Harley-Davidson Pulls Off Marketing Stunt with an Entire Town

This articles was originally published on Inc.com

Harley-Davidson is a leader in product positioning. The internal positioning statement talks about macho guys (and macho wannabes) who want to join a band of cowboys in an “era of decreasing personal freedom.” It also has some of the most loyal customers you can find.

But every business faces periodic challenges. First quarter sales were down year over year in every market and across all merchandise types. Clearly time for some good marketing.

The company’s answer was to head on a run to Ryder, North Dakota on June 3, 2017. Harley-Davidson set up a deal in which the town, population 85, agreed to have everyone eligible get their bike motorbike license. About 50 people showed up to learn to handle a hog.

The town has also agreed to change its name to “Riders” for the 2017 motorcycle season (which, given the propensity for bitter cold in the state likely doesn’t extend too far into the end of the year). In return, Harley-Davidson repainted the town’s water tower, which now sports the company’s logo and looks like the water tank that sits atop company headquarters. Bikers are reportedly already stopping off to take a picture with the water tower.

All in all, Harley-Davidson is getting some strong publicity out of it. It’s not the first time a brand has tried to promote itself across an entire town or city. For example, last year Coca-Cola installed interactive screens all across Singapore. Built-in cameras were programmed to recognize the color red. When someone walked up appropriately dressed, the screen would invite them to take a set of pictures, all involving a Coke bottle. A QR code let people download their photo sessions and a soda voucher.

But pulling off a town-wide promotion in a positive manner that leaves everyone happy can be a lot trickier than it sounds. Anheuser-Busch won approval from the Crested Butte, Colorado town council to turn the town into a Bud Lite party in September 2014 and rename it “Whatever.” The decision was controversial and some residents were angry that negotiations and decisions allegedly were made secretly. Budweiser had to up the ante of its payment to the town from $250,000 to $500,000 — still, a drop in the beer glass to the beverage giant.

That wasn’t the end of the disenchantment. Some of the social media feedback was brutal, accusing the town of “civic prostitution” and heavily disparaging the quality of Budweiser products, as the Guardian reported at the time.

One mistake the company made was to ignore how social media often expects pro-social promotions that stand for something bigger than the brand alone. Not only were people angry about the secrecy behind the deal, but residents weren’t brought into the process. And, yes, apparently a beer company can have a pro-social message:

OK, you say, but Budweiser is beer. How can beer be pro-social? Just ask the folks at Fat Tire, whose experiential marketing known as Tour de Fat celebrates environmental sustainability, volunteerism and authentic community. Where Budweiser’s “whatever” attitude celebrates hedonism and lack of social concern (and thus has to be foisted on a town), Tour de Fat celebrates the good life made possible by strong community. Not surprisingly the social media buzz on Tour de Fat has been far more favorable for the fast-growing Fat Tire Brand than Whatever’s buzz has been for Bud. Unsurprisingly, communities are begging Tour de Fat to come to their town.

If you can develop a smart campaign that will involve an entire town, by all means, go forth. But be sure you make the community part of the process and not bystanders that you expect to put up with whatever you decide to do.

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