India calling: Harley-Davidson to tread the unconventional road

By Biprorshee Das , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising
Last updated : September 18, 2009
As cult motorcycle brand Harley-Davidson prepares to set up shop in India, chosen advertising and communication partner, The Republic, says it will look at building the Harley experience rather than follow conventional advertising

The men always had to be separated from the boys for this brand. For long, an Indian biker worth his bread swore by his Bullets and Rajdoots. Somewhere deep within, he remembered to put a Harley-Davidson motorcycle at the top of his wish list. The aspiring daredevil now knows he is close to fulfilling his dream as the cult brand finally unveils its plans to get its mean machines to India.

The company, which has set up a subsidiary in Gurgaon, is on the hunt for dealers. The first motorcycles are expected to hit the roads in the middle of 2010.

Harley-Davidson was granted permission to begin operations back in 2007 but it delayed its plans because of import duties (more than 100 per cent). The bikes available in India will be imported as completely built units. While the entire range will not be offered, at least one bike from each of the Harley 'model families' will be up for grabs.

The Harley history

Harley-Davidson traces its history back to 1903 as the brainchild of a young William S Harley and his friend, Arthur Davidson.

Over the years, the motorcycles have witnessed numerous changes, both in design and acceptance. Braving the two World Wars, when the company was the instant reply to military needs, plummeting sales during the Great Depression, quality crises and a tarnished reputation in the 1950s, the brand has come a long way to being where it is today.

Internationally, Harley-Davidson has long depended on word of mouth publicity, bikers' clubs and communities rather than conventional advertising.

Among the numerous such communities, The Harley-Davidson Riders Club of Great Britain, established in 1949, is one of the premiers and the first British riders club which has been organising national rallies and ride-outs from the very beginning. The club now has about 1,800 members throughout the US and Europe.

The loyalty commanded by the brand can be gauged by the fact that licensing of the Harley-Davidson logo accounts for a significant portion of the company's net revenue.

Mission: India

The company recently announced its communications partners in the country. While The Republic is the advertising and communication partner, Seventy EMG will manage events and experiential marketing.

The Republic won the account following a multi-agency pitch conducted by Cricket, Harley-Davidson's international brand and communication strategy partner.

afaqs! got in touch with Maia Katrak, executive creative director, The Republic to know more about the agency's plans for the brand.

Katrak tells afaqs! that given the popularity and the status enjoyed by the brand, it will be necessary to resort to strategies far from conventional.

"We will be employing a strategy that engages directly with customers," says Katrak. She says that the website,, is the first stage in that process.

The company organised the Harley-Davidson India Founders' Ride on August 30 in New Delhi, involving rides on 23 of its bikes to announce its arrival in the country.

On whether there will be enough people willing to spend as much as a few lakh rupees for the motorcycles, Katrak affirms that there is great enthusiasm for the brand. "Our client's goal is to build a long term foundation for the brand and the leisure motorcycling experience in India. It remains to be seen how quickly this will develop," she says.

The excitement, whether one chooses to own a Harley or not, is well evident and Katrak cites the response received by the Indian website as a testimony to this.

"We know from research that there is huge appeal and pent-up demand. The universal and global appeal is being reflected in India. At last count, we've had more than 25,000 hits on the website, without any advertising to send people there," says Katrak.

One cannot separate the biker from his Harley and the immediate picture that comes to mind is that of tattooed, leather-clad, bandanna wearing big men cruising on the machines. It remains to be seen whether the cliché is thrashed in India, where the biking culture is still nascent and rather underground.

Katrak remains tight lipped about the media mix that will be chosen and says that it is still premature to comment on the same. However, she does confirm that the popular routes of large scale television and the print medium will not be used heavily.

"Harley-Davidson isn't a 'campaign' brand, in the way that the advertising campaign is normally defined," Katrak says.

As Indians, it is well known what sells and how it does - and to say that the task will be challenging would be an understatement. However, to believe Katrak's words and what one witnesses on its website, it would be "Pure Harley, Pure India".

First Published : September 18, 2009

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