Usually a progression from Rover to Harley Davidson would be the signature move of a mid-life crisis. For Harley Davidson marketing director, Paul Stroud, it started with a crisis of a completely different nature.
Stroud, at a lively 37 (far too youthful for mid-life vacillations), was the European sales director for the MG Rover Group when it skidded to a well-publicised, ignominious halt last year. A rare beast these days in that he appeared to have the makings of a loyal, one company man (he joined the Longbridge giant as a graduate trainee in 1990) you might have expected him to emerge somewhat dazed and confused from the ensuing wreckage.
As it was, he simply hopped straight on at Harley and hasn’t looked back.
\"I worked my way up at Rover and it was a very, very good grounding,\" Stroud assesses, with what sounds like the soft burr of a fading Scots accent. \"It was a long and varied tenure I had there, but I didn’t find the transition to Harley Davidson all that difficult. It’s a great company, and,\" he notes, pausing for what would be the only slight dig at his ex-employer, \"one that’s performance was in stark contrast to that of MG Rover.\"
Stroud is, and has been for a shade over a year now, the MD of Oxford-based Harley Davidson UK. He oversees the national sales of the infamous bikes, while nurturing the blossoming reputation of sister brand Buell Motorcycles, although the word ‘sister’ seems wildly inappropriate for these tarmac chewing, muscle bound beasts.
Last month he sped onto Adline’s news pages by confirming the recent appointment of McCann Erickson Birmingham, providing us with ample reason to track him down and see what’s going on. Thankfully he was happy to open up the conversational throttle and get us up to speed:
\"I identified when I came on board that we needed to work with an agency that could give us a better creative resource on an integrated basis. I didn’t want to just produce adverts to put into the press; we were looking at a wider through-the-line communications strategy.\"
Stroud describes the previous incumbent, local agency The Gist, as strong \"in terms of cost-effectiveness and turnaround time\", but perhaps lacking \"that same seam of creativity and the full range of integrated solutions\" that the bigger McCann team could offer. It’s a decision that, judging by McCann’s debut outing on the new 2007 Harley and Buell releases, is already paying dividends.
\"For the launch of the new range, we had 6, 000 people coming into the 28 dealerships across four days to see the bikes,\" Stroud explains. \"That gave us an order bank of 847 new motorcycles, compared to the end of last year where we had just over 400. So the launch has been a huge success.\"
Where McCann focused its creativity on specific models, such as the wonderfully (or ridiculously, if you’re that way inclined) styled Night Rod (see advert), the results were wallet-liningly satisfying:
\"We’re bringing in just over 100 of them and we’re already sold through to the end of the year,\" chirps the buoyant Stroud. \"It’s probably been about three or four years since we’ve had a V-Rod bike that’s been sold forward by that much. It’s taken the ‘family’ on to a whole different level.\"
Having a look at this Night Rod (which sounds uncomfortably like the title of a film you wouldn’t get for free in a hotel room) and hearing Stroud’s corporate-speak references to the ranges as ‘families’ clashes somewhat with my own ingrained perception of the name Harley Davidson. I think ‘hairy biker, bourbon, grime and hell’s angel’, whereas the messages Stroud’s beaming out impart ‘technology, styling, accessibility’ and, the best is yet to come, ‘residual value’. I’m confused. So, does that mean potential customers will be too?
\"I think it’s a huge opportunity,\" is the initially equally confusing reply from Stroud. \"We have a chance to really broaden the appeal of this fantastic brand and I think that’s what the new bikes and communication strategy will do.\"
To explain exactly what he means by this, Stroud lays out the messages that the new Harley marketing will be focusing on. Namely; performance, price and ‘back to biking’. We’ll accelerate off with performance.
\"We’ve just started some press advertising and, unsurprisingly, we’re leading with the VRSCDX [or Night Rod to you and I]. We’re stressing the performance and the styling of the bike, a proposition that’s already starting to take people off of their sports bikes.\"
He speeds on; \"it gives them something different from the sports motorcycles, something that is more usable, that they can cruise down to France on if they so desire, while still providing them with the excitement of riding a big, powerful motorbike.\"
The ‘more usable’ comment hints for the first time towards the market Stroud identifies for Harleys (and to a similar, but lesser, extent Buells): the slightly more mature rider.
On Buell, he notes: \"they appeal to people in their early 30s. They’re invariably professional people, they’ve been into motorcycling for at least five, six or seven years, they’ve done the sport bike thing and they’re looking for something else. It’s a brand for individuals. People that want something a little bit different from motorcycling.\"
Now, although Stroud doesn’t say it in quite these terms, it comes across that this is pretty much the same core target market for Harleys... only with riders that probably have a few more years on the clock. An observation borne out by his ‘pricing’ and ‘back to biking’ pushes.
\"Our ranges of bikes are now very appealing to older riders from professional backgrounds. The sort of people that maybe rode them in the past and now have large disposable incomes and the opportunity to do it again. Did you know there’s over two million people that have motorbike licences in the UK but don’t use them?\" He asks, before hungrily adding: \"That’s amazing, it’s a huge market, so we’re looking at ways and products to attract them back into biking and make it as easy as possible for them to do so.\"
This includes a Harley-owned riding school in Wales called Rider’s Edge, but more tellingly focuses on the usability of the bikes and the relatively prudent financial sense of opting for one over competing brands.
\"The advertising we do is predominantly in the bike press, but we also advertised in consumer titles recently to promote the affordability of the Sportster range, which starts at about £5,000.\" Stroud then reveals that market research conveyed a misperception that entry level Harleys retailed at between £9,000 and £10,500; a good reflection on brand equity and prestige, but a serious barrier to broader accessibility.
\"That’s why,\" he continues, \"our current strategy is underpinned by the affordability of the bikes but also, something that people don’t tend to recognize, their residual value. When I first came on board, I asked our marketing manager about this, and he told me that a 14-year-old Fat Boy was still worth about 80 per cent of its original list price. So, I think if we can get across the proposition of low entry cost and very good residual values, then it makes the motorbikes very affordable vis-Ã -vis what people perceive.\" Something that will undoubtedly resonate with the older, savvier, market of professional petrol-heads.
Having just bedded McCann in, Stroud is reticent to say how else they’ll be working together to augment the market share of Harley and Buell, currently standing at between 12.5 and 13 per cent of 651cc and above motorcycles (\"this year we’ll do 5,500 units,\" clarifies our interviewee, comparing impressively to the 2,000 they shifted back in 2001). However, he does admit that \"one to one communications\" will be an important part of the strategy, with direct mail and online emerging as tools that the firm can use to maximize \"the traditionally very close relationship that the Harley Davidson brand enjoys with its customers.\"
In a slightly conspiratorial tone he also lets slip that McCann is looking into exploiting the success of the brand with celebrity owners, but admitted that this was a difficult arena as they may not always be willing to be involved in promotional activity. That said, Stroud then goes on to namedrop Michael Schumacher about four times, so we wouldn’t bet against him appearing in the press astride his Harley at some point very soon.
If he does, he won’t be the only late 30 something that’s decided it’s time to give up on cars and switch to motorbikes.