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Former Harley Exec: Customers Buy The Experience, Not The Product

By October 9, 2013General Posts


If people were logical, Honda Shadows would outsell Harley-Davidson Softails by a large margin. A really large margin.

The Softail, which costs about three times more, outsells the $8,000 Shadow by 13-1 in the United States and 10-1 in Japan, home of Honda. Not because the Softail is an inherently superior bike, but because people like Harley-Davidson better, and spending that extra money makes them feel good.

“If we were a rational species, (the Shadow) would be the bike everyone would be riding,” said Ken Schmidt, former director of communications for Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson Motor Co.


Schmidt, guest speaker for the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce’s 131st annual dinner, was one of the people responsible for Harley-Davidson’s recovery from near extinction in the 1980s to worldwide success. He disdains “marketing,” reliance on social media and the selling of products as foolish corporate suicide.

“Because the world has gotten so good at technology, there has been a really ugly dividend,” Schmidt said. “Lowered expectations across the board because we know whatever we buy is going to be good.”

That is as true of motorcycles — “All motorcycles in the world do the same thing. They go forward on two wheels under power.” — as flat-screen televisions. He said marketing tends to appeal to people “who already swallowed the pill. It doesn’t get you off the couch.”

And retailers selling products make the gears in your brain grind out of synch. “All your thoughts are negative.”

What sells is having a good story and getting other people to tell it. The greatest tagline he’s ever heard is “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” because everyone knows it and it is so clearly a lie.

“If what happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas, you wouldn’t go,” he said.

He talked of meeting a man from India while on vacation on one of the tiny islands in The Maldives in the Indian Ocean. The man had a turban, a beard and a black t-shirt that said “Harley-Davidson, Sturgis, 2012.”

“I said no way you were in Sturgis. He pulled out a cellphone. ‘Here’s a picture of eight of us.’ He said the coolest thing was getting to hear Lynyrd Skynyrd sing ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and be invited backstage. I said no way you got invited back stage. He pulled out his cellphone.”

Schmidt said the man never once talked about the product. That was a given. He talked about the experience, about how it made him feel.

“What do you suppose he’s worth as a story teller?”


Schmidt said the annual rally in Sturgis, S.D., draws 400,000 to 500,000 Harley riders. Disciples, he calls them, because they feel so good about something they want to tell others about it.

“All we want to do is get people to like us. Period,” he said. “In a world where all things are equal, who do people chose to do business with? Someone we like. Period. They like us, they will tell stories about us.

“This isn’t the result of marketing. This is the result of human engagement. Maybe what we need to do is focus our efforts on human beings.”

Schmidt said Harley deliberately choose to swim against the tide. When others were pushing modern, Harley pushed retro. They always did the opposite.

“If what you do feels like the people you are competing against, all you are doing is lifting them up and pushing yourself down,” he said. “What’s your story? What do you want people to say about you and what are you willing to do to get them to say it?”

By Richard Ryman, Greenbay Press Gazette