How to Ride Ahead of the Pack (Without Selling Your Soul)
In January 2019, Harley-Davidson marked an infamous anniversary, that of its 1969 sale to “leisure time and industrial products” giant AMF. Six months after the sale, on July 1969, “Easy Rider” debuted in movie theaters. The timing could not have been better for the H-D brand. The true stars of the counterculture classic are motorcycles – Harleys, specifically – and “Easy Rider” cemented the motorcycle’s place in popular culture as a symbol of escape, liberation and freedom.
There was only one problem: AMF spent the next decade ruining the Harley. A series of product development and manufacturing decisions resulted in poor-quality bikes and, coupled with the rise in popularity of imported Japanese motorcycles, a public-relations nightmare. After buying the company back in 1981, H-D launched a comeback and managed to reclaim its status as an American icon, but it took a considerable amount of time and money to get there. This was one long and winding road Harley did not want to ride.
For others, the Harley-AMF gaff is a cautionary tale, and it’s one Deus Ex Machina dares not repeat. From its inception in Sydney, Australia, in 2006, the custom motorcycle manufacturer espoused an experiential philosophy in its approach to creating and selling its products, the scope of which has greatly expanded in part through Deus’ reciprocal relationship with its customers.
This mantra has helped the company organically grow into a massive recreation brand that touches nearly every corner of the world, even if most Deus disciples have never even touched a bike. In addition to its wildly-creative, hand-built custom motorcycles, the Deus name can be found on surfboards, snowboards, bicycles, apparel, and luggage. The company is big into film, runs a boutique vinyl record label and operates Deus retail shops and cafes on four continents. Its advertising aesthetic is a contemporary take on open-road-freedom tropes with just the right amount of grainy-photo retro appeal. All of this resonates with the company’s heavily-Millennial fan base, and its 500K+ Instagram followers regularly evangelize the brand.
Such brand loyalty is nothing new – Nike started out making innovative running shoes for competitive racers and now sells joggers to career couch potatoes who haven’t run a mile since their sixth-grade Presidential Physical Fitness Test – but the depth and breadth of Deus’ interaction with its audience, online and in realtime, is. The company hosts art exhibits, DJ nights, and bike rallies from Venice Beach to Ibiza and everywhere in between, all of which are thoroughly reported via social media and the extensive Deus blog. Fans flock to them religiously. Says Deus Galleries featured photographer C-Reel, “Deus is now a culture, an attitude, a way of life.”
The same can be said for Harley-Davidson – even if these days H-D is less ruggedly-handsome-Peter-Fonda-in-Easy-Rider and more suburban-Baby-Boomer-with-handsome-stock-portfolio – but this was accomplished only after a timely and expensive restructuring. AMF made one thing clear during its ill-fated run with Harley-Davidson: all it cared about was building bikes, and lots of them, and it nearly killed a classic American brand in the process. Deus Ex Machina, on the other hand, puts as much care into building a culture around the brand as its builders put into their custom bikes, and it has helped the company build a loyal global following and expand its offerings. All while staying on brand.
From the Archives: The AMF Purchase, harley-davidson.com
Deus Ex Machina makes high-end motorcycles and loses money on each one, by Charles Fleming, Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2015
Indonesia: We’re all ‘natural breathing’ in the Deus Gallery, Deus blog, September 9, 2019
Oct 24, 2019