At an upscale midtown Manhattan bar earlier this month, a throng of specially invited female bloggers are greeted with cocktails, pumping music and videos on large screens showing youthful, beautiful women with windswept hair riding majestic looking motorcycles. Some of the attendees learn how to straddle, shift and roll the throttle on a partially disabled sports bike, while others cheer each other on as they follow instructions on how to squat, grip and rock a fallen bike upright.
The event is part of a drive by Harley-Davidson Motor Company to revamp the company's image and extend the brand to women. The stereotype of Harley-Davidson motorcycle owners – or hogs – has been of bulky, white men over the age of 40, with even bulkier two-wheelers. But demonstrations such as the one in New York have been offered at women's garage parties and other events around the country. The 109-year-old Milwaukee-based motorcycle manufacturer has been reaching out to women as well as ethnic minorities and younger riders, as its core constituency of male baby boomers declines through old age.
"It's about changing perception," says Claudia Garber, Harley-Davidson's director of women's marketing outreach. She says the company wants to understand better what women feel about the Harley brand, addressing issues that may have kept them away. "Many women assume that they cannot handle a Harley, due to the size and weight," she explains.
More than 750 garage parties for women were hosted by Harley-Davidson dealers last year. These show-and-tell outreach events have also been combined with female-friendly training and a marketing drive heavily focused on women's empowerment, featuring advertising slogans such as "Freedom. Adventure. Camaraderie. Will you answer the call?"
Harley-Davidson already dominates the U.S. women's motorcycle sector, last year boasting a market share of more than 65 per cent among women who are white and over 35 years old. It created its first "women's community" several years ago to provide information and inspiration to women who wanted to learn to ride. But this year it has launched a women-specific campaign online and in print.
It has also created dedicated marketing teams to service the new customer segments. However, one challenge has been to make sure its core customer base remains suitably looked after and does not feel alienated by any perceived "feminization" of such a staple, macho brand.
Dino Bernacchi, director of marketing communications for North America at Harley-Davidson, says the advertising for the women's campaign contains the same messages present in the company's regular advertising material. "There is a common denominator in the passion, the self-expression, personal freedom and about living life your way," he says.
Doug Spong, president of Carmichael Lynch, which until 2010 held Harley-Davidson's advertising account for 31 years, agrees. "The company has to speak to the core and has to let others listen in," he explains. "All Harley riders – whether it be women, young riders or members of the Hispanic or African American communities – have a shared mindset."
Mr. Spong notes that other traditionally masculine companies such as car maker Porche have succeeded in extending their brands to women. Porche's 2002, Stuttgart-designed SUV, the Cayenne, tapped into the female market while maintaining its sleek designs and record-setting performance. "These women still had that Porche attitude," he explains. "They didn't want a low-horsepower hatchback mommy vehicle. They wanted something fun, cool, fast and powerful, but they also wanted to put a kid and a car seat and some groceries in the back."
A similar dynamic was at play when Gillette extended its brand to women with the introduction of its Venus range of products. Then, the common denominator that was emphasized in the branding and marketing was Gillette's pedigree and expertise in shaving technology, skin and hair. Nonetheless, there are key differences that highlight the challenge faced by Harley-Davidson.
First, Gillette created a new brand in Venus that could be marketed and packaged differently from men's products while still retaining Gillette's name. In addition, Gillette points out that about half of the men's grooming products sold are actually bought by women shopping for their husbands, sons or boyfriends. "So there was already that idea of marketing a male brand to women without softening or feminizing the brand," the company says. Finally, after the company was bought by Procter & Gamble in 2005 – a year after Venus was launched – it was helped by the larger group's broader experience marketing to women.
While Harley-Davidson's own efforts to reach out to women have been widely praised, some argue the company has taken the wrong approach in its communication. "Tag lines such as 'Don't just go along for the ride,' to put it crudely, sound like they were written by a man patting a woman on the head," says Steve Centrillo, co-founder and managing partner of Smiths, a New York-based advertising firm.
Other advertising experts say that by segmenting its new target markets, Harley-Davidson risks putting off potential consumers. "By creating a separate part of the website just for women or African Americans for example, you're saying to that person they are not your core customer. Rather than being inclusive, you are saying this is where you belong," says David Prince, a social media strategist and multicultural strategic planner at Consultant.
Nonetheless, women in the U.S. motorcycle industry have welcomed the company's inclusion of them in its advertising material. Jan Plessner, editor of LadyMoto.com and a former Kawasaki public relations manager, says other manufacturers are likely to learn from Harley-Davidson's initiative. "Women have for a long time been so absent from advertising campaigns and now these motorcycle manufacturers are slowly waking up to this huge untapped market. We will see more from these companies in the next few years," she says.
Beyond advertising, there are also lessons in the area of product design. Harley-Davidson has pushed the option of customisation rather than risk pigeonholing women by pushing them toward women-only bikes. The company has been helped by the fact that many female riders prefer the lower-seated motorcycles for which it is famous.
"By and large, women don't have the same stature and size of bikes as men but again, they have the same mindset as the man," says Mr. Spong. "She wants to ride the same bike he does, they aren't a 'special need.' The company has to retain the DNA of the brand. After all, this was one of the first logos of a company people thought to tattoo on themselves."