Harley Davidson & The Yahoo! Internet Cowgirl

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When VHS was king, Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson made a self-indulgent film called Harley Davidson & The Marlboro Man which was a buddy movie | bank heist gone wrong. Rourke was a self-styled motorcycle outlaw and Johnson’s outlaw image harked back to the old west via an eight-track cartridge of Waylon Jenning’s songs.

Now Harley Davidson is better known for riding a demographic to its graves, hog fans are more likely to get behind the forks of a zimmer frame than a motorcycle, this demographic time-bomb together with economic chaos has meant that the company has struggled to redefine itself.

Yahoo! star

I was reminded of Harley Davidson when I read about Yahoo! CEO Carole Bartz’ performance at UBS Media Week event. The comments that got the most traction at the time were to the effect that Tiger Woods relationship issues was driving more profitable traffic to Yahoo! than the death of Michael Jackson earlier in the year.

The buzz around these pithy soundbites meant that most coverage lost sight of the meat in Bartz’ presentation around search and advertising. But one bit in particular stood out to me:

Asked whether she was worried that Yahoo was not a “starting point for college kids,” Bartz said she did not need it to be, noting that if a young person was a sports fan they would invariably head to a Yahoo sports site—and adding that there was a “huge population” outside of that demographic. “This is not a problem I go to sleep worrying about,” she said.

If you had asked any newspaper executive what the problem was with print, one of the things that they would tell you that it was because people below a certain age aren’t in the habit of picking up and reading a paper.

You have two things at play here:

Consumers are by nature creatures of habit, we like certain toothpaste brands, certain search engines and certain ways to get to work. If consumers don’t develop habit forming behaviour around your product you have a problem. That’s the reason why Google is king of the castle and Procter & Gamble still makes loads of money despite the fact supermarket own-brand products have of a similar quality and fitness for purpose.

Its one of the reasons that I blog, brush my teeth, drink Taylors of Harrogate Hot Lava Java coffee from my filter machine, buy my socks at Muji and found my home Mac easier to use than my work Mac, when the IT administrator originally set it up for me on arrival at my present job.

The second aspect (as if the first wasn’t enough), was that Bartz is not thinking about the audience lifetime value. Graham Brown talks about the need for companies to realise as much of the customer lifetime value that they can. By the time the customer is 30 – 35 years old, they have done about half their consumption. My own life experience sitting on top of a garage full of vinyl and surrounded by a bookshelf full of books certainly proves that point.

Get consumers young and get them for life. That and the fact that older people just aren’t that aspirational is the reason why advertising and marketing efforts in many categories skew young. Bartz admitted she wasn’t that bothered about that business. If I was a media planner her response would have been duly noted.

It isn’t only her downhome demeanour, straight shooting and occasional cussing that allows me to draw analogies to an internet Annie Oakley, she seems to be the ideal internet cowgirl to keep the proverbial brand Harley Davidson company in its twilight years.