If you want to experience the psychology of hard-core devotion and feel the sense of anxiety that comes from not being part of the inner circle, go to the Bumpus Harley-Davidson dealership in Memphis, Tennessee. That's where a collection of Hog wanna-bes have come to take part in a program that Harley hopes will help the brand cope with a confounding phenomenon: overly passionate customers.
Every company should have such a problem. But it is a problem. Harley devotees are so in love with the brand that they have been scaring off prospective customers — people who merely like the idea of motorcycles. "People who are new to motorcycling can find us intimidating," admits Jeff Bleustein, Harley's CEO. "They don't know the lingo. They don't know how to get started. We need to lighten our image without losing our edge."
There's no better place to understand how a brand does that than at the giant chrome-clad Bumpus dealership. For the next two and a half days, a handful of newbies will spend close to 16 hours on a motorcycle in a class called Rider's Edge, learning how to weave a 400-pound machine through fluorescent green and orange cones. The teachers, who include a former cop, will initiate the class into the rites of Harley: how the bikes are made, how they are sold, and why people are willing to tattoo Harley's familiar black-and-orange logo on various body parts.
Rider's Edge grew out of an initiative that Bleustein started in 1998 when he realized that Harley owners who loved too much were starting to hurt his brand's market share. New customers, frustrated by long waiting lists for some Harley models, scared off by the size and weight of the snarling machines, and turned off by the brand's Wild Bunch reputation, had started to ride away on Hondas and BMWs instead. Bleustein needed to find a way to attract people who had never swung their leg over a two-wheeled beast while preserving the mystique that has made the brand so successful.
"We knew we had plenty to lose if we made the program too much of a selling tool," says Lara Lee, director of Rider's Edge, which is based out of Harley's Milwaukee headquarters. "We wanted to take the person who felt like an outsider and turn them into an insider, without insiders feeling as if we were taking away from Harley's image, which is a little bit bad and a little bit separate."
Harley has had to deal with image problems before. Once known primarily as the preferred ride of the Hell's Angels, the company cleaned up its act in part by getting police officers to favor its bikes. By the 1990s, Harley was one of America's most successful consumer brands.
That's the success that Lee's team wrestled with as it mulled over ideas for how to cope with its cultlike customer behavior. Then they hit on a simple concept: Why not teach people how to ride? What better way to get customers' motors running than by putting a bike between their legs and letting them experience the freedom of the open road? Lee's team decided to go beyond offering people a few hours of riding instruction. Instead, all Rider's Edge participants would be required to pass the same stringent driving and written tests that are required by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation in order to qualify for motorcycle certification. No passing grade, no Harley.
The team also chose not to use the brand's classic low riders, which start at about $15,000, for the training program. Instead, novices learn to ride on a Buell, a brand that Harley bought several years ago. The lighter, sleeker, less expensive bike comes with a lot less chrome and a lot less cult baggage than a Harley. Plus, the Buell hits right at Harley competitors Honda and Kawasaki for new customers: young people who think that low-slung Harleys are for middle-aged guys with something to prove.
So far, Rider's Edge is still proving itself. Thirty-five of the company's more than 600 dealers have signed up to run the program, and about 4,300 people have taken the training course since it was launched almost two years ago. Some 25% of those have become enthusiastic members of the cult of Harley — although, hopefully, not so enthusiastic that they will wind up scaring off new customers.
Visit Harley on the Web (www.harley-davidson.com).
Sidebar: Easy, Rider
People can love a brand too much. And it's not an easy problem to fix. Just like riding a motorcycle, there are some road rules to follow, says Harley's Lara Lee, director of Rider's Edge.
Keep your balance. Like managing a 400-pound bike, you have to weigh the interests of passionate consumers with those of the newbies who may not have the same level of obsession (yet). "Harley is all about individualism. We want to create a way to let people find their individual interpretation of the brand," Lee says.
Respect the bike. When introducing new people to Harley, Lee focuses on the brand's reputation for quality and precision, as well as on the pride that people take in their bikes. A dealership tour, which includes the warehousing facilities and the repair shop, is meant to introduce people to the world of motorcycles, Lee says, not just the leather-clad world of Harley.
Face obstacles head-on. In the final hour of motorcycle training, students are assigned tougher maneuvers, including taking their bikes over obstacles such as two-by-fours. The advice? Approach them head-on. Rider's Edge does the same thing when dealing with the tougher parts of the Harley image, Lee says. There's no effort to sugarcoat the dangers of motorcycles, for example. Focus on safety first, Lee says. Then you can enjoy the freedom that comes with the Harley brand.
A version of this article appeared in the January 2002 issue of Fast Company magazine.