Harley-Davidson in India: Is Social Media Necessary?

The auto industry in India is quite popular and increasingly progressive….a concept hard to imagine considering the cultural stigma of India being poverty stricken, needing organizations like the Akshaya Patra Foundation (among the many) to feed the millions of children that go hungry each and every day.  Yes, much of India is very poor, but much is very wealthy, with many living stable and luxurious lives.

When it comes to India’s auto industry, it isn’t hard to believe that its thriving considering India’s GDP is ranked number 5 in the world, according CIA World Fact Book.  Due to the wealth,  influx of money, and a growing infrastructure and middle class, many automakers are beginning to invest in India—especially  after a year of record growth by many companies, such as Fiat, Suzuki, and Mahindra Two Wheelers, among others.  However, as strategy+business reports, “Automobile market penetration [in India] has remained low because most cars are still too expensive for the vast majority of Indian motor vehicle buyers.”

The penetration has remained low for good reasons, but companies such as Harley-Davidson have noticed the opportunity for niche marketing in India and have began to introduce a line of luxury motorcycles into India’s marketplace.

Within India, Harley-Davidson hopes to create a strong brand presence and following, and furthermore establish a motorcycle culture in India that will attract riders from across the world.  But how are they going to do it, especially in a new market?  Harley-Davidson’s current mindset is to create strong one-on-one, customer-dealer connections with their audience to promote their product.  However, in the future with increased market competition in India, and with such aggressive goals, how will they succeed?

Harley-Davidson has a website dedicated to the marketplace in India, however they have not established any kind of market-specific social media campaign.  Other emergent auto brands in India, such as Tata Nano have dived into social media, creating multifaceted social media campaigns, successfully positioning and establishing an online brand presence.  Most importantly, they have reached out and the audience has responded in the best way possible— they are begging for more.  Those in India are excited and those in other countries are asking when it will be available elsewhere.

Social media is has worked for Tata Nano, but some would argue that within the Indian marketplace, social media isn’t necessary for strong, globally recognized brands like Harley-Davidson, for the following reasons:

  1. Indians favor brand names
    According to a research study by Synovate, people in India 3 to 4 prefer to buy luxury brands with logos, compared to those with no logos.  Harley-Davidson not only has a recognized logo, they also have a globally associated sense of wealth and luxury.  Secondly, since Harley currently not available in India, the product launch will cause quite the buzz and therefore, why should the company spend extra money and man power on digital marketing?  Shouldn’t the brand name carry itself?
  2. The market is so small, direct mail advertising would prove profitable
    By nature of the product offering, Harley-Davidson will not target the vast majority of India’s population, thus a widespread marketing campaign wouldn’t be necessary.  Direct mail advertising would spend money on those that would actually buy the product, and would ultimately have a stronger, personalized connection with the customer.  Spend money where you are going to make money, sounds logical, right?

However, in relation to the bigger picture, I would argue the contrary.  For Harley to achieve product launch objectives and “attract riders from across the world”, they need to think on a larger scale. That is where social media comes into play, for the following reasons:

  1. Expand reach and share the Harley-Davidson story
    Harley should create a country-specific social media campaign to target those in India, allowing the company to shape marketing messages to the culture of the country.  Furthermore, Harley could use social media as a platform for Indians to share their Harley-Davidson story to other Indians.  Make the message personable and easy to access.  Also through larger brand campaigns, Harley could leverage the India-based campaign to further share the Indian riding experience with the world.  Start local, go global.
  2. Gauge overall reaction
    Harley could use social media to monitor reaction and gauge sentiment of their audience, and ultimately tailor their marketing based on audience demands.  Furthermore once Harley learns what works in India, they could replicate the same ideas to surrounding countries to further expand their brand and following.
  3. Maintain exclusivity of brand
    Harley could use social media to further maintain exclusivity of their brand by providing an outlet for people to dream about driving and owning a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.  Social media is a long-term endeavor and will keep the buzz going long after the campaign concludes.

As discussed, social media is necessary in India’s competitive auto industry for brands to differentiate themselves among the many, to be competitive in the marketplace, and to further overall marketing and advertising efforts.  In the short run, Harley might be able to do without social media but it would be a wise decision to think otherwise.

Harley-Davidson’s has a great strategy of one-on-one dealer-customer relations—but to remain competitive—they should emulate the mindset in the digital space and expand upon traditional connections and relationships.  Other brands should do the same.

[This blog was originally drafted as a class assignment for a graduate-level course in global communications and social media at Georgetown University.  To read the class blog, click here.]


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