Commentary

Customer Collaboration, Involvement In Complex, Luxury Markets. Is It Possible?

The first thing a lot of people think about when they hear about customer collaboration and co-creation is, “That’s great. But I work in a very complex industry. There’s no way this will ever work for me.” However, Harley-Davidson, BMW and Ducati have all found success in running customer collaboration programs. Personal transportation is a lifestyle-intensive market segment in the same way that clothing, cosmetics or electronics are. They help people define who they are and show that to the world around them. What we can learn from these leading companies can be extrapolated to other luxury goods industries to help enlighten the path towards customer-driven innovation.

Now, let’s take a look at why they began these innovative initiatives, and how they went from the drawing board to product success. 

Brand history and identities

These three iconic brands all share a few traits in common: they produce high-end vehicles, have played key roles in defining product categories and have shaped global personal transportation trends. However, the most interesting trend is that they’re all brands that have particularly vocal and passionate fans. For example, Harley-Davidson has one of the most valuable and recognizable brands in the world, and in 2013 alone sold almost $300 million in Harley-branded merchandise, and going so far as to sell their brand to Ford for a Harley-branded F150 truck.
Ducati is also a company known for its thriving fan communities that have existed since the 1990s. Fans have participated in local meet-ups where they compare bikes, talk about the latest and greatest and follow motorsports events. BMW has also built an international brand following, spawning fan groups throughout the world, most notably embodied in the annual Bimmerfest events.

What is interesting to note here is that these three companies share traits with many other luxury industry brands in other sectors: they have been drivers in the creation of new product categories, had international influence, defined markets and spawned both sanctioned and unsanctioned brand communities.

Consumers and the move to the web

Out of the three companies we’re learning about today, Ducati was the most visionary. After a first very successful attempt at an e-commerce microsite, Ducati jumped right into the web in a very significant way. Their initial corporate site was set up in 2000 and already contained an e-commerce component. From that moment on, they kept up the momentum, building a solid web-based sales strategy and continuing to build that into an online brand community before Facebook had even launched. 

Harley-Davidson and BMW started using the web as a brand tool later than Ducati, but have both found success since. Harley had never struggled to build brand identity and community, with sanctioned and many unsanctioned fan groups sprouting up all over the U.S. and in other countries as early as the 1970s (some are somewhat notorious, like the Hell’s Angels). 

Harley-Davidson was driven to build a more robust web brand experience after the sinking realization that their customers were aging — and fast. In 1987, when some might argue the brand was at its peak, their average rider was under the age of 35. In 2008, brand management was face to face with the hard fact that the average Harley rider was now 48. So they turned to the web. Uniting existing fans and pre-made grassroots organizations and communities through a web-based communications strategy was the name of the game.

Harley-Davidson started soliciting the opinions of their fans online, using hashtags and social media to federate their fans into an online community that they could interact with. Using modern platforms, they were able to start learning a lot from their fans about what they wanted, how they perceived the Harley-Davidson brand, and how the brand could better serve them. The combination of these initiatives led to the development and highly successful launch of new, lighter, more modern motorcycles that were a hit with their younger audience, dropping the average rider age significantly. 

BMW also saw opportunity here, but in a very different way. The German automotive group built a custom-branded platform where the most enthusiastic fans would gather. BMW is a luxury brand built on performance and second-to-none engineering. This put BMWs in the garages of many engineers, marketing executives and creatives who were interested in getting involved in the process of designing and engineering their next cars. Using this program, they collected in-depth customer feedback about their cars: about things as varied as trunk design, marketing campaigns and engine performance. The community they built not only helped them make better products, but also taught BMW a lot about who was buying their cars, and for which reasons.

As these examples show, there are many ways to collaborate with your consumers using the Web and all it has to offer. Think about what fits for your brand, always keep your fans in mind, and take the leap.

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