by Andrew Petro
Once upon a time, William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson drew up the plans for the very first Harley-Davidson motorcycle. In the years that followed, Harley-Davidson Motor Company grew to be one of the strongest and most recognizable brands in the nation. However, this success was eventually met with struggle. From 2006 to 2010, the demand for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle had decreased significantly. While some may have blamed the poor economy, technological changes that were occurring around the same time inevitably affected this once powerful company as well.
While technology was changing the world of business, Harley-Davidson in many ways resisted this change. In the field of communications, it remained extremely traditional for a number of years. Joanne Bischmann, Vice President of Communications for Harley-Davidson, had to find a way to change how strategic communications were handled.
On Tuesday, March 24, I had the opportunity to attend Bischmann’s Social Commerce Days keynote presentation, titled “Button Pushers to Strategy Partners.” She discussed how the role of communications professionals is evolving.
One thought that she shared with the group was that it’s possible to “love a brand, but not the company.” This statement was true for Harley-Davidson at one point in time. Although a powerful brand, this company went through a stretch where many people were not happy with its decisions. For example, when CEO Keith Wandell had to make the tough decision to shut down manufacturing facilities because of inefficiencies, many were not happy. This does not mean they did not like the Harley-Davidson brand, but it did hurt the company’s reputation.
During this transition period, layoffs were not the only change that occurred. Harley-Davidson’s communications models had to change. For instance, they transitioned from a “coverage” model to an “influence” model. The influencer model is used to identify people that have the ability drive conversations and create engagement for a brand. What makes this model so progressive is that these influencers might not always belong to big-name publications like the New York Times. An influencer can be anything from a mommy blogger to a YouTube sensation.
Another important takeaway from Bischmann’s talk was the challenging nature of change management. As Bischmann said, change takes time—it’s something a company must commit to for the long term. In terms of communications, everything has transformed. PR professionals are no longer devoting all their time to press releases. Communications leaders now have a “seat at the table.” The ability to think strategically is critical. Although it can be difficult for organizations to break tradition and embrace change, they must constantly refine their communications and branding strategies.
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