Harley-Davidson Back On Track With X Games

Harley-Davidson and the X Games? Not too terribly long ago when the brand had settled deep into the comfortable dentist-and-lawyer lane like a middle-aged guy in a recliner — and just didn't have the right, more aggressive products for younger riders beyond the Sportster — such a pairing would have been absurd. Its now-defunct Buell brand was supposed to take care of that. 

But, over the past eight years, the Harley has reinvented itself — or perhaps bifurcated itself might be a better word — to appeal both to its older loyalists with the traditional cruiser lineup and younger riders with leaner, "naked bike" products under the Dark Custom line. This year, the Dark Custom sub-brand goes even further with the new Street 500 and 750 motorcycles, based on the company's first new bike platform in over a decade, and introducing Harley's lowest-displacement engines in years. The marketing has been rebellious, urban, multicultural and highly attitudinal. Being in the X-Games doesn’t seem so far-fetched now. 

Indeed, to tout the Dark Custom Street 750, the Milwaukee company sponsored the ESPN winter X Games in Aspen, Colo. The Milwaukee-based brand has been involved in motorcycle ice racing since the ’20s, but not many people know this. So the brand launched a social media effort centering on an unofficial ice-race held at the event. The ostensible purpose was to get people to vote to make the event an official X Games sport. But it was mostly about touting the new bikes, Harley’s racing heritage, and showing how the Harley-Davidson Street line fits with the extreme sports zeitgeist. 

Well, the company is doing it again in Austin, Texas, for the summer version of the games, which started June 6, and is broadcast on ESPN. This time, Harley-Davidson will take off the ice spikes and put the Street 750 on a flat track course with AMA Pro Flat Track Grand national champ Brad Baker behind the bars. 

And again, fans vote on whether Flat Track racing should become a future medal sport at X Games Austin, using #XGamesFlatTrack to promulgate their opinions. The TV spot shows young people riding the Street motorcycle through urban settings with social media supers with hashtags and Twitter handles: “#soundcheck @mrARvision” is one, superimposed on a shot of a guy roaring through a tunnel. The ad is set to an instrumental version of the Beatles’ “Come Together.”

Dino Bernacchi, director of U.S. marketing for Harley-Davidson, tells Marketing Daily that #Xgamesflattrack has garnered 200% more social engagement than the same pre-event tease H-D did around the Aspen X Games. He says the ROI is strong. "The extreme nature of it really took hold with the X Games audience," he says. "When we we went back and took a look, we got more of a social response [for the Aspen effort] than two auto manufacturers combined had gotten from promoting hashtags as part of their Super Bowl campaign, where tens of millions of dollars are spent." 

Bernacchi says the TV spot will run on ESPN, FX, sports, UFC programming and the motorsports and auto-enthusiast vertical. Video content will run online as well. "There are 30-second and 60-second versions of the ads and, online, there are several videos already in rotation. There will also be print, and we just have a lot of digital content out there now both for Street but also the entire Dark Custom family," he says. 

The brand also got a shout-out on June 6, with a minute-long promotional segment within the X Games ESPN broadcast, where announcers introduced the flat-track event, showed racing clips and asked the audience if they'd like to see flat-track racing as part of the games. Then on Sunday there was a recap and voting count. 

Bernacchi says that, over the course of the past six years, the Dark Custom bikes have helped make the brand the number-one motorcycle marque among younger riders. "We have 50% market share [among young adults] and, if you roll in all engine displacements, we are still number one overall. The blacked-out Dark Custom bikes have a cool, classic look. And it probably goes without saying that the new Street [500 and 750] makes the brand more approachable." The Street starting price is around $7,000. 

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