Ken Schmidt: Standing Out Among The Competition

Gail Davis, 26 July 2023

“No matter what we make, sell, or do, we’re a commodity to people who don’t know us.” 

That’s a sobering insight from Ken Schmidt who was Director of Corporate and Financial Communication at the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. Ken’s words have special meaning as Harley-Davidson marked its 120th anniversary this month with a huge party attracting thousands of Harley owners and enthusiasts. It’s a moment that nearly never happened because at one point in its celebrated history, the iconic company had lost its way and its market share to cheaper products from abroad. The company was in dire straits.

Three Simple Questions Can Change A Company’s Fortunes

Ken was on that turnaround team. His first day on the job, he wrote three questions on a 3x5 card and pinned it near his desk:

  1. What are people saying about us?
  2. What do we want them to say?
  3. What are we doing to get them to say it?

Those questions were the touchstone that drove Harley’s transformation. 

Loyalty In An Impersonal World

“People can’t be loyal to things – people are loyal to the people behind the things.” Harley had become a company that thought it was in the motorcycle business. They promoted the features of their bikes and the technology behind it. 

The problem was, the competition also had excellent products and they could promote their own set of features to the marketplace. In the end, though, did that focus on features deeply resonate with buyers? More importantly, did the product-focused approach attract new fans to the biking community? Ken had serious doubts. 

A New Mindset

The miracle of Harley-Davidson’s turnaround was driven by creating a culture where every single person in the company and its dealer network changed how they saw what they did. They stopped focusing on product features and focused instead on promoting a fun lifestyle: an experience with the comradery that comes with it.

“Be known for who you are – not for what you do,” Ken told people. What Harley-Davidson did was make a very cool product. But so did the competition. But what there was, was a pathway to a lifetime of great memories. By focusing like a laser on shifting the internal mindset of the organization to a new purpose – the hearts and minds of the marketplace followed. 

Loyalty So Strong, People Tattoo Themselves

In Ken’s speech, “Full Throttle – Shift Gears, Stand Out, and Cruise to the Top,” he speaks to audiences about building customer loyalty and standing out among the competition. He reminds his audience that Harley-Davidson devotees are so passionate about the company that many tattoo Harley’s logo to their body. Ken then asks, “What are the mindsets that need to shift in your own organization to stand out from the competition and unleash the kind of loyalty where customers are willing to get a tattoo with your company logo?” The question starts some interesting conversations. 

Back to Those Three Simple Questions

The transformation at Harley-Davidson came down to successfully shifting mindsets both inside the company and its dealer network – and in the marketplace. It was a daunting task for a company under financial and competitive siege. But three questions lit the path to help Ken and the turnaround team stay on course and take the company to a brand-new level of success: 

  1. What are people saying about us?
  2. What do we want them to say?
  3. What are we doing to get them to say it?

Without those three simple questions on a 3x5 card, do you think Harley-Davidson would be celebrating its 120th anniversary this month? 

Click here to contact a GDA agent to learn more about booking Ken Schmidt for your next event.