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Common Tread

Katy Perry delivers Harley-Davidson's dream ad campaign, for free

Nov 08, 2019

About two weeks ago, writer, video producer and Common Tread contributor Brett Smith sent me a cryptic email asking, “How much do you think Katy Perry’s latest song, "Harleys in Hawaii," is worth to Harley-Davidson?”

Confession #1: I knew Perry was a big pop star, but I couldn’t have picked her out of a police lineup.

Confession #2: I had no freakin’ idea how big she is. She has over 100 million Twitter followers, and nearly as many on Instagram. In the couple of weeks between the song’s release and my first draft of this post, "Harleys in Hawaii" was streamed 20 million times on Spotify, and the official music video was watched over 12 million times on YouTube.

Considering that many brands now spend more on social media influencer campaigns than on paid advertising, I knew Katy Perry’s song was a valuable boost for the beleaguered motorcycle maker — and, indeed, the whole U.S. moto industry. After all, Harley-Davidson in particular and the industry in general have been telling us for years that they are determined to attract a younger generation and that young women in particular are needed to replace middle-aged and older males who are aging out of the market.

My first e-mail was to Paul James, Harley’s PR manager. I asked him if anyone at Harley wanted to talk about how this incredible PR coup came together. His response was cryptic: “It’s an interesting story. Let me see what we can officially offer.”

Katy Perry Instagram
Check out the number of Katy Perry's Instagram followers.

Katy Perry herself has already told the song’s origin story. Some time in the last year or so, she and her then-boyfriend (now fiancée) Orlando Bloom took a short vacation in Hawaii. They rented a Harley for a few days and he took her for a ride.

Judging from a Google image search for "Orlando Bloom motorcycle" he appears to be a pretty avid biker. There are a bunch of paparazzi pics floating around of him riding a Husqvarna Vitpilen, and I think he bought some kind of naked BMW S 1000 custom from Deus.

Katy found the Hawaii ride to be pretty romantic. As she tells it, at one point she leaned forward and whispered, “I’m going to write a song called ‘Harleys in Hawaii’.”

Harley-Davidson gets a phone call

Paul James determined that Harley-Davidson could talk to me about its involvement with the music video, and I quickly scheduled a conference call with him and Jenny Lowney. Jenny is The Motor Company’s Placement and Influencer Integrations Lead. Her awkward job title just means that, like other major brands, Harley has an employee whose only job is to try to insert its motorcycles into the popular culture.

The company actively pitches products to movie studios. Paul told me that they’d arranged for Tom Cruise to try a LiveWire in the hopes that he’d want to ride it in the Top Gun remake. In the end, the filmmakers opted to put Cruise on a Kawasaki — the same brand of bike he rode in the original film.

Sometimes movie studios come to Harley. For example, in the original 1940s comic book, Captain America rode a Harley, so that was what Marvel wanted him to ride in the movie. The studio called up and asked for six vintage WLA models that they planned to destroy in stunts.

“We told them, ‘We’re not going to do that, but we can help you make bikes that look like WLAs’,” Paul recalled, adding, “Those can evolve into bigger partnerships that enable us to reach a large audience.” For example, Harley fans might enter a sweepstakes to attend the premiere. I think one fan even won a prize that involved being drawn into a Marvel comic.

That’s old-school product placement — getting your product inserted into a film or TV show. But it’s increasingly about inserting your brand into the social media feed of "influencers." In case you’ve just emerged from the remotest Amazon, influencers are people who have large followings and who basically sell exposure on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, etc. Some influencers built their followings by achieving some form of celebrity in the real world; they’re sports stars, or chefs, or fashion models. But nowadays, many of them are basically famous only for being famous. There is a whole subspecialty of ad agencies that are devoted to connecting brands with such people.

A lot of brands pay influencers to expose their products, and name-check their brands. The term of art for this is an "influencer activation." Paul and Jenny told me that Harley-Davidson rarely just buys this kind of exposure, but that the company does sometimes loan motorcycles to influencers, or arrange for them to have VIP experiences at events.

I was most curious about whether H-D had paid anything to make "Harleys in Hawaii" happen, but a good journalist asks the awkward questions last. I started out by asking when the company found out about Perry’s project. I learned that no one from Perry’s management team or record label (Capitol, part of the Universal Music Group) contacted Harley until after the song had been recorded, in June.

“We have a good relationship with Capitol Records. In late June, I got a call from them. They said, 'We have a huge female talent that just learned to ride, and she is interested in working with you',” Jenny told me. “So I took the call, and of course, I had to sign an NDA. Then they said, 'It’s Katy Perry. She’s now licensed and has written this song, wants to shoot a video and we’d love for you to be involved.” The timeline was short. The shoot was scheduled for a couple of weeks hence.

Katy Perry, brand ambassador

Perry didn’t just write a song and make a music video. She put Harleys in the title, and gives every indication that she’s going to continue to serve as something of a brand ambassador.

A week or so after the first video appeared on YouTube, she released a "making of" video (above). At the very end of that one, she confesses that the day of the video shoot was the first time she’d ever ridden on a public road.

I’ve confirmed that before the shoot, Perry and her crew bought every space in a California Motorcyclist Safety Program course, taught by Lee Parks’ Total Control company. She didn’t just learn to operate a bike, she’s now a licensed motorcyclist, which suggests that like her future husband, she’ll be motorcyclist.

As it happened, the pop star was scheduled to travel to Milwaukee later, to shoot two episodes of "American Idol." Harley-Davidson invited her to visit the Museum, and she immediately agreed to an after-hours tour. She actually came straight to the Museum from the airport, and dug it so much that, as she was leaving, she asked if she could come back and make more short videos there. After her "American Idol" shoot, she came back with a small crew and made a parody of an AMSR video (with a cameo appearance by the Museum’s restoration lead, Bill Rodencal) and another video in which she surprised some fans.

After chatting with Paul and Jenny for a few minutes, and trying to make it just another question, I asked them if Harley-Davidson had paid Katy Perry. They told me the company hadn’t paid anything for what amounts to the most successful influencer activation I’ve ever seen. (Harley-Davidson did pay Capitol Records what it describes as a "nominal fee" in order to get digital assets — mainly photos and video clips — for it to use in its own social media activity.)

All Capitol Records really wanted was the use of a few Harleys for the shoot, and assistance with wardrobe for some of the guys in the cast. The bikes and a few pieces of the guy’s clothing came from Kauai Harley-Davidson Yamaha Kawasaki in Lihue, Hawaii.

If you need proof that the underlying message of the video is a bit new-feminist, consider that Katy Perry wore her own jacket and helmet, and the other females were professionally styled to coordinate with Katy by the production company. Meanwhile the guys were just dressed off the rack at the Harley-Davidson dealership.

It’s definitely a marketing windfall, but what’s it worth?

“There’s a tendency to put a dollar value, in terms of ‘advertising equivalent,’ on this kind of PR or placement,” Paul James said. “But there’s really not an equivalent. In advertising, you control the message and where it’s seen. PR is more fluid and dynamic. You can influence the message but not control it. In some ways, it’s more powerful because it’s a third party saying something and there’s an an association or endorsement, too.”

Writing as a guy who spent decades as an ad agency copywriter and creative director, I’m here to tell you that Perry’s song is called "Harleys in Hawaii" because Harley-Davidson has built an iconic brand over more than a century, and the pop star knew that she could exploit Harley’s distinctive image. If, by some fluke, Orlando Bloom had rented a Kawasaki, there would definitely not be a song called, "Kawasakis on Kilauea" (though it might’ve been called "Motorcycles on Maui"). In short, it was a lucky break for Harley, but it wasn’t only luck. The company built its brand purposefully.

That said, Katy Perry’s music video is a far better ad for Harley-Davidson than anything the company would have produced with its existing ad agencies.

Paul James wouldn’t put a dollar value on the marketing value of the song and video, so I put it to the CEOs of three of the largest agencies specializing in social media influencer marketing.

Mae Karwowski
Mae Karwowski. Chelsea Fives photo.
“They’re extremely lucky," said Mae Karwowski, founder and CEO of Obviously. "The sheer amount of content that she’s created around Harley, with a clear positioning that this is a new feminist symbol. We talk a lot about authenticity in influencer marketing, and it’s really clear that she’s passionate about this.”

Asked what Perry’s newfound love of Harley-Davidson was worth to the motorcycle maker, Ms. Karwowski took the "wow" from her name to heart. “If you just look at how much Katy would make for paid placements on her social channels, I think it would be upwards of $40 million, and that doesn’t even factor in the value of all the streams on Spotify, or the 11,000 fan posts tagged #HarleysinHawaii.”

“I would have a girl squad of brand ambassadors who would teach other women to ride and really grab on the coattails of this,” she added. “And they should make Katy Perry jackets. It would be useful to have some more accessible products because her audience is young.”

Tomorrow, we ride 🏍🌺 #HarleysInHawaii

A post shared by KATY PERRY (@katyperry) on

Mike Craddock, the CEO of Kairos Media was more conservative. “The product integration is worth in the low seven figures in our opinion across the board,” he wrote in an e-mail. He struck a cautionary note, adding “Whilst it's a terrific play and generating huge traction for Harley, people’s attention spans are incredibly short. For brands to make a difference across time, influencers need to produce authentic content regularly, and become ambassadors for specific products.”

Craddock also suggested that Harley should pay attention to future customers by creating a virtual experience for fans who are too young to ride.

Joe Gagliese is the co-founder of Viral Nation, which describes itself as a "global influencer marketing agency." He was the only CEO who told me that his firm had actually worked on projects for motorcycle manufacturers, but cited confidentiality when I asked which ones.

Gagliese provided the lowest estimate of all, at “a million plus.” The wide range of those estimates might make you skeptical about whether this kind of exposure has commercial value at all. (If you were to ask three big-shot ad agency CEOs what a Super Bowl commercial is worth, they’d all cite pretty similar numbers.)

Katy Perry Twitter page
You want reach? Katy Perry has 40 million more Twitter followers than President Donald Trump. On the other hand, she has a few less than some stay-at-home Dad named Obama.

The way Karwowski answered my question, the value was just what the market will bear. Marketers who fear missing out pay a going rate for placements, priced per million followers on social media, and she multiplied Perry’s huge following by the pop star’s many, many posts related to "Harleys in Hawaii." As great as the exposure is, it’s hard to imagine it earning Harley-Davidson millions and millions in profit over any imaginable timeline.

That said, all three experts were impressed by the apparent sincerity of Katy Perry’s newfound affinity for the beleaguered bike maker. And even the lowest estimate represents a big windfall for Harley’s marketing department.

It will be interesting to see how enthusiastically the company leverages "Harleys in Hawaii," given that few Katy Perry fans are motorcyclists and many of them aren’t even old enough to ride.

But they will be someday.