Building Retro Brands: Harley Davidson and the 4 As

Juan Aja Aguinaco, Ritish Bansal, Raheem Ladha, Nidhish Nair, and Marina Proskurovsky
MBA Perspectives
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Key Takeaways
WHAT? The iconic American brand Harley Davidson has experienced a dramatic shrinking of its original Baby Boomer target market. 

SO WHAT? Harley Davidson has shifted branding gears by adopting the principles of retro branding in an effort to create customer experiences that appeal to the new Millennial male market.

NOW WHAT? For marketers, the key elements of a retro branding strategy include a moralized brand story (allegory), an idealized brand community (arcadia), an authentic brand essence (aura), and an irresolvable brand paradox (antinomy). 

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After a seemingly unstoppable growth period during the beginning of the 21st century, the iconic American brand Harley Davidson was in serious trouble. Not only did the 2008 global economic crisis hit it hard, but more importantly, its core target market was shrinking fast. Composed primarily of American Baby Boomer males, this aging demographic had plenty of disposable income and sought an escape from the monotony of daily life by indulging their long-lost aspirations of rebellion (Holt 2004). As profitable as this market segment once was, Harley Davidson had no choice but to shift branding gears and create new customer experiences.

In an effort to capture a younger, Millennial male market without completely alienating its original fan base, Harley Davidson adopted the principles of retro branding, defined in an influential article in the Journal of Marketing by Stephen Brown, Robert V. Kozinets, and John F. Sherry Jr. (2003) as “relaunched historical brands with updated features.” Specifically, the four key elements ensuring the success of a retro branding strategy (Allegory, Arcadia, Aura, and Antinomy) can be found in Harley Davidson’s current brand revival efforts:  

Allegory (brand story): According to the authors, a successful retro brand rests on a symbolic story with a strong moral message. In the case of Harley Davidson, the brand maintained its narratives of freedom and independence, but now with the added moral twist of environmentalism. In August 2015, for example, the company teamed up with a nonprofit environmental conservation organization (the Nature Conservancy) to launch a preservation program dubbed “Renew the Ride.” This new customer experience is designed to instill in consumers the moral duty to care for nature in order to be able to continue riding free. 


 Inspiration | 2016 Harley-Davidson Motorcycles


Arcadia (idealized brand community): For Brown, Kozinets, and Sherry (2003), a retro brand community is unique in that past communities from this brand are idealized and heralded as utopian, special, and even magical. For instance, although Harley Davidson’s new Sportster line presents rider communities no longer on the open highway but in various cityscapes, it nonetheless draws on its utopian past rider communities when telling new target customers “there are things in its past you should know about.”

Aura (brand essence): According to Brown, Kozinets, and Sherry (2003), a retro brand’s aura pertains to a powerful sense of authenticity and uniqueness. Harley Davidson continues to deliver on its promise of freedom and rebellion, however, with the Sportster and Street lines, this message has been successfully blended with technological innovation and sleek designs. Thus, the brand can reassure new millennial consumers faced with high-levels of anxiety caused by rapid social, economic, and environmental changes through offering a sense of permanence, authenticity, and legacy.

Antinomy (brand paradox): Lastly, a retro brand, particularly a technology product, contains a few cultural paradoxes within its brand meanings. The paradoxes observed in the case of Harley Davidson’s customer experiences are those between old and new, past and future, tradition and technology, and the open road versus the cityscape.

With increased sales of the Sportster and Street lines in the first quarter of 2015, it is clear that this iconic American brand is not ready to loudly ride into the sunset of irrelevance.


Brown, Stephen, Robert V. Kozinets, and John F. Sherry Jr. (2003), “Teaching Old Brands New Tricks: Retro Branding and the Revival of Brand Meaning,” Journal of Marketing, 67 (July), 19–33.

Held, Tom (2015), “Sales drop, profits rise for Harley-Davidson Inc.,” (accessed October 8, 2015).

Holt, Douglas B. (2004), How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding, Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Sizemore, Charles (2013), “Blame Harley-Davidson's Downfall On Baby Boomer Demographics,” (accessed October 1, 2015).

The AMA is pleased to partner with Professor Markus Giesler and his MBA students from the Schulich School of Business at York University

Author Bio:

Juan Aja Aguinaco, Ritish Bansal, Raheem Ladha, Nidhish Nair, and Marina Proskurovsky
Juan Aja Aguinaco, Ritish Bansal, Raheem Ladha, Nidhish Nair, and Marina Proskurovsky are students in Markus Giesler’s and Ela Veresiu’s Customer Experience Design MBA elective course at the Schulich School of Business.
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Displaying 2 Comments
Eric Arnould
November 17, 2015

Important to include consideration of the risks associated with a cultural branding strategy that foregrounds very American cultural myths and symbols as well as the benefits. American Arcadia has distinctive qualities that differ even from Canadian Arcadia.

Carter Thibodeau
November 27, 2015

As a young motorcyclist myself, I have my own views on Harley Davidson and am well aware of what the majority of motorcyclists around my age think of Harley Davidson as well. I rarely see someone under the age of 40 on a Harley Davidson. However, it’s definitely not an oddity to see a young person riding one. I think one of the largest factors that truly influences the number of millennials that own a Harley Davidson motorcycle is their price. By the time a lot of people can comfortably afford to purchase one, they are in the later stages of their adult life and professional careers. I find retro branding to be an interesting concept and one that is very easy to understand and apply to virtually any vintage brand struggling to capture a younger demographic. My favorite key element for ensuring success of a retro branding strategy is Aura because it’s important to stick to your roots by building a quality, retro looking motorcycle but capturing millennials by adding technological innovation and sleeker designs in its newer lines of motorcycles.

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