Let customers build your brand… The Harley way!

1983 was a milestone in more ways than one. The last Delorean was manufactured, Al Pacino howled his famous “Say hello to my little friend” and Harley-Davidson started the granddaddy of all communities – The Harley Owners Group (HOG). Today the HOG is one of the biggest factors driving the Harley Brand forward. In fact, the HOG has the distinction of being the only community that drove a company, almost at the brink of bankruptcy, into a brand that millions aspire to own.

Harley-Davidson never had to create a “Harley Hunk” or pay celebrities to popularize it. Because it is endorsed by a far greater power – its customers. It has proved that brand power is the direct result of an engaged customer base. This is not a story about Harley. This is the story of how America’s extreme brand created a  global phenomenon that every company across the world would kill to mimic.

Lesson 1: Closing the Doors. Don’t be scared to Polarize

“If you want to fit in, take the bus,” screams the HOG’s homepage. Most businesses try and build a product that pleases everyone. Harley tries to go a step beyond that and strike an emotional chord with its riders. But when you’re trying to build a brand that customers would get into bar fights to defend, there’s a good chance you’ll be annoying a few people along the way.

Harley-Davidson shows that this is not a bad thing at all. More than anything else, your customers need a cause to champion. And polarizing your user base ensures that you give your loyal customers that “cause” to fight for.

A Harley is not a bike. It isn’t even a product. It is a lifestyle. You either love it or hate it; there is no in between, there is no indifference. The Harley Owners Group shows every new customer that not only is it okay to be different, but it is good to be so; the appeal was irresistible for their customers who wanted to stand out, to beat mediocre.

Lesson 2: User Created, Factory Managed.

The Harley Owners Group is probably the greatest example of a user driven community ever. Except it isn’t user managed. In fact, every HOG chapter needs to be sponsored and tied up with a Harley dealership. That might sound a bit undemocratic, but that’s the reason Harley has been able to keep its ears to the ground, and its riders in its turf. And, that’s the reason every HOG is packed with value.

It’s not a bad deal for the riders either. Whether it’s the launch of a new bike, invites to the best road-trips or just generally hanging around, members of the HOG get their info straight from the the factory.  The community forges an emotional bond between members and the company, and every HOG member, no matter where he moves to, knows that he can expect the same Harley experience.

After the first year of free membership, you get a choice; you can be someone who owns a bike, or you could be that guy in the HOG.  At least on paper. In reality, after that first year, the HOG is a part of who you are. And that is how you build a community.

Lesson 3: Either you are in or you aren’t. Keep it exclusive.

Spray and Pray marketing does have its merits, but Harley Davidson invests in keeping the HOG exclusive. Members get privileges, insider information and tips that are available only for the community.

Of course, building an aspirational brand based on exclusivity isn’t something unique to Harley. Casinos like Harrah’s showcase their high rollers with red carpet treatment right in front of other users. But HOG’s exclusivity ensures that every passionate biker aspires to be a part of it.

And that is how the Harley-Davidson grew to be something way more than just a brand – a cult.

Now would the Harley Owners Group have still made sense if its members had access to the same benefits and information that everyone else had? Probably. But the HOG would have been a watered down workshop with just a handful of enthusiastic customers.

A Harley isn’t for everyone. If you are a part of the HOG, you know you’re different from the crowd. And the company makes sure everyone, both inside the community and outside, know this.

Lesson 4: Avoid desertification. Invest on engagement.

Getting a bunch of customers to come down to your brand community is hard enough. But if they saw a lifeless ghost town with nothing except two guys from your factory singing your praise, they probably won’t be sticking around for too long.

One of the coolest things about being a HOG member is the road trips you get to take. There are long cross-country trips, weekend trips, short drives, maintenance tips, workshops, trips and even more trips planned out. And it’s not just about trips and workshops. There are poker runs, dinner dates, points rides, and parties that no real biker would ever want to miss. The best part is the members in most chapters number below 50, which means every member knows the favorite beer of everyone else in their chapter.

Harley invests on keeping its riders engaged. And the result is a passionate community that will never even dream of sitting on a Vulcan 1700.

Lesson 5: If you don’t upsell, you are doing your customers a disservice

If you just had a nice meal at a restaurant known for its awesome desserts, and the waitress did not suggest that creamy Tiramisu to you, she’d actually be doing you a terrible disservice. It’s the same with your communities.

So what do a bunch of bikers going on rides for half the year really need? Biking gear, insurance, and roadside assistance, of course. Harley-Davidson could leave this to the riders to figure out and continue just manufacturing their godly bikes. But HOG and Harley-Davidson are buddies; the company knows all that the riders need and gives it to them at one stop.

Of course, there is a fine line between upselling to your community, and turning it into your official billboard. But by selling great products, merchandise and services to its members, the HOG isn’t just saving them time and effort. It’s making sure they continue receiving the Harley experience every minute.

If you genuinely try to build a relationship with your customers, it shows. Nothing can get the attention or the love of your customers better than the assurance that you actually care. After all, when you are as good at building a community brand as Harley-Davidson, your customers stand in line to ink your logo across their biceps.

So how would you build your brand community? Share your tips, ideas and experiences in the comments.