Here’s an update on the recent struggles at Harley-Davidson, an American icon based in our hometown. Harley’s sales may have tumbled lately—and whose haven’t?—but the brand is still showing some mettle, as a recent dustup with The New York Times demonstrates.
A week or so ago, the NYT ran a piece headlined “Harley, You’re Not Getting Any Older.” It wasn’t a hatchet job by any stretch. But it did paint the future in dark colors, emphasizing the usual criticism that Harley’s core customers, baby boomers, won’t be in the market forever, and so the company needs to find a way to lure new blood.
Well, some people at Harley didn’t think they got a fair shake in the article. So, a few days later, they ran a big ad in an American flag design, with the provocative headline “You can file our obituary where the sun don’t shine.” You can read more about Harley’s advertising response here.
Now, you can say what you want about the logic of responding to a piece of journalism you disagree with by buying ad space in the publication that ran it. You also might take issue with the ad’s tone. Something about the in-your-face, red-white-and-blue attitude plays like 1987. In other words, the ad may appeal mostly to the baby boomer audience Harley needs to reach beyond.
Nevertheless, our local bike maker has a good point. As we’ve noted before, the company has been making moves and trying new things to cultivate new fans. These things take time, especially for a brand as well established as Harley’s is.
In the meantime, this playful advertising volley has earned plenty of additional coverage and conversation. And at its heart, the message is true to the rebellious, resilient image. On balance, that’s surely a win.