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I recently attended Vision 2009, where I got to hear several leaders in industry, including: Ken Schmidt, former communication director of Harley Davidson; Brad Gamble, Senior Director of Marketing for McDonald’s Canada; and Richard Bartrem, V.P. of Culture and Communications at Westjet.

I left the convention with the feeling that somehow these three industry leaders stories connected. But what did a motorcycle company trying to regain its footing in a market dominated by cheaper Asian products, a fast food restaurant struggling to define itself in a health conscious world, and an airline growing in a period of airline failures all have in common? In each case these brands took steps to generate bottom up social structures. They set up infrastructure to shape communal development and then took steps to nurture, not to control, its growth. They engaged in the central goal of social media: to build and nurture community interaction around your brand.

Ken Schmidt – Harley Davidson

In 1985 Harley was out of money. Japanese motorcycle makers were providing cheaper high quality motorcycles and Harley’s creditors were pulling the plug. The problem for Harley was that a bike, in Schmidt’s words, is just a bike. For getting from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’ a Kawasaki and a Harley are going to be pretty much the same. Harley needed a way to change their image around. Not knowing what else to do, Harley Davidson looked at what was not being done. While test drives are common in the car world, Harley noticed that no one does test rides, and sets out with their bikes to start a trend. They found people, offered to let them ride a Harley, and then, despite all expectations, refrained from a sales pitch. Their customer engagement model was to refrain from attempting a sale, instead–in a moment where everyone is expecting marketing–they stop and they ask “What can we do better”? And as people respond, the Harley representative pulls out a pad of note paper, and starts writing notes. The power of what Harley did can not be understated. They interrupted the one way model of salesmanship in order to engage instead in a conversation. Even if they had heard the same request a million times before, they would stop, pull out a note pad and take notes. They stopped, and they listened. The feedback itself wasn’t important. What was important was that they were listening, and in so doing, they were changing the communication model of their marketing. Harley did not stop there. After hearing feedback from riders they would develop parts that could be bought or sold to change and customize each Harley bike to its owner. And when a memorable rider suggested something that made it into production, a few days later they would find a catalog with a hand written note telling them to “check out page X”, where they would find the part they had suggested. Harley staff became members of most major motor shows. They would refer by name, talk, hang out, and ride with Harley owners. They organized the H.O.G., or Harley Owners Group, putting on rides across North America. They created their own community. As the sales relationship changed, so too did the language. As Harley staff and salesmen came to know the people around them by name, so too did their customers come to know them. As their relationship left them on a first name basis with their customers, their customers recommendations’ come with recommended salesmen, directly engaging potential buyers into the Harley community. In interacting with their customers Harley Davidson established a culture of motorcyclists. They established and still support a culture of bikes. And the result was a turn around in Harley’s profits. They saw a huge spike in revenue, and built one of the strongest brands in the world today.

Brad Gamble – McDonald’s Canada

McDonald’s image had gotten tied up in junk food, and as a health craze swept Canada they needed to reinvent their image. When Brad Gamble came into McDonalds Canada he saw two major problems facing the company. They had spread their brand too thin with multiple subsidiaries that had little connection to their brand and had provided too little support for their customers. Their solution was to change strategy. Borrowing from their European subsidiaries, McDonald’s Canada produced new stores in locations such as Vancouver Island, with new interiors designed to allow people to relax in groups and ‘hang out’. These new interiors provided a space for people to sit and socialize in comfort, changing the dynamic of the McDonald’s interior from buy and leave to stay and relax. They also shifted their advertising towards social interaction. One ad focused on a blue collar dinner experience between a father and his daughter where they discuss whether he would have preferred a boy. This portrayal of meaningful family interaction drives the idea of McDonald’s as a gathering place for social interactions. The changes represented in these two decisions are changes in attitude towards the role of the customer. While still not as drastic an effort to create brand culture as the Harley Davidson example, these changes are foundational aspects of reshaping the role of McDonald’s from a fast food restaurant to a platform for communal gathering. In short, they are attempting to create social space.

Richard Bartrem – Westjet

According to Bartrem, Westjet began with an attempt to create a more communal airline. Their model was simple: no rules. Instead Westjet laid down founding principles and guidelines, giving their employees a level of freedom to experiment and engage. Westjet’s goal? Not to create a service model, but to create a culture. Another example of trying to build brand culture lies in Westjet’s renaming of the roles of employees along inclusive lines (he uses the example of having “team leaders” instead of “supervisors”). While for most companies this seems silly, Bartrem insists that the naming scheme was important; how people refer to each other changes how they view each other. Through inclusiveness and a lack of defined rules, Westjet created an employee structure that was willing and able to engage with customers in ways that other airlines would not, and then Westjet lauded and awarded those with good ideas. One example used by Bartrem was “airplane yoga”, a prank whereby passengers were encouraged to stand up and stretch to the side, at which point the pilot would tilt the plane. This kind of engagement did more than simply entertain: it broke down the company/customer relationship, sharing the culture that had been constructed within the company itself.

What does the marketing of a motorcycle company, a fast food restaurant, and an airline have to do with social media?

The final talk of the conference was a panel of four, including Kerry Munroe of Yahoo! Canada who–perhaps unwittingly–summed up the conference. He said that social media isn’t online. Social media is what we do; we are social creatures. Ken Schmidt echoed this during Q&A, where, when asked if Harley used social media, responded: “Well, yeah, we do. But we do it physically.”

What do these examples tell us about social media and building community?

  1. Social interaction is multi-directional. Too frequently people simply talk, and don’t respond. The pad of paper in the Harley employees pocket is more than a note pad; it is a statement that the company is going to respond. So too is there value in similar interactions, the occasional retweet, an @(whoever).
  2. Relationships mean follow through. Harley didn’t stop at talking to people, they followed through with hand written notes, and by showing people how their suggestions were being integrated. Targeted personalized emails, can have a similar effect, and have been shown to drive sales even without promotional copy.
  3. Engagement with your brand is not just an activity for your customers. Employees need to be engaged in what they do if they are going to engage others. Westjet looked first at their employees, and began by engaging them.
  4. Community and brand culture is built from the ground up, not imposed from the top down. It is built through support of the bottom by the top, not top-down imposition of structure.
  5. A social campaign is not limited to one platform: McDonalds started by building a more social setting, then used ads to promote culture not product; Harley talked to people, then followed up with personalized notes and events.


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