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Could Harley-Davidson’s Identity Brand Concept Bring a Boon to the Life Insurance Industry?

By Jeffrey S. Shaw, CLU, ChFC, Executive Director, Life Insurers Council
From the LIC Bullet, July 2015


When Harley-Davidson had their back to the wall in the 80s they did something out of desperation that saved the company: they started actively listening to their customers. At the time, the company was unable to compete with Japanese manufacturers in terms of price or quality. Harleys cost three times as much as their foreign competitors and had a reputation for being unreliable. The company was going broke fast and didn’t have a viable strategy to turn things around. In response, they decided to let potential customers ride their motorcycles, quizzing them about the experience immediately after they dismounted. Harley’s attorneys strongly advised against offering motorcycle test rides due to the liability exposure but management countered that drastic times called for drastic measures.

Harley-Davidson sent squads of marketers to their dealerships armed with paper and clipboard to get real-time feedback about what people liked and disliked about their motorcycles. At first glance, the responses appeared to be inconsistent and inconclusive. Some people complained that the seat was too hard—others said it was too soft. Some said the handlebars were too high—others said they were too low. Everyone seemed to have a complaint but none of them were indicative of any specific design feature—they just represented people’s individual tastes.

That’s where the light bulb went on for Harley-Davidson. They realized that their customers came in all shapes and sizes but motorcycles were being mass produced as generic products. Sure, you could pick between a café racer or a fully loaded cruiser, but at the time there was no ability to customize the bike beyond standardized factory options. And this wasn’t just Harley’s problem—their competitors were doing the same thing.

This revelation is what led Harley-Davidson to create—and own—the identity brand concept. They began to focus on accessories and expanded their catalog to include a huge number of customization options for their bikes and their riders. The response surprised even Harley—it seemed there wasn’t a part on the bike that someone didn’t want chromed or customized. Owning a Harley became more than just riding a motorcycle—it became an expression of one’s identity. People started spending more money on customizing their bikes than they did on the bikes themselves. Wearing Harley-Davidson labeled clothing became a necessary part of the riding experience. The Harley label began appearing in the oddest places, from a branded pick-up truck to bathroom fixtures. Their customers were no longer motorcycle enthusiasts, they were Harley riders, taking brand loyalty to the ultimate extreme of tattooing the company logo permanently and prominently on their bodies.

The Harley branding story has been studied and written about for decades. We bring it up here only to introduce a recent article in New Republic by Libby Copeland titled Who Owns the Dead? The article opens with the death of a seven-year-old girl named Alison in a tragic accident. Her mother, Elizabeth Knox, “could not imagine anyone else caring for the girl in death. She wanted to take her home. Knox saw the worst of the institutional approach to mortality that day. The hospital would only release the body to a funeral home. When the funeral home staff arrived, they put Alison in a body bag and zippered it over her face, despite Knox’s plea to keep it open. They took the body on a gurney through the bowels of the hospital with Knox running to keep up. But once Alison arrived at Knox’s house, the girl belonged to her mother again. Knox and her own mother gave Alison a sponge bath in her bed and clothed her in a dress they’d bought at the beach that summer. They made a wreath of flowers for her hair. The funeral home staff arranged the girl over dry ice to slow her decay, and she lay in a small, child-sized casket made of pine, placed perpendicularly across the bed. Knox slept curled up in the small space beside it at night. Hundreds of people came through the house over the next few days. Teachers and classmates brought gifts for the coffin. About three days after her death, Alison was taken to a crematorium, where Knox rocked the gurney on which her daughter’s body lay, and watched as she was put into the furnace.”

As a result of this experience, Knox went on to found a non-profit organization called Crossings and “became one of the first people in the country dedicated to helping families and friends of the deceased work through the emotionally taxing, logistically tricky, and sometimes unpleasant process of caring for a dead body at home.”
It’s hard to imagine anything more personal than grieving for a loved one. Although the percentage of the population interested in home funerals is miniscule, it serves as a good example of the diverse individual needs people have in order to deal with the death of someone they care about.

I recently experienced this firsthand with the relatively sudden death of my mother-in-law, quickly followed by the not-unexpected deaths of both of my parents. My mother-in-law had requested a traditional funeral with lengthy calling hours followed by a short service at the funeral home the following day, a full mass at her church, a procession to the cemetery and then a memorial banquet at a local restaurant. There was a tremendous amount of comfort in dealing with the funeral home. They took care of everything with dignity and tremendous professionalism and provided experienced guidance to help us make decisions about the details. In fact, we were so impressed with them that we transferred my parents’ pre-arrangement from a different funeral home shortly after the service.

My parents had requested different arrangements for when they passed away. They both wanted to be cremated with as little fuss as possible. The differences in planning and executing my parents’ funerals compared to my mother-in-law’s were striking. Circumstances surrounding their deaths as well as family preferences were very different, resulting in the need for a very specific approach to the grieving process.

Final expense and preneed carriers are well aware of the nuances and intricacies of end-of-life planning. Funeral directors have an extensive array of anecdotes about the unusual and specific requests they’ve had to fulfill at the request of the families they serve. Life insurance agents and company claims people have provided comfort to survivors and beneficiaries through numerous conversations and interactions. As a former life insurance agent, I’ve also had this privilege, although my very recent experience was eye-opening because it was so personal. Despite our best planning efforts, it’s very difficult to anticipate what will be necessary to properly help families grieve and memorialize their loved ones because the process is so personal and the circumstances of the death demand different responses.

It makes you wonder if one final expense policy per family is enough.

As the percentage of cremations continues to rise, so does the opportunity for nontraditional funerals. The funeral industry, much like Harley-Davidson, has already started customizing their products and services in order to accommodate the individual desires of their customers. In addition to home funerals, people can now opt for green funerals or alkaline hydrolysis rather than cremation. Releasing doves or balloons at the cemetery has become more commonplace. I have a friend who has funded a testamentary trust to expedite the spreading of his ashes at four exclusive golf courses followed by lavish receptions in the clubhouses. In fact, it’s even possible—and not uncommon—to purchase a casket customized for the most devout Harley-Davidson rider.

Harley was ahead of their time in the 80s by offering such a wide range of choices to meet their customers’ very individual desires. Today infinite choice is an expectation. Now that we’ve grown accustomed to having access to an Amazon superstore where every product we can imagine is a keystroke away, or streaming services where every song or movie we’ve ever heard of is accessible, it’s likely that the expectations of our customers in terms of satisfying their unique individual requests will only increase.

Is the funeral industry ready to respond to these expectations? Are life insurance carriers ready?

Harley-Davidson didn’t expand their manufacturing capabilities to include pick-up trucks or bathroom fixtures—nor did they bog down their factory efficiencies by turning out specialty parts in small batches. In the same way, funeral homes don’t need to master catering, event planning, or biological decay. There are plenty of niche businesses just waiting for the opportunity to expand their market share via viable partnerships.

But make no mistake—change is coming and for the life insurance industry this change is very good. People have become accustomed to having an infinite number of options to express their individuality—and there is nothing more individual than the process of grieving and memorializing the death of a loved one. Just as Harley used the basic chassis of their motorcycles as the foundation for their customization, so will the traditional funeral provide the backbone and structure for a more individualized memorialization. It’s not only conceivable—but also highly probable—that people could soon be paying much more to “accessorize” their funerals than they’re currently paying for the funerals themselves. And more life insurance will be needed to help pay for it. We just need to create the catalog.

Although it’s unlikely the day will ever come when people want to tattoo the logo of their local funeral home on their body, people do this for their loved ones all the time. Memorialization tattoos and vehicle stickers are commonplace.

Could a tattoo rider on a life insurance policy be far behind?