A few drawings can say a lot about a company
Our man in Milan sent these photographs from Harley-Davidson’s booth at EICMA—the Esposizione Internazionale Ciclo Motociclo Accessori trade show, on now. The Livewire display, near to which these images are hanging, was doubly quiet—the Livewire makes but a whisper and the booth suffered a dearth of foot traffic. But had passersby taken the time to study the drawings, worthwhile information about the Milwaukee mindset could be gleaned.
Exhibit A—The Trippy Hippie. “We rebel,” it says on the box of roses behind the man in the throes of an acid trip, “for what we believe in.” Believing strongly in beliefs is fine, depending, of course, on the merit of the beliefs you believe in. This is a Harley mantra; to be a man (women are largely too sensible to be hoodwinked into such nonsense) it’s essential to fight to the death to defend a belief rather than compromise. But isn’t the definition of an enlightened man one who can, when presented with irrefutable evidence, change his mind? Beliefs are not intrinsically good. Beliefs can be repositories for narrow-minded, ill-informed, and ill-judged views.
Beliefs cherished by some Harley riders (note my caveat) include—but are by no means limited to—the right to ride quickly in town while revving engines senselessly, and, conversely, the compulsion to ride slowly out of town while surrounded by unimpressionable livestock. The rest of us work this the other way around—slow in town, fast when we’re alone. But the signature belief of far too many Harley riders? The half-brained right to wear a half-helmet.
Exhibit B—Your Horse Swallowed My Hog. “We shoot straight and live true,” read the words behind the man in boxer briefs who is about to shoot an arrow while standing on a horse who’s swallowed a motorcycle. The point made, of course, is that the motorcycle is the modern-day horse, and, by extension, the motorcyclist the modern-day cowboy. (Flattery will get you everywhere.) Harley’s logo, attached to a signpost, is a subtle note of commerce, while the racoon symbolizes that all pictured are scavengers. And the only sensible man in the image? Not a man but a mouse—even a fool knows motorcycles and horses are straddled, not stood upon like a surfboard.
Exhibit C—Horseplay. The most egalitarian image of the three. Horses have punted the hillbillies from their backs and have themselves saddled up. The eye-in-the-sky keeps watch but the waft from the skunk says something doesn’t smell right. “We welcome all…to come as they are,” is an attempt at conciliation after the stridency of the other images. Harley is in the midst of a corporate messaging conundrum. Even as Harley reaches out to women and visible minorities, they remain fearful of alienating the shirtless, pant-less, slingshot-wielding riders that have been a subset of the brand’s base for generations. But it’s hard to pitch the preferred motorcycle of the Make America Great Again posse as the machine for everyone else, especially in foreign markets. Harley has had innumerable opportunities to expunge antiquated corporate messaging. But as long as the same old horses—and horses’ asses—call the shots, change is unlikely to occur.
"Believing strongly in beliefs is fine, depending, of course, on the merit of the beliefs you believe in"
"Harley remains fearful of alienating the shirtless, pant-less, slingshot-wielding riders that have been a subset of the brand’s base for generations"