Harley-Appleson and the Factory of Dreams

Being in the business of selling dreams must be pretty nice, and when it comes to the the field I work in it was really hard not to think about two of the largest dream-sellers on the planet: Harley-Davidson and Apple.
What do air-cooled v-twins and iStuff have in common, some might ask. Well, nothing, if we just take a superficial look at them. And, at the same time, pretty much everything if delving deeper in the business is on the menu.

If we were to make a worldwide poll on dream bikes and dream IT gadgets, I could almost vouch that both the Milwaukee and the Cupertino guys would be among the top positions. And the question is “why?”.

The purpose of this editorial is not a debate on whether the products Apple and Harley-Davidson are selling are the absolute best in their segments, because they are not. Simply claiming that a certain bike is the best is such a silly thing, equaled only by claiming that the iPhone is the best phone ever.

These are fanboy statements and are usually utterly biased, therefore lacking in the needed acuity for a proper analysis. And, even more, if we were to at least attempt to pass a somewhat scientific judgment on such matters, it's far more polite to admit skepticism than gullibly embrace certainties that are impossible to demonstrate.

So, how do they make such money? How do they sell all their stuff? How come both Apple and Harley-Davidson can build such a huge and devout fan base? One of the answers I have in mind is “dreams.”

These companies are beyond the point where they used to sell products. No matter whether we're talking about iPads or an Electra Glide, we're not looking at a tablet and a motorcycle. We're looking at what they are representing. And THIS is what draws people into reaching for their check books: they're not forking out hefty sums of money to play Angry Birds on the new iPad, and they're not leasing a $17k bike to ride it. They're buying their own impressions on the specific products and their personal experience with them. Quite a paradox, isn't it?

This is exactly the “root of all evil,” if such an expression is allowed. This is the seemingly infinite resource both Harley-Davidson and Apple have learned how to exploit, channel, use, and eventually transform in billions of dollars: the human imagination. And that's why their production facilities are more like factories where they manufacture dreams instead of bikes or MacBooks.

Both companies have successfully gotten to market their products as social status vectors. Success, self-esteem, confidence, readiness for action, and the list could span across many more pages: they all have found their place in the inherent character of the products, and for those who have once admitted this status-quo, there’s little to no turning back at all.

They like the way Apple and H-D are building the world around them and they're happy with this, so why fix something which ain't broken? When it comes to sweet dreams, nobody wants to wake, do they? I mean, it's just like Norman Spinrad's machine in The Lost Continent, and we cannot (and would not) blame any of them.

Buying represents a choice, and, after making a decision, one can be happy with it… or not, and eventually try to revert or change for the better. I personally haven't yet met a Harley owner who would not speak in the most brilliant terms about his bike. And no iPhone user really mad at his smartphone has crossed his/her path with mine. And I really wonder why this is so...

There are better cruisers than Harley-Davidsons, and this goes without saying, as there are people who value their Android phones and tablets way more than Apple fans do theirs. There are countless products of all sorts out there, and each is better than the one next to it, when it comes to one or more things, but nobody can ever claim the “ultimate best” title.

And yet, even though they all know this, Apple fans will buy Apple, and Harley-Davidson fans will buy H-D, time and again. I'd say, in a rather romanticized way, that they somehow know about the nice dream they're having and don't want to be woken up... because they like the way things are.

A potential argument whether a Victory Vision destroys an Electra Glide or whether the new Indian bikes will be a heavy blow for the Motor Company is, of course, open, and there are hundreds of forums debating this matter, some with several extremely neat arguments for both sides.

Exactly the same way, a discussion on how much better is the future Samsung Galaxy Tab when compared to the new iPad (if at all) could bring up both “fanboy proof” and scientific, tech-related and reasonable matters.

Still, the purpose of the present piece is not to judge in comparative terms, but to try and see how come other brands have missed the opportunity of adding such mojo to their name and products.

Regardless of what people would say, neither Apple's products nor Harley's bikes are genius. They might have brought truly innovative, nifty features to the big game, but none of their stuff has really changed the world, at least not the way the marketing departments want us to believe.

There are millions of people whose lives are simply glorious without having anything to do with iPhones and the like, as there are guys who would not swap their big-bore Japanese or British cruisers for a Harley, and this should say pretty much all there is to say about the fact that we live in a world of decisions and personal choices.

Somehow, back in the day, Harley-Davidsons have been “welded” to the idea of freedom, riding into the sunset on the open highway and not giving a FF on anything, just as Apple's products have become the icon of technological advance, innovation spearheading, and the like. Now, the guys who have done this really knew what buttons to press: the winning combination was to link together the products with those things which made the minds wonder and hearts throb. And when the soul vibrates, the customer is happy... as he reaches for the wallet.

It's this mysterious force which makes the Harley-Davidson rider look for a branded helmet, even though he or she knows that the Schuberth or Arai they've just tested offers much better protection in case the going gets really tough.

Yet they're going for their passion and prefer to believe they'll be happier riding with H-D branded leathers (though 15% more expensive) than with the “commoner” Arlen Ness or RSD ones.

I guess that Harley owners are some of the most faithful customers in terms of real affection for their fav brand: I have seen guys who would even wear H-D underwear it Milwaukee thought of such an apparel line. And they would do so because it fuels their status, not because Harley undies are different.

Funny thing is that rather few of the guys who spend the big bucks on the bikes are the kind of freeriders or have the time to wander... just look around you and you'll see. I really don't want to be mean, but what's the use of owning a big, heavily customized H-D if you're going to Sturgis with the two-wheeler in your trailer. That's not what the guys wanted from you when they started making these bikes a century ago, sorry.

And, speaking of customization, here's the last idea before I leave to muse upon all of the above: both Apple and Harley-Davidson really TIE their customers to their products. I won’t say this is good or bad, but this is REAL, and is a FACT, whether people accept it or not.

It's commonly met with iPhone users to upgrade to the new phone just because changing the brand means they lose all the money they spent on apps: I have met such people and I can tell you this is true.

After having owned an iPhone for, let's say, 3 or more years, and having spent hefty sums for the apps it needed, most of the guys are not willing to let them go, even if the Google Play Android store has many similar ones for free. Of course, in some cases, there are things THE OTHER PHONE can't do, but they're rather rare.

At the same time, even if one would ponder on changing sides, it's all the money that goes down the drain, because meeting a guy who’s willing to actually pay for the apps the soon-to-be ex-iPhone user needed and installed is too damn a rare thing. So, let’s pick up the new iPhone which, by the way, is always “the best thing that ever happened to iPhone” (pun intended, this way of putting things is old and pure BS).

The same goes for the Harley-Davidson owner thinking to go Indian, Victory, or even ride a huge Intruder or other bike, as the discussion could go like this:

“Wait a minute, I've spent 7k on aftermarket parts and customization for my FortyEight, I have to get my money back as I sell the bike!“

“Yes mate, I do believe you, but you see, I only need your bike, and not the bling. You can keep the Screamin' exhaust, your tear-shaped mirrors, and all, and shave off nice money form the price: I roll with SuperTrapp and I won't pay for all these accessories.”

“But they're ORIGINAL!“

“I know they are, but they're redneck and I don't like 'em, don't need them, and they also make the bike weigh a ton, so make up your mind.” (based on a real story).

Now, in the end, before hate mail starts pouring in, I would just say that the best thing is everybody being happy with their stuff: if you feel well when riding your Sportster, it's the only thing that matters. And I won't even think less of you if you also have an iPhone.

We'll meet on the road, camp, and have a beer and talk about how nice the trip is. Because it's not about the destination, nor about the bike: it's all about riding. At least that's the way things are in my world. Peace!
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