Schmidt is credited with helping the Harley-Davidson brand make a 180-degree turn from being perceived as the brand of thugs and criminals to an elite, adventurous lifestyle brand. He is a keynote speaker addressing the 300+ attendees at this week's Fifth Annual
"Brand isn't what you say about yourself – it's what other people say about you, and you never want to give them an opportunity to say bad things," Schmidt said. He knows first hand how difficult overcoming negative brand perceptions can be.
In 1986, Harley-Davidson was near bankruptcy, and while the company continued to focus on making a quality product, it had a huge blind spot about its negative brand perception that nearly ended the company. That's when Schmidt and his team decided to change the public conversation about the brand. They took Harley-Davidson straight to the people.
"We started holding product demonstrations at dealerships and made an effort to get more influential people involved, like politicians and chamber of commerce members," he said. "We gave people a highly visible opportunity to see that people just like them rode Harleys. It started a strong word-of-mouth campaign that changed the trajectory of the company."
Schmidt said that the more people he could get in the "saddle," the better. Harley-Davidson sent employees out across the country, offering 15-mile road tests to eligible riders, while also gathering critical market data that answered the question, "what would we need to change to get you to buy a Harley?"
This effort helped Harley-Davidson make a meaningful connection with the buying public. Three years later – in 1989 – they were completely sold out of product, and they had built what Schmidt refers to as "positive social energy."
"Communities were forming around Harley riders – there was visible passion around the brand," he said. "Ultimately, businesses need to decide and influence what the public says about their brand, and they do this through their people."
Back then, information moved slowly, but information moves so much faster today, and that includes complaints. For fleet safety and operations professionals, they can play a key role in making sure that the information stays positive.
"Your people rise above all else when it comes to brand reputation, because each and every driver is a brand ambassador," he said. "When you send them out on the road as safe and vigilant drivers, you're making a decision about what you want people to say about your brand."
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