Harley-Davidson is famed the world over for its brand loyalty. Perhaps Coca-Cola has greater global brand recognition, but certainly no other motorcycle manufacturer can compete with Harley's fanatical loyalists. After all, how many people have Honda's winged logo tattooed on their shoulder, breast or heinie?
One of the most important reasons for this loyalty is Harley-Davidson's singular connection with its customers. Indeed, when asked by a Ford marketing type - who was in Milwaukee pitching what would later become the Harley-Davidson F-150 - how they managed to connect so deeply with customers, Willie G Davidson, grandson of one of the company's founders, famously replied, "well, we do know them all by name". No meaningless focus groups for Harley; when they want to know something about their customers, they just head out to Daytona or Sturgis for a week of Harley Owners Group revelry.
So it's no surprise that the company has 3.3 million Facebook friends. That Harley-Davidson is perhaps the best motorcycle manufacturer at Facebooking should also be no surprise. What is changing is who those 3.3 million buddies are. Oh sure, we all know that Harley has long ago transcended the old "one-percenters" badass stereotype, rendered inconsequential as they were, not by police investigation or judicial writ, but by the sheer overwhelming wealth of the Boomer generation. The fortysomething white male lawyer/broker/insert-your-most-despised-yupster-here traded on that outlaw image to attract their twentysomething trophy wives, but the seeming malevolence of all those bearded bikers was the ultimate facade. Come Monday, their "colours" were traded for pinstripes and their facial hair was suddenly more adroitly coiffed.
But even that fauxly ferocious stereotype is morphing once again, says Harley-Davidson. The motor company has a new viral marketing promotion - its "No Cages" campaign - that claims there is actually no stereotypical Harley-Davidson rider any more. Called "E Pluribus Unum" - or "out of many, one" - the new strategy is born out of Harley-Davidson's new crowd-sourcing Facebook application called Fan Machine that the company claims allows all those tweeters to review the company's advertising, rate it and submit ideas to improve it.
The centrepiece of the campaign are videos submitted by riders via Twitter, breaking down all those old social barriers to motorcycle ownership. Meander over to Harley-Davidson's microsite via harley-davidson.com and you will find a pink-haired young woman who is actually an honours student, a hard-looking African-American cop, a gourmet chef, a bandannaed Hispanic who is actually a third-grade teacher and a soccer mum.
Interspersed among these against-types are an army intelligence officer, a robotics engineer and the one remaining true blue, surely-this-is-tired stereotype, a rock star trying to look gritty.
Harley's message is simple: we are no longer a niche. We are no longer even that larger-but-equally focused cadre of Boomers that hijacked the brand for most of the last two decades. We are everyone. We are you.
It's working. In the United States, Harley-Davidson is the number one-selling brand for youths shopping in the 651cc and over segment (almost 50 per cent of the American under-35 market according to RL Polk, the automotive information and marketing firm, almost three times its penetration in 2008). In fact, so dramatically has Harley changed its image that Mark-Hans Richer, the company's chief marketing officer, claims that, "in 2010, Harley-Davidson sold more new motorcycles to today's Millennial generation young adults than it did when the Baby Boomers generation (today's "core customers") was 18 to 34 (1988)". Harley-Davidson is also the leader in catering to the burgeoning female market and, in the United States, it sells more bikes to African-Americans and Hispanics than any other brand.
Bursting even more stereotypes - at least for me - is that all these newbies aren't buying the cheap-and-cheerful Sportsers I envisaged. Like most journalists covering the industry, I assumed that the myriad variations of the iconoclastic Sportster were Harley's draw to this one fringe group. Instead, the most popular single model for 18- to 34-year-old Millenials, women, Hispanics and African-Americans is the full-zoot Street Glide (basically a stripped-down version of the classic Electra Glide), a top-line model far removed from the bargain basement Sportster.
If nothing else, it shows that Harley-Davidson is serious about broadening its reach. As I have often lamented, if the motorcycle industry is to be reborn - and just the quickest perusal of sales statistics is enough to know a rebirth is necessary - it will come from expansion into long-ignored niches - again, youth, women and minorities.
We Boomers are well into our doddering years and will soon be trading in our Hawgs for walking sticks.