Just before I wrote this post, I attended a fascinating marketing seminar presented by my associate and client, Arjun Sen, former vice president of marketing and operations for Papa John’s, who is renowned nationwide for his extraordinary marketing expertise, as encapsulated in this seminar title: Winning Big in a Down Economy.
When I sauntered into the seminar room that Friday morning, another colleague teased that I looked as if I had just gotten off a Harley motorcycle. Here’s what I was wearing to match a chilly Denver Friday: black Tony Lama cowboy boots, a black Tommy Bahama pullover sweater, a black Andrew Marc leather jacket , and a black Mezlan wide leather belt. My pants were not black but blue — faded-blue Levi’s jeans.
Although every other item in my ensemble is relatively new, these jeans are not: they have a perfected wash-worn appearance with a few wear spots almost ready to reveal skin. When my company honors casual Fridays, I don’t mess around with sissy business casual. I become the rebel Boomer I am at heart.
Levi’s brand jeans are particularly important to the rest of this post, which isn’t about casual Fridays but about durability and power of Boomer brands, an amorphous concept some wise marketers either don’t fully understand or naively underestimate.
My relationship with Levi’s travels way back to 1964, the same year The Beatles stormed American consciousness. I remember my first pair: purchased oversized for my thin frame due to the shrinking nature of cotton denim, deep indigo blue and so stiff from the store they could almost stand without me in them. When my first coveted pair of Levi’s came home with me from J.C. Penny’s, I didn’t see them as they were but as they would become with much nurturing and patience, hundreds of washings and wearings later. Eventually they would become resplendently washed out and unique. My affection for them would grow as they faded into oblivion.
I have never purchased any other brand of blue jeans but Levi’s. Do the math: that’s 45 years of loyalty, averaging six pairs per year. My lifetime value to Levi Strauss & Company begins with their signature product and has a worth of around $8,100.00. But their flagship blue jeans are only the beginning since I have also purchased Dockers pants, Levi’s branded shirts, and many other products sold by this company.
Further, I’ve been a walking, breathing advertisement for the company for all these years. If you should check out my backside, you might notice distinctive orange Levi’s stitching on the rear pockets or, on closer inspection, patented copper rivets. I prefer you not to notice the patented button fly. (Boomer tidbit: Jacob Davis, the original tailor, made his product from hemp cloth supplied by Levi Strauss.)
I’ve also been a snob about this brand. When I observe what others are wearing for blue jeans, and when they’re not wearing Levi’s, I think of them as slightly un-cool. I don’t care if someone has spent a hundred times more for a frou-frou designer denim brand, as far as I’m concerned, they’re pretenders. They don’t belong in the same room with James Dean, Marlon Brando, Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, and me.
This is the power and durability of a Boomer brand. Not all Boomers feel loyal to Levi’s, but enough do to have enriched the company for decades. And although we associate Levi’s with youth and rebellion, would it be smart for Levi Strauss to ignore the Boomer market today as we are marching past 50 and 60 years of age? Of course not, and that’s why the company has kept pace with Boomers throughout our consuming lives.
When bellbottom jeans became fashionable, Levi’s sprouted bells. When fashion became a bit more conservative and bells turned into flairs, Levi’s flaired. When Boomers started growing girth, Levi’s developed a relaxed-fit line. I expect the company to someday develop an easy-on, easy-off version for aged Boomers when dressing convenience, undertaken with nursing assistance, becomes the driver.
Bury me in Levi’s.
Along this trajectory of Boomers aging, Levi’s has rebranded and updated its marketing to appeal to Boomers’ children, Generation Y. Although GenY has adopted other esoteric preferences, such as Lucky’s brand, you still see the distinctive Levi’s brand swaggering around, filled with Boomers’ kids. This leads to another golden truth about Boomer brands: iconic products live on in today’s generation of youthful consumers.
A recent article in The New York Times brandishes a patently ageist headline: “Harley, You’re Not Getting Any Younger.” Journalist Susanna Hamner captures this market reality: a recessionary fall-off in sales of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. She attributes this market situation to “graying baby boomers, whose savings, in many cases, have gone up in smoke in the market downturn." Later in the article, she continues: “(Harley’s) core customers have grayed, and they are buying new bikes less often. The average age of a Harley rider is 49, up from 42 five years ago.”
This grave article even quotes sagacious wisdom from Gregory Carpenter, a marketing professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern: “Harley understands the baby-boomer consumer incredibly well, in a holistic sense… but to grow and thrive, they must create a deep emotional connection with younger consumers.”
A subtext of this article reverberates: the future of Harley-Davidson is cloudy, and the company has a do-or-die imperative: rebrand to appeal to today’s young consumers or risk extinction. Otherwise, as Boomers die, so will the brand.
Quoted experts who looked at this marketing quagmire frankly underestimate the power of Boomer branding and how extensively Boomer cool is being embraced by young people today. These experts must be ignoring how clothing styles from the sixties have become the hottest fashion look among women under 30. Or how Lucky has become one of the fastest growing retail operations in the country. Or that rock music lovers can expect to compete with GenY fans for Bruce Springsteen, Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, and Paul McCartney concert tickets.
Boomer cool is cool, not was.
Further, Hamner’s death-watch article does not appreciate that the Harley brand is more than a Hog. I embrace Harley-Davidson and values this brand represents. I don’t own a motorcycle. But the brand speaks to me, reminding me of a hair-in-the-wind persona that rushes below my crisp business exterior: the same wildness that puts me in Levi’s on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, holidays, and any time I’m not getting paid to suit up.
Today’s diminishing sales of Harley-Davidson motorcycles isn’t a reflection of a mortally wounded brand. Declining sales reflect a flagging economy. As my esteemed colleague Arjun Sen wisely observes: “More brands are competing for consumer expenditures; consumers are spending less; and companies are fighting for fewer dollars.” An unbelievably retrogressive economy guarantees weak sales, but a sales decline for a revered Boomer brand is not a reflection of inadequate or outdated brand relevance. In fact, Harley-Davidson inspires “brand insistence,” as Arjun Sen argues. In other words, those who love a brand are willing to kick your ass when you criticize the brand; in a sense, you’re criticizing who they are.
In response to The New York Times article, Harley-Davidson ran a full-page ad with an unsubtle headline: “You Can File Our Obituary Where the Sun Don’t Shine.” This isn’t just a company telling The New York Times to stick it: an iconoclastic segment of the Boomer generation is telling The Times the same thing: “Screw it (you). Let’s ride.”
My colleagues at The Boomer Project, whose insights about the Boomer Consumer are often poignant and penetrating, concluded in their recent newsletter that Harley just doesn’t quite get it: “Far from seizing the throttle and seeking new vistas, the company is focusing on its existing customer base, trying to entice existing Harley owners into trading up to newer, more expensive models.”
This view misses several points. First, the core customer base is hardly ready to park their rides. Mark-Hans Richer, Harley’s chief marketing officer, has the Boomer consumer squarely in his crosshairs: “(Boomers) are not about to stop riding because they’re getting older. It would be dumb to walk away from our core customer, the most lucrative customer.”
When the economy rebounds the flow of Boomer money will rebound also. Pent-up demand will fill showrooms, even if a pall of austerity follows this generation to the grave. Boomers always find money for what they need, and a Harley is necessary for someone who lives to ride.
Arjun Sen fully agrees with this observation. During a down economy, the most important priority for companies is to defend and grow the business with existing customers. The most advantageous marketing opportunity right now is to move light customers to medium customers and medium users to heavy users. It costs much less in marketing investments to up-sell current customers than to bring in new.
Second, the existing customer base is more than a motorcycle rider. Boomers will not stop being Harley customers as long as the company figures out new and evocative ways for them to be customers. This includes branded spare parts, accessories, clothing and specialty items; Harley theme parks and museums; and, as I pointed out years ago in the first edition of my book, Marketing to Leading-Edge Baby Boomers, even a Harley-themed active-adult community is conceivable. (Imagine roaring thunder every Sunday morning for the rest of your life.)
A Boomer brand is much larger than a product: it’s a relationship. Extend the brand; extend share of wallet.
Third, iconoclastic, Easy Rider, anti-establishment virtues manifested by Harley core products will be adopted by Generation Y as this young generation earns more disposable income to spend on pricier Hogs. They’ll ride, and they’ll listen to Springsteen on their iPods while cruising to Sturgis, South Dakota, for the annual Harley-Davidson version of Woodstock.
This is not to conclude that Harley brand managers can ignore brand tweaks to retrofit the brand to younger demographics and their unique tastes. This is necessary progression of an enduring, iconic brand: evolution not revolution. Core Harley attributes are timeless in pop culture.
When I pulled on my first pair of Levi’s, Harley was the ride for bad boys. Boomer Harley riders are still bad boys at heart, corporate trappings, gray beards and all. Their sons (and daughters) can be equally bad by owning the baddest brand in America. If you’re bad, a foreign-made bike is not an acceptable substitute.
Harley badness will live as long as custodians of the brand never forget what freedom means in American culture: the road, the ride, the faded blue denim Levi’s vibrating on the saddle, and an extended middle finger at all of society’s tiresome forces to conform.
Excerpted from Generation Reinvention: How Boomers Today Are Changing Business, Marketing, Aging and the Future. Coming Fall 2010! Send us an email message to receive notification when Brent's newest book becomes available.