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Harley-Davidson celebrates 110th anniversary

Published October 15, 2012

I guess it’s true what they say: time goes faster as you get older. After all, it seems like it was only yesterday that Harley-Davidson was just one hundred years old, scampering about the globe throwing itself double golden jubilee parties.

But you wake up one morning and ten years have passed and Harley is enjoying a worldwide celebration of its 110th anniversary – which, to be honest, I didn’t know was a thing people did. There’s certainly not a name for it. Unless they are hobbits, in which case by next year they’ll be having their eleventy-first anniversary. I suppose that would partly explain things. Hobbits do love to party.

And like a Hobbits-on-Harleys merrymaking would be, this celebration will extend quite far into next year. It first kicked off back in August in – of all places – Tibet, then went all wholeheartedly American last month at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee (pictured, but without, you know, people), which is, of course, the birthplace of Harley-Davidson. The party next landed at the European Bike Week festivities in Faaker See, Austria. As it currently stands, thing have cooled off – a winter thing, we presume – but next up is New Zealand’s National H.O.G. Rally in Auckland. After that rally there will be some time to drop in on the folks in the Shire, presumably.

Then it’s Florida, Australia, South Africa, followed by Qiandao Lake, Zhe Jiang Province, China. Of all of these party centrals (or is it parties central?), that last one is the one I’d most like to see. I know Harley-Davidson had been aggressively expanding its market into China, which along with India, accounts for much of the company’s growth in market share in the past decade.

From China, the party migrates to Mexico City, Sao Paulo, and then – of course – to Rome. Why “of course”? For The Blessing of the Bikes, naturally. The blessing will take place in St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City, and will be done by – who do you think? Some biker bishop or good-natured deacon? Please. This blessing is going to be from the lips of Pope Benedict XVI himself – and if you don’t think he’s going to be at his most infallible that day, then just ask yourself: What good is a fallible blessing?

From this high point the tour will trail off into events in South Dakota (the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally) and back to Milwaukee (more birth-of-a-corporation stuff), before going out with a bang in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia at Asia Harley Days. Man, that is going to be one tired party.

I find I have conflicting feelings about this whole thing. On the one hand, you could say that Harley-Davidson is so cool that it confers coolness on all it touches. I do think there’s some validity to this; as a Catholic, I definitely feel that my religion has acquired a bit of dash it didn’t have before, and the bikes haven’t even been infallibly blessed yet.

On the other hand, some venues, by their very nature, are resistant to infusions of cool; a Harley Rally may, in fact, water down any cool that may attempt to inhabit them, as a defense mechanism. I’m not talking about physical structures here. I’m talking about things like tightly scheduled gala events, cross-branding (i.e., the bike blessing), and glib statements from chief marketing officers about how what Harley-Davidson is really all about is freedom and sharing it with all the world. This seem like organized freedom on a schedule, which isn’t freedom at all. It’s like church on Sundays, which you’re free to attend and you’ll be damned if you miss it, no showing up Monday afternoon with some lame excuse about Saturday’s party bleeding into the game a Fred’s house with Cheetos and Budweiser.

To wit: “The 110th Anniversary Celebration will be a rockin’ party and so much more,” said Ken Ostermann, Harley-Davidson’s General Manager of International Marketing Operations. And he even said “rockin’” with an apostrophe. Or that’s how the tightly controlled press release about free spirited rallies spelled it, anyway.

It’s not that I disagree with the sentiment, but there is a part of me that feels that if Harley-Davidson has to have a Chief Marketing Officer at all, he should be issuing statements like “It’s gonna be SIIIIIIICK!” and then falling down playing air guitar.

And then on yet a third hand, perhaps it’s possible to walk a middle path. I went and looked up Harley-Davidson’s CMO, this Ken Ostermann, and he does not look like a guy with a respectable corporate job. He looks like a guy who, if he were to date your daughter, you’d take care always to greet him on the porch while cleaning your shotgun. That’s pretty Harley-esque.

So let’s hope that Harley-Davidson can walk the line – sound bites, brand management, and well-managed public relations events, but all infused throughout with – well, freedom, and all the chaos and mess that it entails.

If they can do that, I say let them have the Ring of Power. They’ve earned it.

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