IASC, Harley Davidson and Me

By Michael Brooke of Concrete Wave

Looks like the members of IASC had a pretty good time up there at Camp Woodward in Northern California. From what I could tell, a lot was discussed and I sense folks are fired up.

That’s a good thing!

I noticed that you had Andrew Smith, a former employee at Harley-Davidson give a presentation. I was intrigued by this, because I am acutely aware of what H-D has been able to do as a company. In fact it’s not just H-D, but the entire motorcycling industry.

I went to the Harley-Davidson website and reviewed their product offering. Basically, there are three sets of customers

1. Beginners – those folks in their late teens or twenties looking for a start in the world of motorcycling – the bikes start at under $7000. Cheap and cheerful…but still associated with a dynamic brand. Nice.
2. Middle Aged folks – those in their 30’s and 40’s who are interested in stepping up to something more substantial (Harmon Kardon stereo anyone?)
3. Weekend Warriors – those folks who have a ton of cash to drop on a high end touring bike with all the extras. They also have a whackload of dough to spend on all the softgoods. Mmmm, softgoods…high margin and someone else to spread your advertising…nice!

I noticed that when I read the opening statement of the Harley-Davidson annual report, it did not say “we make fast bikes” or “we make great bikes here in America.” What it said was something that is so fundamental to the act of riding a motorcycle, that I am positive it resonates with anyone who comes into contact with Harley-Davidson. What is that statement?

Harley-Davidson is in the business of creating the unique experiences of which dreams are made.

I like that statement a whole lot. I don’t think it’s corny or odd. I think they have tapped into exactly what they are in the business of. Does it affect everyone in Harley Davidson? Well, I am not sure. But I sense that it does. Harley-Davidson has its own share of issues, but I sense that it’s not just a company that builds and markets motorcycles. I believe they believe they are working as part of a “dream factory.”

What is also interesting about Harley-Davidson is that two of their more unique customers are marking their 100th and 60th year of being customers. Yes, hard to believe that 1908, the Detroit Police Department took their first order of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. As for the customer that is celebrating 60 years? Well, Hell’s Angels was founded back in 1948 in Fontana, California. According to the US Department of Justice, Hell’s Angels members must be men over 21 years of age and are required to own a Harley Davidson motorcycle.

So there you have it, a company that sells to young folks, middle aged, old folks, outlaws and the police. Step back from that last statement and think about it…
In fact, the entire motorcycle industry seems to have been quite successful selling to:

1. folks who want to mess around in the dirt
2. women
3. people who just want pure speed
4. people who want both off road and on-road experiences
5. people who just want to cruise

I could go on and on, but the fact is that there are lots of customers within the motorcycle world. Is there friction between them? Sure, it’s ironic that the same company sells to both the police and to Hell’s Angels, but it doesn’t seem to have hindered sales that much.

What does this mean for skateboarding?

A lot, actually.

As a group, you need to focus on creating the dreams that skateboarding provides. Yes, you sell planks of wood with two metal trucks and four wheels. But anyone can sell that…and sell it for sometimes cheaper than what you sell it for. A lot cheaper.
You need to tap into the freedom and experiences that skateboarding creates. Just like Harley-Davidson does. But here’s the thing – you’ve got to understand that not everyone in skateboarding uses the same popsicle shaped board with 99A durometer wheels to create their dreams. Not everyone who rides a skateboard today experiences freedom grinding a ledge or sliding down a handrail.

Until you realize this, you will be forced to churn customers. 85% of your customers leave skateboarding. That’s an awful lot of customers to lose – for no reason. Yes, I just said that. YOU ARE LOSING CUSTOMERS (and not gaining potential customers) for no reason. It’s YOUR choice to market the way you do. As you’ve been focusing on one type of skater (males, under the age of 18 who ride street), a whole new part of skateboarding has mushroomed. You’ve kept ignoring it and the mainstream skate media keeps ignoring it. Oddly enough, despite being ignored, it keeps growing and growing. In fact, I believe this is just the beginning. That’s not just my feeling – a number of folks feel that way and they are busy. Yes, you could say they are extremely busy in the dream factory!

Skateboarding, at one time was embraced by older riders and women. It had variety. It had a specialness that people tapped into. It still has this magic, but it’s being increasingly sold back to skaters by people who might not have skateboarding’s best interests at heart. That’s the truth. It’s like that old adage: be careful what you wish for, you might just get it. Sure, the sponsorships and exposure have been incredible….but where are your companies right now, in the spring of 2008? It’s great that you’ve achieved so much, but what are you doing for the future? As things change, what will you do to meet the challenges?

I am not a motorcycle rider, but my neighbor is a weekend warrior and it’s awe-inspiring to see his bike. Such is the power of Harley-Davidson. It’s an icon – a brand that stands for so much. That’s what a great skateboard company should be like. It must stand for something – or not. There is room for generic commodities in skateboarding – but you can’t be both. You cannot be everywhere and have your brand mean something. There is a magic in controlled distribution and keeping things tightly controlled. Don’t believe me? Just look what happened to Airwalk. In 1993 they had sales of $13 million. Three years later they hit $175 million. Then, as a result of going mass market they found themselves out of business. It wasn’t a pretty sight. A few years ago, an investment firm bought the company in hopes of turning it around. You can now find Airwalk at Payless.

I keep telling anyone who will listen that skateboarding needs to shed it’s myopia. There is pushback (lord, how I loathe that word) from those who feel that by exposing or marketing other types of skateboards or skaters, we’ll somehow lose the core. You won’t. You won’t simply for the fact that you’ll begin the process of building brands that appeal to different types of skaters. This means that company XXX that markets street boards will not make XXX longboards or slalom decks. No, an entirely new company will have to be formed, with entirely new marketing. And oh yeah, there must be a solid reason for this division to be made. There must be a genuine benefit to the customer. If you’re only in it for the money or to take market share from someone, chances are you might find it a very difficult road.

Where does this leave me? I have chosen my path. I see it all and cover it all. The old guys, the young guys and women. I cover slalom, rebels (and faux rebels), the cruisers, the weekend warriors, the newbies, the pool skaters, the vert/tranny folks and yes, even the street skaters. Is it perfect? Of course not – it’s simply my take on skateboarding. It’s what gets me out of bed every day and blogging crazy ravings like this. I am inspired by skateboarding. Concrete Wave IS a dream factory for me. I can only pray that it’s the same for you guys. If not, it’s just a job selling a plank of wood, two trucks and four wheels.