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Harleys ® Us

This hog has moved from outlaw to gold card status

By Kelly Luker

GONE ARE THE DAYS when one actually needed a bike to be a biker. Today, you can put on a Harley-Davidson® T-shirt and slug back a few Harley-Davidson® brews while you smoke your Harley-Davidson® cigarettes. While you're at it, you can admire the little lady in a Harley-Davidson® swimsuit and your little bundle of joy eating strained peas in his Harley-Davidson® baby bib.

Welcome to the wonderful--and profitable--world of brand licensing, which the Harley folks have embraced with a big ol' burly bear hug.

According to the Milwaukee, Wis.­based company's public relations manager, Dave Elshoff, a range of accessories from tacky doodads to the requisite black leather jackets pulled $292 million into company coffers last year. Elshoff estimates that more than a thousand items have been licensed to wear that familiar orange and black wing design. "We're not just a motorcycle company--we're a lifestyle," he says.

Considering a recent tour of products displayed at various local Harley headquarters, one can only nervously consider just whose lifestyle Elshoff is referring to. There's logo-emblazoned piggy banks (niftily shaped as cycle gas tanks), Harley-Davidson candle holders, rhinestone-encrusted brooches proclaiming "I [insert heart shape] Harleys," playing cards, pens and watches.

For the outlaw biker who is considering adding to his porcelain collection, there is the charming Lladro-type figurine of a tousle-haired youth selling "Harley rides--5 cents." Speaking of which, one can read to his or her own tousle-haired young'n each night from Patrick Wants to Ride, a picture book detailing one child's heartbreak at being too young to drive a Harley. Happy ending, though--Moms and Pops give him a helmet and include him on biker runs.

How a machine better known in the past for its proclivity to break down every other day managed to capture the hearts and minds--and especially the pocketbooks--of the people may well go down in history as one of the great marketing victories of all time. Ten years ago, about 35,000 Harleys were rolling off the assembly line while the company hovered in dire financial straits. Last year, 105,000 were snapped up. There now is up to a six-month waiting list for some models. And there's a good reason why you may want to settle for the figurine instead of the machine--most models start at $18,000 and go up from there.

But the good folks in Milwaukee are just as happy with your $17 purchase. "It's a lot like courtship and marriage," explains Elshoff of his company's strategy. "If you take the Harley-Davidson T-shirt as the first date, engagement might be a [Harley-Davidson] leather jacket." As the romance progresses, the company figures, sooner or later you'll be escorting that 700-pound blushing bride down the aisle.

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From the July 3-10, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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