Crowd-Sourcing & Living With It. recently reported that Harley-Davidson, that iconic motorcycle company, released a crowd-sourced ad through a company called: Victor & Spoils. the ad featured a campaign called “Cages” designed to encourage customers and potential customers to explore the HD1 factory customization program features available on various models of Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

The article discusses Harley-Davidson’s departure from the notion of “agency on record” and squarely characterizes their move to a strategic approach of multiple partnerships and collaborations—one of which is the recently focused ad. “Harley-Davidson Breaks Consumer-Created Work From Victors & Spoils” The article yields an increasing trend in advertising accounts—and one might argue that includes a range of creative projects that span advertising to design.

Long-term creative relationships are increasingly scrutinized. Perhaps my favorite episode of Mad Men’slast season illustrated this by portraying the loss of the SCDP’s longtime client, Lucky Strike. Despite the old relationship, things changed for the fictional ad agency in a heartbeat.

According to the book Radical Marketing, the authors, Sam Hill and Glenn Rifkin make the argument that much of the perception of what Harley Davidson is a company and a brand is driven by its highly loyal and faithful customer base. So much so that much of the publicity and promotion that promote the brand and its offerings are considered home-grown and consumer-focused, whether it be events at stores or promotions that run in tandem with various organized group rides. These grass-roots efforts take advantage of the high loyalty and sense of culture surrounding the iconic American brand.

This view of the company translates into a view that is perhaps independent of the specific advertising at the moment. See the ad for yourself: As a crowd-sourced ad, on the surface, it doesn’t seem to look bad at all—in fact it’s quite interesting with regard to special effects. The question of what the ad does to change or add to the notion of what riding a Harley-Davidson has come to mean is perhaps where the ad seems to be silent, or at very least not inconsistent with other things one has come to understand about what riding Harleys means. Outside of the ubiquitous sense of freedom the ad aspires to, there’s a connectivity that undergirds the culture of “hog riders”. Most people get that by now. And maybe it’s in this realm that the ad seems to fall short. Comments of the ad on were much harsher some claiming that the ad was poorly-focused and pedestrian (my summation of comments I read).

Harley-Davidson, one might argue, hardly needs ads, which makes an argument of crowd-sourcing not so bad for them, while, on the other hand, it could be injurious to another organization with different consumer touchpoints.

An ad that’s fairly nascent may do little to scratch the relationship that Harley Davidson riders have come to expect from their company or their perception to it. This communications dynamic varies across various companies’ communications mix. I mean, I don’t always feel terrible about the well-designed bank identity that allows the individual banks to put homemade signs on the drive-up window, despite the fact that it may not look professional or consistent with the brand. But does it harm my perception of the bank? The deeper question lies.

The fracturing of media is certainly leading to the variance in methods of community with customer. Ultimately, one can only hope that the forces within the company that govern the vision are solid or, the company uses its professional relationships to properly define its standards for work similar to the well-designed style guide. But often, that’s wishful thinking. In a contested atmosphere, it may be impossible to give a client what they need instead of what they want, leading to less focus on long-term objectives of a communications relationship… And crowd-sourcing won’t always be able to help with that.

Viewing the evolving media landscape means not only adjusting to it, but working proactively at finding the underlying vision for the company as well as developing solid, brand-consistent work for a company. In so doing, it’s key to know when developed media is nibbling at the edges of the brand relationship or whether the media is reaching for the heart of meaning for that brand.

The enduring challenge for the professional creative is now, not simply to develop work that advances client goals in a fresh and clear way, but to ferret out the deeper brand-impact dynamic consistently in ways that strengthen the relationships with their customers.

By AIGA Baltimore
Published February 19, 2011