“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

What is in a sound? Behavior, motivation & dissecting a brand

So I’ve had a lot of offline discussions about my little call for designs of a Harley Davidson car. One major recurring theme is the importance of the sound of the vehicle. That low slow baritone sound coming out of the exhaust that you can hear a mile away defines the Harley experience as much if not more than anything else that can be designed directly by the product designer.

So me and a couple of designer friends here at SCAD started asking ourselves a few questions when we approached the issue of a car for Harley Davidson. I don’t know if we have many definitive answers but we do have good questions.

1. Does it make sense to transfer the “exact” sound of the motorcycle to a car? What differences in the car context would take issue with that sound, or support it?

What we answered here is that sound itself is not the brand alone, but the emotions associated to what the sound means (more below). But we also feel that in the context of a car – sans helmet, listening to music, or GPS navigation – the level of volume probably wouldn’t work as well (more below).

2. This begged the question of, what types of persona changes would occur by expanding to this market?

Since safety will be increased in any change to a 4-wheel, door enclosed, vehicle, the brand will become instantly more accessible/approachable to so many more people. This will mean new persona types and even a softening of the self-perception of the total brand audience. (This reason more than any other might be why HD never did this.)

As an aside, we tried to look at other brand expansions. The closest one we can think of that resembles this type of brand expansion is Apple. The case study of Apple expanding into iPods and then iPhones while maintaining brand consistency across all product lines and throughout the corporate experience has flaws, but is a great story in whole. New persona groups were introduced to the Apple brand unlike before with just desktops and laptops. Even the advent of the iMac didn’t cause as much growth in Apple’s population of customers the way the iPod did. Many of these people didn’t care about Apple the way the previous group did and some joined in head first into the fanboy mentality but from a very different place. Assuming that HD could never argue over financial growth at the expense of having to work harder to maintain its brand integrity for its core fans/groupies, the reality is that adding a car to their product line would indeed create a very different market type. This being said, that means that a car does not have to hold onto ALL the core pieces of the brand while still maintaining the values of the brand and the value of the brand to others.

3. What is the value of sound to the people who who talk about the importance of the “Harley sound”?

There were so many thoughts that this issue evoked: the sound is a literal brand that tells everyone around that the person riding THAT bike is riding a Harley Davidson. It is a brand as powerful as Ck or DG and as far as sound goes probably is the most powerful audio brand anywhere. In my mind I’m comparing it to NBC, MGM Lion, Intel, Apple’s startup, etc. When it comes to motorcycles it is not a Harley if it doesn’t have that rumble. Unlike other audio brands HD’s isn’t just about when the item is present or being presented. It is the overture & the ovation. It is the warning of the “bad ass'” approach and the encore of his departure.

I’m sure there are many other questions that we can ask but these are the ones that we were able to get to so far. I’d love to hear/read your thoughts about the quality of the Harley sound & what questions we need to be asking when deconstructing the meaning & value statements of an iconoclastic brand like Harley Davidson.

Based on where we’ve gotten so far I’d like to start putting together a more serious design brief than we’ve done thus far. Here goes:

Who is this for?

  1. This would be an obvious family vehicle for the die-hard Haley fanboy. I’m using the term “family” loosely
  2. The wanna-be’s or latent mid-life crisis guy who convinces their partner that this vehicle is an acceptable & safe alternative to owning a real “Hog”.

What form should it take?
I must admit I’m really torn here. Part of me wants this to be a classical roadster, but that “family” requirement is jumping out at me. So this needs to be sporty & bold but balanced with some of the needs of the family. So here’s where I’m landing:

  • 4-door
  • Sporty
  • A more classic American line: camaro, t-bird, mustang, charger/challenger, vette. Notice that only theCharger is a 4-door of those examples, so that is another challenge, but one that is necessary.
  • This is not a utility vehicle, but a car. No vans, trucks or SUVs. If pushed this might be taken into redefining the crossover category into something sportier & uniquely identifiable.
  • HD is a premium (not a luxury) brand, so should this vehicle.

What about the sound?
This vehicle is not going to have THE sound. That wouldn’t make sense for this type of  “family” car. The brand statement is going to have to be redefined. I’m thinking about how the iPod & then the iPhone were used to change the brand as represented in the industrial design for the rest of the Apple product line. A market entry piece like this can use the spirit of the Harley brand & not the precise historic execution of that brand. What’s important here is what Harley represents to people and quite honestly a lot of that message is not in the form execution. Harley Davidson is more an icon than a brand. Even Japanese bikes that model themselves on the Harley, ride on the same emotional coat tails. The ultimate message of Harley is FREEDOM. Can that be put into a “family” vehicle? If not, then I go right back to a Shelby Cobra roadster with a low rumble exhaust. I just don’t think it would be as successful & ultimately valuable. It would just be another small market vehicle.

Well, if anyone up in Wisconsin is listening, I’d love to hear if my thoughts have merit. As for everyone else, I’d love to hear your thoughts & suggestions for other brand market expansions with similarly challenging qualities. It is just interesting from time to time to give yourself a hypothetical challenge and run w/ it as far as your skills, experiences, and extra time can take you.

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