MO Interview: Heather Malenshek

John Burns
by John Burns
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The official bio reads thus:

“As Vice President of Marketing, Heather Malenshek (front and center in the lead photo) is responsible for leading all aspects of the marketing function including global and regional marketing operations, marketing strategy, agency management, marketing communications, media and global brand management.

“Prior to joining Harley-Davidson in 2014 she led a 300-person, award-winning team which ran the global business for Mars Inc. for DDB Worldwide and Omnicom, was the head of global strategic planning on a wide variety of categories and brands such as Jeep, Budweiser, Capital One and Bristol-Myers Squibb. She started her career in marketing working for QANTAS Airways and British Airways in global brand management and leisure brand marketing roles.

“Malenshek earned a Bachelor’s degree in Marketing from Aberdeen University in Scotland. She’s ridden motorcycles since she was 12 years old and is currently the proud owner of a Fat Boy, a CVO Street Glide and a Street Glide Trike.”

mo interview heather malenshek

I had the pleasure of listening to her Scottish brogue (I think) via telephone a couple of days ago.

JB: How does Harley-Davidson compare to your previous clients? H-D is your first motorcycle company?

Ms. M: Well, I know it’s kind of cliche but this is my dream job. I‘ve been riding since I was about 12 and admiring Harley-Davidson from afar. I had an opportunity to come to the US when I worked for British Airways. I finally made my way here and was lucky enough to work for some great brands, including Jeep, which is probably as close to Harley as you can get in the automotive space. I’ve worked on beer and candy and chocolate and pet food. I don’t know if there’s any direct correlation, but it’s been fantastic for me. I have a strong passion for motorcycling and a deep passion for this brand in particular. Right now is a particularly exciting time to be part of the organization. I’m thrilled to be here.

What was your first bike when you were 12?

I had a little Honda 50cc. And then I had a number of different sport bikes, I couldn’t afford a Harley-Davidson when I was growing up, but I had a friend who had a Road King and I was in awe of that bike. So I was on sportbikes for a long time, I had a Yamaha R1 just before I left the UK, and then when I got over here [to the US], the first thing I bought was a Custom 1200 Sportster, which I rode across the country on my own. Probably not the smartest thing to do at the time, but I really got engrained in the culture and the community. I had so many people who helped me along the way. It was very different from riding in the UK. We had a motorcycle community, but not nearly the strength a brand like this has in America.

What year was this?

I came over in `98, June, so I’ve just passed my 20-year anniversary.

mo interview heather malenshek

What’s the image of HD in Scotland for instance, and the rest of the UK?

Now it’s interesting when I go home. There’re far more H-Ds on the road now than when I was living there. I think there’s a tremendous admiration for the brand. It’s one of the things, why I’m so excited; what the brand stands for is universal, I think it represents the best of American values, I think that resonates very much with people in the UK. In Europe too, H-D is seen as a great quality brand and has an image the rider wants to be associated with, which is truer now than it ever was. It’s nice to go home and see more Harley-Davidsons on the road, tourers, cruisers, Sportsters, it’s really good to see the brand in action.

As this big expansion occurs, what will be the biggest hurdles you’ll have to jump?

I know from a lot of the work that we’ve done to bring these products to life has involved tons of research with consumers around the world, and not just customers just of ours but, more importantly, future customers or potential customers. It’s been very interesting to talk to those folks, and when you hear them talk about our brand – and in many cases we did this as a blind study so they didn’t know we were from a particular brand – you hear over and over sort of a latent love for this brand and what we stand for – and a sense from some of them they couldn’t find their way in, mostly because we weren’t playing in the spaces they were most interested in. So as we think about the products and the expansion that we’re doing now into areas like adventure touring and streetfighter, I’m really excited and very confident that we’re going to expand the brand into lots of new customer segments. The brand has a great amount of admiration, but maybe from a product standpoint, people haven’t see Harley-Davidson as being an option for them in the past.

As you move into these new categories, will H-D still position itself as a premium brand in terms of pricing? Or are we going to try to go toe-to-toe with Suzuki and some others?

What we’re planning to do is have a range of price points from entry level to super premium which will cater to everyone’s unique riding experience and preferences, but I’d say we’ll be competitively priced among the premium brands in each segment we’re entering.

I know in the US, anyway, H-D is usually known more for aesthetics, its nice paint and chrome, more than performance. Will you try to shift to an image of performance?

Ahh, I don’t think so. What we do have is that we’re known for great design, we’re known for quality of product and as we talk about entering into these new spaces the brand brings with it a lot of equity, and so we’re very confident that we’re going to get a lot of people’s attention, and what’s interesting is we’re being disruptive as we enter these spaces people weren’t expecting. But we’re going to have a very powerful product that we will demonstrate to people will stand up against anything in the market today.

So, that’s going to take some serious engineering. Lots of those longstanding brands in the adventure category, the BMWs and Triumphs, are really advanced. BMW’s been refining the GS for like 25 years now. Are we hiring a bunch more people in the engineering department to pull this off?

Well I think we’re confident our products are going to be competitive across the segments we’re entering. When we think of adventure touring, specifically, it’s a very significant and untapped market for us, particularly in the US but also in Europe. There’s a high interest among young riders, amongst women, amongst new riders in the space who have a really strong appreciation for adventure touring. We believe we have the opportunity with this product to play and compete well in this space for that reason. And as we build that next generation of riders, this space gives us the opportunity to bring the Harley-Davidson brand into a growing segment.

How many people work for you in the marketing department?

Well, ah, we have an international marketing group as well, I think we have just a little over 200 people.

All over the world, then outside vendors too of course.

Yeah, we have agencies we’re working with of course that help us with creative and other things, but most of our team is based here in the US, and then in Europe and Asia and all the markets we operate within.

mo interview heather malenshek

So, the common wisdom in the US is that Harleys are for old guys and the customer base is dying off. I don’t really believe that from where I sit here on the West Coast. What plans do you have to overcome that perception?

One of our strategies is broader access to our brand, so expanding our online presence and also working with our dealers so that we have stronger dealerships, and an opportunity for people to reach out and engage us where they want to. Back to your other question about our customer base, I agree with you, but we in fact have a very diverse customer base in this country and around the world. The perception is perhaps, especially here in the US, that our customers are older and riding a certain type of product, and that’s a fairly well-worn perception that’s talked about a lot. And so one of the things we’ve been working very hard on in the last couple of years, last year in particular, we launched our brand platform around, All for Freedom, Freedom for All. That was a way for us to start messaging about the diversity of our customer base but also taking care of our base, having them rally around that idea, but also opening up the brand a little bit, opening up the idea of Harley-Davidson being a bit more inclusive.

It’s very interesting when you think about one kind of customer and one type of product, that makes it sound like a very exclusive group, when the exact opposite is true. Our brand is all about community. We’re kind of an open invitation for people to join us, join the brand, and experience freedom on their terms through a variety of means, including, in no particular order, including all these new market segments people haven’t been able to engage in before on this brand.

mo interview heather malenshek, This isn t an ad it s an illo to go with the story so please don t buy a Harley based on it alone
This isn’t an ad, it’s an illo to go with the story, so please don’t buy a Harley based on it alone.

It’s a constant charge for us in marketing to break through those perceptions, it can be frustrating at times because it’s just not true. But we need to bring to life our customer base and show people they can see themselves in this brand. We also have a very large group of influencers that we work with who are motorcycle aficionados. Some people are new riders, some people have been around for a long time sharing their stories. Our Freedom Interns program that we launched had an overwhelming response: We had over 7500 applicants and only eight spots, so quite a hard job to narrow it down. But we did. About 6000 of those applicants were under the age of 25, about 4000 were non-riders so we’re working to put those folks through training.

But it was really interesting for me, it was nice for me to see the interest in the sport and this brand from so many young adults. They’ve really been very active on social media over the last couple of months, posting about their journey, it’s been pretty successful. These are the kinds of things we’re doing to help people take a new look at Harley-Davidson and decide for themselves whether we’re the brand for them. And this new strategy we’re launching, Find More Roads to Harley-Davidson, this news we’re sharing, will hopefully get more people’s’ attention in ways that we haven’t before.

The other thing I would say is EV. As we think about electric, what’s very exciting about that space is just the ease of riding. If changing gears and clutching is a barrier, electric really gives us an opportunity to expand and grow the sport.

mo interview heather malenshek

So you’re sharing resources with Alta?

They’re a great partner for us, we’ve been very pleased about our partnership with them which has been very productive for us. We’ve been involved with development with them, they’re a great company very smart people for sure.

What was the other thing I read in your release yesterday: “These will be funded entirely through the reallocation of previously planned resources and comprehensive cost reduction.” Can we talk about which planned resources are no longer planned?

I can’t get too detailed on that, but as we think about lining up all our resources behind achieving our objective and growing the sport, we just went back as part of our process, which was a very comprehensive review and assessment of our business, how we get to a customer-first approach across everything. From there we were able to free up some resources and some funds to push toward these efforts, which was the right thing to do as we think about growing the sport and building new riders.

Does the person in the White House make your job harder or easier these days. Or does it not make any difference?

Y’know, we try to stay away from it, we’re not a political organization, uh, yeah, I will defer to not commenting on that.

So is Harley going to be building anything like your old R1 anytime in the future?

Sorry, we can’t comment on future products. I will tell you a funny story about my old R1, this was a thing that happened a lot in the UK at the time, I don’t know if it happens any more. There was a scam going around for a while that some people within dealerships would sell sales lists, and criminals would basically go around and steal to order. I got the R1 just as it came out, and so I had it in my garage, just west of Heathrow, chained down with a steel chain through a metal loop cemented into the floor of the garage. And they came into my garage and they dug up the cement, put it in the back of their truck and took off. It got stolen just before I moved here.

Wow. Saved you the trouble of having to sell it anyway.

It did, and I’d been fully intending to buy my Harley when I got here, so that just made it even easier than I’d anticipated.

Well it’s great to know there’s a real enthusiast in the marketing hot seat at Harley, best of luck to you.

Thank you. There are a lot of us here.


John Burns
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3 of 48 comments
  • Sayyed Bashir Sayyed Bashir on Aug 05, 2018

    Harley stole the slogan "All for Freedom, Freedom for All" from the 1%ers: "Angels Forever - Forever Angels".


  • Old MOron Old MOron on Aug 07, 2018

    I stopped reading about half way through. It's really great that MO should bring us interviews with moto executives. But this was all the usual sales speak. I couldn't be bothered to finish reading.

    • CFLAP CFLAP on Aug 07, 2018

      I agree. When she started talking about HD representing American values and a certain "image", that's when I stopped reading the interview and moved on to the test ride of the Yamaha Tracer.