Like the rest of the folks gathered one recent morning, I was home but virtually sitting among the rows of the projected public space, listening to Ken Schmidt, former director of communications for Harley-Davidson, now retired and on the public speaking circuit.
Earlier, Schmidt had asked us a simple question: “What does the Harley owner do at the stoplight?” Before I could think of a clever punch line, several people on the call raised a fist and twisted it, indicating the answer Schmidt was looking for: Harley owners rev the engine, and the bike’s straight pipes respond with ear-splitting noise.
To the uninitiated, Schmidt explained, this sound is an unwelcome sonic boom. But to the Harley-Davidson owner, it’s a joyful scream of salvation, the unspoken emotional connection that keeps them returning to the dealership to customize their bikes, purchase Harley gear, attend Harley-centric group rides, or trade up for the latest model.
“[It’s] dopamine via the exhaust note,” Schmidt said, a flush of delight that screams, “Look at me.”
That same dopamine rush is fueling the overwhelming need for likes or follows many of us feel with social media, Schmidt said. When you click that little thumbs-up or heart emoji, you not only are sending your endorsement, but you also are activating a simple drive common to us all: a need to be seen and heard.
We are “weaponizing basic human needs,” Schmidt said, in turn defining what loyalty is in this current business landscape. He said that our positive associations with businesses are direct reflections of this feeling of being recognized.
And then he said something that really got me thinking: “It’s not the product. It’s the people behind it and the experience you have with the products.”
Many of us, myself included, cut our nautical teeth at the tiller or varnished wood helm of a Boston Whaler 13, and we still speak of Whaler as “they,” as in, “They build a solid boat” or “They’ve been an awesome company for years.” For me, the emotional connection with Boston Whaler is not to fiberglass, mahogany or the engine block’s iron, but instead to the halcyon days of my late teenage years, blasting around the Jersey Shore waterways with friends and, later, hysterically laughing in the pitch-black Abacos night, looking for our rented catamaran in a horseshoe-shaped cove full of boats on moorings.
Even now, years later, as I think of these experiences, I sit and smile. That’s how brand loyalty is built.
Brand loyalty is like breaking bread with an old friend who gets you. The enchanting escape a motorcyclist feels cruising with other bikers down a desert highway, open road straight ahead, is the same one we boaters feel chasing the next horizon or rigging ballyhoo all night to tease marlin the next morning.
“We’re a joy-seeking species,” Schmidt said. “We will return to what delights us until it doesn’t anymore.”
That instinct is why, a few years back, Mercury Marine offered its Verado outboards with what the company dubbed Advanced Sound Control. It’s a dual muffler that allows the user to toggle between stealth mode or a deep, V-8 rumble that growls loudly at start-up and in low-wake zones. That same instinct is the reason Cigarette’s 59 Tirranna comes with a 29-speaker, 5,200-watt sound system that a boater in Fort Lauderdale could hear all the way from a boat on Biscayne Bay. It’s also why a smattering of semicustom tender builders will offer an exact Alwgrip match to a client’s yacht: Putting the customer front of mind in all your company decisions is what pays dividends and elicits pleasure.
That drip of happiness in the brain pan — that keeps him coming back year after year.
Loyalty isn’t painful, Schmidt concluded. And while I don’t envision someone getting a Wellcraft or Yamaha tattoo on his forearm (I have seen my share of Harley-Davidson ink), I do know that both motorcycles and boats can deliver the kinds of experiences that make customers loyal for a lifetime.
Even with the boat business booming, we still need to ask ourselves, What’s our business doing to delight people?
This article was originally published in the April 2021 issue.