Harley Davidson and the Power of Naming

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A motorcycle in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in Sturgis, South Dakota

 

Harley is a commonly-cited example of a great brand, and its many practices have been praised and written about over the decades. There are dozens of ways Harley works hard to create the mystique and experience of the Harley brand— an American icon.

Marketing pundits often point to the way the brand creates customer brand evangelists—  people who serve as human billboards— happily wearing Harley apparel, putting stickers on their cars and bikes, and placing Harley merchandise in their homes. This is absolutely the case; there aren’t many places in America right now (right now!) where someone isn’t wearing a Harley-Davidson t-shirt.

But if you think about it, basic black Harley shirts with the standard orange brand logo aren’t terribly common—the majority look completely different from one another, from stem to stern— although they are designed in the vein of the Harley brand, they are as unique as the riders who wear them. Which is a curious decision— as old-school marketing thinking would purport that consistency is best, and that departing from the main brand logo would somehow lessen the cumulative impact.

While everyone loves to personalize their style with unique items, I’m not sure that is the real driving force behind the choice to make Harley t-shirts so diverse. Rather, Harley has created a strategy linking individual t-shirts to an actual place around the country— every Harley dealership or store in each community is outfitted with its own unique shirt styles that one can’t buy anywhere else. Cleverly, this turns every Harley Davidson sign visible from the road a potential roadside stop—not just for the bike talk and the camaraderie, but also for the potential sale of a one-of-a-kind t-shirt design.

It’s not just uniqueness for the sake of uniqueness— in my opinion, WHY they are unique is the particular genius of Harley shirts. Harley’s shirts each contain the NAME of the dealer shops as well as the locations, and those dealer shops are smartly-named. For instance, “Black Hills Harley Davidson” or “Glacial Lakes Harley Davidson”— places that are beautiful, natural, and frankly— worth the trip by motorcycle or otherwise! By tying their dealer shops to the greatest of American destinations, Harley is irrevocably linking the brand with the best sights and most fascinating destinations the country has to offer.  Thereby, they ‘own’ road-tripping in America in a way that no other brand could— just by utilizing brilliant nomenclature.

Sure, some of the Harley shops in the system are named after the owners (e.g., “White’s Harley Davidson”), and some are named after their respective cities (e.g., “Harley Davidson of Bloomington in Bloomington, Indiana) but most employ a nomenclature that is completely on-brand, is extraordinarily appealing, and extremely well-suited for a souvenir t-shirt.

Who WOULDN’T want to go to “Grand Canyon Harley Davidson” or “Gold Rush Harley Davidson” or “Black Bear Harley Davidson”? These names provide a feeling of epic-ness and intrigue that make the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand on-end. And yet, most of these shops are actually located in small towns that are rather unremarkable in and of themselves— but Harley turned places like Lebanon, New Hampshire; Danville, Virginia; and Vacaville, California into destinations by naming these shops with the most alluring names imaginable: “Granite State Harley Davidson,” “Thunder Road Harley Davidson,” and “Iron Steed Harley Davidson”. In utilizing this nomenclature, Harley is driving traffic for its dealers and driving merchandise sales of each individual location as well.

Sometimes, these names are completely warranted— and sometimes— well, the names stretch incredulity a bit. For instance, the “Mount Rainier Harley Davidson” shop is in downtown Seattle, about 2.5 hours away from the actual mountain! That little detail didn’t stop this Harley shop from utilizing the grandeur and the spectacle of the second-highest peak in the USA to drum-up business. This clever name provides any visitor with a great souvenir t-shirt for Mount Rainier (that is, assuming they take the additional 2.5-hour trip to get there and see it!).

In order to understand this ingenious naming phenomenon, I decided to take a deeper (and completely un-technical) look at the various ways Harley names its shops, and found some interesting classifications emerged. (*This is by no means exhaustive, merely a sampling of the themes that emerged through viewing the Harley Davidson dealer map).

ICONIC NATURAL LANDSCAPES

Some dealer names are named for the most iconic American natural places, destinations known for their grandeur and beauty:

Badlands Harley Davidson (in Wall, South Dakota)
Glacial Lakes Harley Davidson (in Watertown, South Dakota)
Rocky Mountain Harley Davidson (in Littleton, Colorado)
Lake Erie Harley Davidson (in Avon, Ohio)
Glacier Harley Davidson (in Kalispell, Montana)
Grand Canyon Harley Davidson (in Bellemont, Arizona)

(The Grand Canyon Harley Davidson is about an hour and 30 minutes away from the landmark— proving again that close physical proximity to these landmarks does not have a bearing on the names). Either way, it makes for a cool shirt!

NOTABLE AMERICAN HISTORY

Some names of dealer shops reference moments in American history, or nostalgic eras of our patriotic past:

Gold Rush Harley Davidson (in Elko, Nevada)
Old Fort Harley Davidson (in Fort Smith, Arkansas)
Valley Forge Harley Davidson (in Trooper, Pennsylvania)
Yankee Harley Davidson (in Bristol, Connecticut)
Buffalo Bill Harley Davidson (in Cody, Wyoming)
Hideout Harley Davidson (in Joplin, Missouri)

You’d be forgiven for not knowing where Elko, Trooper, and Bristol are on a map— but with names that tie to the great history of our proud nation, why not check them out? (And buy a t-shirt to mark your reverence for history while you’re at it).

AMERICAN ICONOGRAPHY

Some dealer shops are named for American iconography— like North American animals, types of people, or even genres of music— things synonymous with (or native to) the United States:

Black Bear Harley Davidson (in Wytheville, Virginia)
Cowboy Harley Davidson (in Austin, TX)
Patriot Harley Davidson (in Fairfax, Virginia)
Woodstock Harley Davidson (in Kingston, New York)
Coyote Harley Davidson (in Monterrey, New Mexico)
Big Moose Harley Davidson (in Portland, Maine)
Liberty Harley Davidson (in Rahway, New Jersey)
Bluegrass Harley Davidson (in Louisville, Kentucky)

TOTAL BADASS

Some Harley dealer shops are just named to sound completely badass (a technical term)— and conjure up vivid imagery of action, heroes, and adventure:

Thunder Tower Harley Davidson (in Columbia, South Carolina)
Thunder Road Harley Davidson (in Danville, Virginia)
Desperado Harley Davidson (in McAllen, Texas)
Mad Boar Harley Davidson (in San Benito, Texas)
VooDoo Harley Davidson (in New Orleans, Louisiana)
Powder Keg Harley Davidson (in Mason, Ohio)

I am hopeful that there is not an actual Mad Board in San Benito, Texas— but if there is, I might recommend staying away from that Harley shop rather than visiting. (The author of this post is not responsible for any wild boar maulings that might result from said visits).

Seriously, though— could these names be any better t-shirt design fodder? Just reading these shop names stirs up the imagination and makes one wonder what the VooDoo, Powder Keg, and Thunder Road shirt designs might look like— and that curiosity alone might warrant a stop to check out the store.

ROMANCE OF SPEED AND THE ROAD

Some of the most evocative names add to the romance of the motorcycle and the road— appealing not just to motorcyclists, but also to the primal attachment all Americans have to cars and the byways that connect us:

Freedom Harley Davidson (in Canton, Ohio)
Iron Steed Harley Davidson (in Vacaville, California)
Rocket Harley Davidson (in Madison, Alabama)
Mother Road Harley Davidson (in Kingsman, Arizona)
Rough Rider Harley Davidson (in Manadan. North Dakota)
High Octane Harley Davidson (in North Billerica, Massachusetts)

I’ve been to Canton, Ohio, many times—and I cannot think of ONE thing about Canton that makes it embody “freedom”— ‘hat tip’ to the owner of that store for extra creativity.

FAMED SPORTS TEAMS FROM THE AREA

Some dealer shops are named for local team mascots (that might not even be that local!), but strongly appeal to the fandom of and the devotion of the populace:

Pig Trail Harley Davidson (in Buell, Arkansas)
Wolverine Harley Davidson (in Clinton County, Michigan)
Falcons Fury Harley Davidson (in Conyers, Georgia)
Grizzly Harley Davidson (in Missoula, Montana)
Wildcat Harley Davidson (in London, Kentucky)

These shirts would, of course, make great gifts for any rider that is a fan of these teams— or anyone who was proud to have visited Arkansas, home of the Hogs, or Kentucky, where the Wildcats play, and so on. The register might ring not just once, but twice, as two t-shirts are purchased because of smart naming principles.

NOTABLE LOCAL FEATURES

Lastly, but not least— some Harley dealer shops are named evocatively for notable features of the wider area they are in— such as attractions, images, resources, topography, etc:

Beach House Harley Davidson (in Calabash, North Carolina)
Speedway Harley Davidson (in Charlotte, North Carolina)
Treasure Coast Harley Davidson (in Stuart, Florida)
Granite State Harley Davidson (in Lebanon, New Hampshire)
Wildhorse Harley Davidson (in Bend, Oregon)
Prairie Harley Davidson (in Saskatchewan)

Even the Canadians are getting in on the action! And while I can’t think of a good reason to visit Saskatchewan, the imagery of vast prairies is interesting enough to invoke emotion from any warm-blooded person with an appreciation for the countryside (Canadian AND American).

———-

Given all this, I believe that clever naming is a driving force behind the $64 million dollars per year in t-shirt and merchandise sales in the USA — which balloons to $284 million worldwide. (2014 stats from CycleWorld).

Harley is a great brand for many reasons, but is the only brand I can think of that has a collection of thousands of sub-brands (those sub-brands being the great places, spaces, and icons of America). In structuring their nomenclature this way, Harley borrows the very equity of the United States itself — reinforcing the allure of the brand, AND bolstering the allure of hundreds and thousands of t-shirts on the racks and merchandise on the shelves.

Then again, one might expect this from the brand who named its noisy tailpipes “Screamin’ Eagle” — oh yes, Harley KNOWS NAMING. And I reckon that’s a bigger part of their success than anyone is giving them credit for. If you ask me, Harley has essentially written the book on nomenclature — proving that naming can be one of the most important pillars of branding.


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