themselves around their customers using multiple marketing techniques. It's an approach I like to refer to as 360 degree marketing. Think of it as "surround sound" for marketing. Too many of us in the advertising industry take a one pony approach to marketing, relying too heavily on advertising and promotion alone - without giving thought to leveraging the many touch points that can influence perceptions and build relationships with customers. Every touch point, from the product itself, its distribution channels, sales, customer service, design, communications, service, brand extensions, etc can and should be harnessed to build, leverage and enhance relationships. But you really need to connect the dots or it just won't happen.

Harley Davidson has been very smart in its approach over the past century. First, it established its reputation based on producing tough, high quality and reliable motorcycles. Word of the durable bikes spread rapidly, and they soon became the motorcycle of choice for police departments across the country. When America went to war during War I and II, most of Harley Davidson's production was devoted to supplying U.S. allied troops with motorcycles - an action, which further strengthened their linkage to American culture, values and imagery. Following World War II, troops returned with a strong affinity for Harley's tough and reliable motorcycles creating significant demand for the company. During the entire period, Harley Davidson motorcycles retained their distinctive styling, which created a sense of nostalgia and continuity, which has been carried forward to this day.

What Harley Davidson clearly understands is that the people who buy Harley's want to be part of an extended family or community of free-spirited adventure seekers. To build and reinforce this strong sense of community, Harley Davidson creatively leverages all of its customer touch points. From employees giving plant tours, conducting special events and races, holding bike rallies, launching a line of durable branded motorcycle clothing and accessories, selectively licensing the Harley brand on products (there's even Barbie Biker doll and a chrome VISA credit card), and creating H.O.G. - the Harley Owners Group. H.O.G. is comprised of 650,000 members worldwide and provides an organized way for Harley riders to share their passion and show their pride. At the celebration of the company's 100thanniversary on August 30, 2003, more than 250,000 people from around the world descended on Milwaukee, Wisconsin to celebrate the event. How many of your customers would attend a celebration of any one of your brands?

I think you get the point! True brands are measured by the intensity of the relationship and the degree to which you've created unshakable loyalty and advocacy. If it were up to me, I'd do away with Brand and Category Development Indices (BDIs and CDIs) and create a new and more powerful metric - a Brand Relationship Intensity Index. Who knows - it might one day catch on.


Jim Speros, Chief Marketing Officer of Ernst & Young; former Chairman of the Association of National Advertisers. December 2003.