Forget the vagina candle: Harley-Davidson turns the rumble of a motorcycle into a wellness tool

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By Jeff Beer

Harley-Davidson may be one of the most iconic American brands ever created, and in its newest ad campaign, its motorbikes’ trademark roaring rumble isn’t just about the freedom of the open road: It’s touting the freedom it provides from the anxiety-ridden realities of our tech-driven culture.

In a first-person POV, a two-wheeler rips down narrow streets, cornering perfectly through an underpass. The robotic voice of a virtual assistant drones on about all your commitments and calendar dates, until it transitions into a panicking robo-dictator whose orders are being willfully ignored by the bikes racing on the screen. “Don’t go outside, don’t leave the phone behind, do not engage your heart, your mind. No eye contact. No sync. Don’t blink, don’t think. Don’t ever let yourself feel this alive.”

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Until the bikes emerge on a remote country road, and the camera zooms in on a rider’s wide eyes and the calm sound of his inhalation and exhalation of air. “Breathe. Ride.”

This is the hog as wellness tool.

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Created by agency Droga5, the ad is a distinctly modern take on the pitch that Harley-Davidson has made for eons. But this one is tailored both to reinforce current riders’ passion and to stoke curiosity among potential new riders. It’s that latter group that the company has been chasing for awhile now, particularly through new products like its LiveWire electric bike and a line of smaller, more affordable, and urban-friendly models.

Still, Harley stock has been on a steady decline, down by almost 50% in the last five years. But the company hasn’t been sitting on its handlebars. It’s launched a strategic plan to lure 2 million new riders to the brand over the next decade, through programs like opening riding schools across the country. It also teamed with such celebrities as Ludacris, Jason Momoa, Brantley Gilbert, and select influencers for a 2018 Instagram campaign that drove more than 62 million engagements for the brand, and according to the company, boosted media value 80% over 2017. However, while the company added 527,000 new riders in the U.S. last year, a 25% ridership boost, it also lost 472,000 riders, too many from that group of new riders, according to CEO Matthew Levatich.

Droga5 was tasked with finding a way to communicate the benefits of riding in a new way to a generation who doesn’t see the role that it can play in their daily lives.

“Harley-Davidson needed to remind riders—and convey to non-riders—how owning a bike can have a positive impact on their mental and physical well-being,” says Droga5 creative director Thom Glover. “We think of well-being as something soft and quiet, but a lot of riders find their version of meditative calm at high speed on a powerful machine. It’s where they disconnect from all the pressures of the day and lose themselves in moments of total concentration. This insight led us to trying to get as close as we could to conveying what it feels like to be in control of the bike, while escaping all the technological prompts that have come to dominate our lives.”

Agency head of strategy and new business Will Davie says that while clearly there’s no silver bullet when it comes to addressing the realities of Harley’s business challenges, it requires a sustained effort across the entire brand experience. “This campaign effort is nothing but the tip of our spear, but in approaching it, I think we found that the creative challenge is the creative opportunity,” he says. “That this iconic American brand so associated with the freedom of a certain generation is, ironically, more vital in today’s anxiety-ridden culture than ever. We really believe that riding a Harley taps you into a community like no other, and makes you feel like nothing else.”

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