What a HOG can teach us about the power of belonging

WRITTEN BY DAN SALVA

We are all susceptible to the need to belong. We are comforted by it. We seek it, whether we realize it or not. It is a fundamental human desire. Research shows that it affects everything from our health to our happiness.

This should not be surprising to any of us. We can all identify instances in our own lives where we have sought out belonging. What is surprising is that so many brands fail to connect with the need to belong. I’m not talking about exploiting it – making people feel insecure if they don’t join your group of customers. That’s just manipulative. I’m talking about adopting a purpose (a Big Audacious Meaning) that draws people to your movement. It creates a connectedness where your believers feel like they are pursuing something with you that can make a real difference in the world.

Belonging is about creating a partnership with your believers.

Hogs & evangelists

How powerful is belonging to a brand? Harley Davidson would tell you it is invaluable.

Harley Davidson was on the brink of bankruptcy twice in the latter half of last century. There were a number of reasons. An attempt to scale production at the expense of quality. The intrusion of foreigner competitors into the market. And more.

Harley Davidson was able to survive situations that would have crushed others. Why? Because of a sense of belonging among the brand’s believers.

To them, it wasn't just a brand of motorcycle. It is a symbol of rugged individualism. A symbol of freedom. A symbol of America.

The revitalization of the brand in the 1980’s leaned heavily on this powerful sense of belonging. Harley Davidson created the Harley Owners Group (HOG) to help owners not only connect with the brand, but also with each other. It used that connectedness to create rides to raise funds for charity (the brand has addressed challenges including muscular dystrophy and hunger).

The brand championed this belonging. It was a purpose that fulfilled a need for entire community of believers. In fact, ‘believers’ may not do this group justice. It may be more appropriate to refer to them as ‘fanatics’ or ‘evangelists’. After all, Harley Davidson is one of the rare brands that you will find tattooed on the arms of its believers. People will literally ‘brand’ themselves as part of the Harley Davidson clan.

Ignore belonging at your own peril

I watched a powerful board member of a Fortune 500 company orchestrate the ouster of the company's CEO who had a long range vision for creating the connectedness I’ve been talking about. He then had the CEO replaced with  someone who would execute his plan for optimizing quarterly returns. Rather than embrace a larger vision (or a purpose for that matter), the new CEO began to optimize operations. He optimized and optimized. The business saw some incremental gains. Then growth flattened. And then eventually declined.

At some point, operational optimization meets the law of diminishing returns.

For this company’s prospects, there is nothing to believe in. Nothing to rally around. All the maneuvers and functional optimization ended up having the exact opposite effect than what was intended. It has no belongingness and no purpose. So it flounders. It’s story is a cautionary tale for any brand that dismisses the importance of creating a sense of belonging.

Embrace the connectedness

We all have this undeniable need to belong. You’ll find it smack in the middle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It seems outrageous to ignore it.

Belongingness is powerful in its own right. And yet, that’s just the half of it. Because there is huge opportunity to fulfill that need in a way that helps people feel like, by belonging, they are making a profound difference for those around them. Stop and think about that for a second. By inviting people into your brand purpose, you not only connect with your believers’ need to belong, but you also fulfill their desire to create meaning in their lives – that inescapable feeling that our days mean something and that what we do can have an impact on our world. That's the magic of a Big Audacious Meaning.

Let’s create that. Let’s optimize belonging. Who’s with me?

Dan Salva is a co-founder of Will & Grail, with more than three decades of experience in brand marketing and developing and implementing go-to-market strategies. He can be reached at dsalva@willgrail.com.