Wednesday, August 3, 2016

H-D CEO Matt Levatich on Republicans: They "seem to be leading the crazy parade"

A few days ago, Harley-Davidson CEO Matt Levatich was interviewed by the investment web site The occasion was the release of HOG's second-quarter earnings. It was a mixed bag, with earnings slightly ahead of analysts' expectations, but disappointing sales in the U.S. 
Levatich seems to realize that Harley-Davidson's brand is linked to the American national identity.
And, just maybe, that it's possible to be wrapped too tightly in the flag, when those values
are increasingly tied to intolerance and willful ignorance.
What shocked me was that Levatich waded into U.S. Presidential politics, blaming some of the company's difficulties on the current election cycle – effectively saying it was hurting "American" brands both at home and, especially, abroad. Although he certainly didn't come out in support of Hillary Clinton, he noted that it’s the Republicans who are "leading the crazy parade".
That's a stunning statement from a guy who sells most of his products to the same old white guys who support Donald Trump.
I’ve written before about the Republican Party’s – and Harley’s – demographic problem (here and here). Both organizations are intellectually capable of understanding that in an increasingly diverse America, a message that only resonates with the pale, the stale, and the male won’t fly. Both organizations have nominally identified women and minorities as key growth markets. But so far, both have continued to wrap their brands up in gun-totin’, Jesus-lovin’, flag-wavin’, ‘Murica-fuck-yeah, tough-guy imagery that actively drives those audiences away.
Right now, Harley-Davidson riders skew Trumpist, big time.
(Argue it if you want, but I’ve seen Bikers for Trump; they ain’t ridin’ rice burners.)
So it took a lot of nerve for Levatich to call the GOP out.
Right now, Harley-Davidson riders skew Trumpist, big time. (Argue it if you want, but I’ve seen Bikers for Trump; they ain’t ridin’ rice burners.) So it took a lot of nerve for Levatich to call the GOP out.
I find it heartening. As a HOG shareholder, it encourages me to believe that Harley-Davidson is capable of the introspection and honest self-appraisal that’s going to be required, if it is to transition its brand away from “The preferred brand of Bikers for Trump” to something more inclusive that, just maybe, will represent a growing – not shrinking – percentage of the U.S. population in the 21st century.
It was refreshing candor from a guy in charge of a quintessentially American brand that must both diversify its domestic customer base and ensure that, in international markets, “American” doesn’t come to equal “crazy”.
Here's the full unedited text of the relevant part of TheStreet's interview

TheStreet: The last time we talked, you said the contentious U.S. election season was damaging the American brand. Do you still feel that way?

Levatich: I do. I wouldn't contain it necessarily to any political party. I watched the Republican convention, and am now watching the Democratic convention, and I think the degree to which intelligent people are talking about intelligent policy is almost non-existent.

I have lived outside of the U.S. twice, and I remember being in Switzerland in 2008 and moving into this new apartment. Tradespeople were coming in and out, and every time one of these guys would come into the apartment he would do one of these thumbs up signs and say "Obama, Obama."
The real message here is that the world pays attention to the United States of America. They are watching us, probably more so than most American citizens, and they are watching more carefully.
I don't know for sure, but I bet they are worried because of this circus mentality and this total lack of smart policy and leadership.
And that is damaging to the American brand. And it's damaging to the health and well-being of American companies who are trying to do business such as Harley-Davidson. We are in 90-plus countries worldwide and our brand identity is connected strongly to the ideals of America – and when the ideals of America seem to no longer be our ideals anymore, it can't help things.
So I don't feel any differently. And it isn't just the Republican party, though quite frankly they seem to be leading the crazy parade.

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