Introducing our new interview series for community builders, where we ask the people behind top brand communities why and how they built it.
For my first interview, I spoke with one of the true pioneers in the space: the Harley-Davidson Owners Group.
Quick intro: from brand to lifestyle with community
You may know the story already.
In the 1980s, the company started the complicated task of reinventing itself and reviving the brand after several tough years. This new strategy included building the Harley-Davidson community.
A decade later, the brand's community strategy had allowed the company to increase loyalty and reconnect with growth. That's when Harley-Davidson went from brand to lifestyle.
Motorcycle fan or not, there's plenty to learn from them. I got to interview Stéphane Sahakian, the brand's Community Manager in France, and Xavier Crépet, Western Europe Marketing Manager.
Where did it all begin for the Harley-Davidson Owners Group (or HOG)?
Stéphane: "The HOG was launched in 1983 by one of the founder's grandsons. He wanted to get to know our customers and build long-lasting relationships with them. When local "chapters" were created, that's when it really took off.
Chapters are smaller local clubs within the Harley Owners Group directly linked to a dealership. Each chapter has its own Director and office who are in close contact with myself at the national level.
We want to get as many people joining local chapters as we can: it means more touch-points with the brand as each dealership has an event calendar and organizes rides.
The first European clubs were created in the 1990s. In France, we now have 18,000 members, including 6,000 people integrated with one of our 53 chapters."
How did you become the "owner" of the French community for the brand?
Stéphane: "In 1992. I was invited to join the HOG, at the time I was a simple client. After several years as a member, the brand asked me to join the company to help them run the community."
"Give them what they came to the brand for, and they'll give it back to you tenfold."
What's the #1 goal of the HOG community?
Stéphane: "Our primary goal is always to stay connected, engage, motivate, and keep the dream alive for our customers."
Xavier: "If we were to give it a tagline, ours would be "ride and have fun". The HOG is a hedonistic community where people love to come together and share new experiences."
"Our #1 goal is staying connected, engage, and motivate."
Your community is all about going out and on the road. How are you adapting to the pandemic?
Stéphane: "2020 will be a strange year, our new goal right now is to encourage people to get back on the road again - once it's safe. When and how we'll be able to do that is the question. During the lockdown, to stay connected with our community, we organized a live concert #Rockathome on Facebook.
Xavier: "We know Harley-Davidson is just a way riders discover new experiences and live their passion. So no wonder some are having a very difficult time right now. Stéphane has been doing truly essential work in keeping chapter directors motivated and giving them the support they need."
Other than the pandemic, what's the biggest challenge for the community?
Stéphane: "A few years ago, we realized the community needed to open up to younger members. Around the same time, the brand was launching new models that were more appealing to a younger audience.
We realized we couldn't get stuck in our old ways. We started using social media, had to figure out what younger people wanted from the community. Sunday outings were less popular with them.
We created a "Young Officer" role within each chapter who would host events of their own and make sure they participated in a few chapter events.
We still have lots to do, but we're seeing our work start to pay off."
You wanted to get to know your customers. Has that worked? Does your exec team see important member feedback?
Xavier: "Our design and C-level teams go to our big community events around the world. It's all about getting direct feedback from our customers.
Many of our products directly integrate community feedback: aerodynamics, ergonomics, dashboard, customer and rider experience... We really listen to what our community is telling us, they play a key part in our product testing process."
How do you measure success and community impact? What key metrics do you track?
Xavier: "Proving added business value is key for us, but we are mindful not to have too much of a commercial approach. Our first aim is to grow the community so more people live their passion.
That being said, frequent riders have to make sure their motorcycle is running well and they have the right equipment. HOG members ride twice as often as other riders and spend 30% more than a non-member.
HOG members spend 30% more than non-members
They're also a walking advertisement for the brand. They're true brand advocates: no one is paying them and many introduce their friends to the brand.
If I had to sum up our approach, I'd say it's: "Let's give them what they came to the brand for, keep that dream alive, and they'll give it back to us tenfold."
Stéphane: "Absolutely. Harley-Davidson is more than a product. People are buying a lifestyle, a passion. We're very aware of that and are nurturing that passion. That community marketing, at the core of our brand, is essential."
What kind of tech do you use to run the HOG community?
Stéphane: "We don't rely on that much tech. Events are really at the heart of what we do: rides, rallyes, festivals... You don't have to own a Harley. Our goal is to get as many people as we can to live the Harley-Davidson experience.
We're more about putting guidelines in place, training and communicating about what they can and can't do, the safety precautions they need to take, insurance policies, etc.
Xavier: "Obviously, social media, webinars, are essential right now. But it's not making up for that human touch that's so integral to our community. It's very rare to have this kind of brand engagement, and it's almost all happening offline."
The brand's Euro Festival attracts over 60,000 people
What’s the next big thing on the HOG community roadmap?
Xavier: "The brand is going through a transformation with new motorcycles for trialing, adventure, electric bikes. We need to diversify if we want to remain relevant over the next 100 years.
And the community has to evolve too. We're letting riders test electrical models at our national events, we share the direction we're going in, the company strategy. It's all about showing them how we're evolving as a brand, but reassuring them - it's still Harley. We're not replacing anything, just extending that experience.
We need our community to be fully on board for these changes. Community is very similar to a product: it needs to evolve, it needs a redesign from time to time."
As the brand who pioneered it all, what do you draw inspiration from for the HOG community?
Stéphane: "I'm closely following other motorcyclist, cyclist and car communities or owner groups. I'm always wondering how they work, what they're pushing for next with their community. You have to be curious and look everywhere. There's still a lot to learn."
"Much like any product, a community needs to evolve over time"
What would you tell someone who's looking to launch a community today?
Xavier: "You shouldn't launch a community just to have one, because it's the trendy thing to do. Be cristal clear on the purpose, on why you want a community.
Community is great if you want to build loyalty, get direct feedback, build a better company. A community's added value to a company is huge, but it can't be a one-way thing.
There has to be a win-win situation if you want your customers to give their time to the company. So if you're launching a community, my advice is to think hard about the process you're building to reward, recognize and give a purpose to your community."
One last thing to add, Stéphane?
Stéphane: "Just one thing. What makes the HOG so successful, is that it's run by the brand. It's how the community gets to evolve so quickly.
You have to set some guidelines and then let people express themselves, have fun and live that experience.
Take it from us, freedom is important in any community. But the brand has to be the leader. And there needs to be a clearly identified spokesperson of the brand people can always turn to."
Big thanks to Stéphane and Xavier for sharing your story about the Harley-Davidson community!
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