ON FIRST walking into the head office of Harley-Davidson Australia, you notice two things.
First, the bright yellow V-Rod sitting in the middle of a polished foyer surrounded by four other bikes, making you wonder whether you’re in a showroom or an office. Second, a picture of the back of a shaved head with the orange bar and shield logo tattooed across it.
Next to the picture sit three lines.
How does a consumer become so emotionally engaged with a company that they brand their skin with its iconic image for life?
Peter Nochar, managing director of Harley-Davidson Australia, knows it’s not just the brand that people fall in love with, it’s the lifestyle.
“If you think about it, there aren’t a whole lot of brands that get tattooed at all,” Mr Nochar says.
“You don’t see people walking down the street with a Toyota symbol tattooed on their arm. It’s because a Harley-Davidson isn’t just a mode of transportation.
“You see them on the weekend and on holidays because they’re things to enjoy. People who ride are very similar to people who sail or have a small plane. If you sail a boat, you’re constantly adjusting the rigging and sails and whilst you’re doing that, you’re not thinking about anything else.
“For people who are busy, or who have a problem, this is a break from reality. You get on the bike with a problem, you go for a ride, and you feel the freedom of the wind in your face. You’re isolated from everybody else. So when you stop and get off, even though you haven’t solved the problem, it somehow seems more manageable.”
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
Mr Nochar has been involved with the motoring industry for many years, but he certainly didn’t start out on two wheels.
“I was the national sales manager for BMW in Britain. I left and bought a BMW dealership, which I had for about five years,” he says.
“I then went to Japan with BMW and I was in charge of operations. It’s in Japan that I switched to Volkswagen and I was president of the Volkswagen group there. I did that for three years and then I came to Australia as the first MD of Volkswagen Australia.
“They wanted me to move again, but I wanted to stay in Australia. So I left the company and did a bit of consulting for a couple of years before I was headhunted.”
Mr Nochar quickly got a taste of what the Harley-Davidson lifestyle means to some of the passionate riders.
“Not long after I’d started,” he says, “I was in the showroom of the biggest dealership in Melbourne and the owner says to me, ‘You see those two guys standing over there?’ There were two men standing in leather jackets and jeans, one was holding a helmet, and they were laughing and looking at a display.
‘Those two guys wouldn’t be doing that anywhere else. The one on the left is one of Melbourne’s top barristers, and the guy on the right is a plumber.’”
It turned out that they rode together most weekends.
“When you jump on the Harley, you’re part of a community of people who are not aligned politically or through earnings or occupation or demographic,” he continues.
“When you see someone riding a Harley-Davidson, you really have no idea what they do.”
THE AMERICAN DREAM
Being a leader within one of the world’s largest and oldest motorcycle companies comes with its perks.
“Next Sunday, I’ll be in New Zealand riding with some dealers and journalists from Queenstown up to Auckland,” Mr Nochar says. “We have the 30th anniversary of the Harley Owners Group (HOG) in New Zealand, as well as the company’s 110th anniversary, so there’s a big party happening in Auckland.”
Harley has been in Australia since 1917, and according to Mr Nochar, it’s had an up and down history.
“Harley is clearly an American icon; it’s almost as famous as the flag in many ways. We just have to accept what it is, we don’t try to ‘Australianise’ it or localise it,” he says.
Mr Nochar points to the Australian HOG magazine as an example of integration between US and Australian riders.
“We used to take the American version of the magazine, and our customers would say to us, ‘It’s very American’. But we did some research with our members and they didn’t want an exclusively Australian one either,” he says.
“Now we have a magazine which is probably half Australian stories, owners and rides, and half global stories, of which three quarters are American.
“So it’s local and global combined – and we seem to have hit a happy note with customers.”
Australia has created its own identity in the 96 years during which Harley-Davidson has been here, and according to Mr Nochar, the riders reflect that. “You don’t see a lot of American flags sewn onto jackets, or riders carrying the stars and stripes on a flagpole,” he says.
“We don’t promote the fact that it’s an American brand, but we accept it. We try to highlight the best of the two cultures, instead of focusing on one or the other.”
THE SHOWROOM EXPERIENCE
According to Mr Nochar, maintaining a brand’s image is a continuing job, not something that is achieved and then set aside. Every aspect of the brand’s marketing, merchandise and the motorcycles themselves must be tailored to reflect the company’s values.
“Whether it’s one of the stores, a coffee cup or a pair of sunglasses, we don’t just take that and put a Harley-Davidson label on it,” he says.
“Everything we do and touch should have the look and feel of Harley-Davidson. But that doesn’t mean that everything is done in the same way.
“If you visit one of our 46 locations in Australia, you’ll feel like you’re in a Harley-Davidson showroom. There are certain elements that would be consistent, like the racking and display furniture that’s used.
“But what goes on the floor and walls, the entire ambience of the place, would be completely different.”
Mr Nochar has a different approach to Harley from the one he had when working in the car industry, claiming the clinical nature of some brands ruins the experience.
“Some brands, particularly German car manufacturers, like to have a consistent image. They measure the distance between the cars in the showroom and the ceilings have to be a certain height. It’s aggressively manicured. But the problem with that is if all the stores are the same, then there’s no point in going to another store.
“Our riders like to go out and explore, and we hope that the next store they come across in the next town would be somewhere they’d like to visit,” he says.
“With Harley dealerships, one might have soft drinks, the other has coffee, one has a pool table. Our customers are genuinely intrigued to see them all.”
To be successful, you need to have an obsession with the point of sale, he adds.
“That’s where the customer first meets Harley-Davidson,” he says. “They don’t buy a bike in a magazine or online, they come to a dealership. If we can get that ambience right, if the environment is reassuringly solid and ‘feels’ right, then the transition from prospect to buyer becomes a lot easier.”
A WINNING POSITION
Harley-Davidson head office asked franchisees to pick up their stores and move them during the height of the global financial crisis.
Mr Nochar admits he asked a lot from his dealers, but was adamant that store location is crucial.
“We’ve moved or upgraded about 80 per cent of the stores in the past four years, and we persuaded the franchisees to move to busy roads,” he explains.
“They don’t need to be on George St in the CBD of Sydney, but they need to be very visible on a busy road in their locality.”
And according to Mr Nochar, the approach has paid off.
“If you’re driving past the orange bar and shield sign, and see the bikes out the front every single day, one day you’re going to think, ‘I’m going to just duck in’.”
According to Mr Nochar, 40 per cent of people who bought a Harley-Davidson motorbike had bought some form of merchandise before, “even if it was quite a few years before they bought the bike”, he says.
“So by putting ourselves in a busy location, we engage people sooner.
“The sale of merchandise has gone through the roof. We have had an enormously successful dealership on a main road in Perth, which is now the second or third biggest dealer in the country in a very short period of time.”
The change of location allowed Harley to miss the brunt of the global financial crisis, and helped expose the brand to more and more people.