105 Years is not a Milestone…

… it's a marketing initiative. Last summer Harley-Davidson celebrated 105 years of American motorcycle manufacturing by releasing commemorative models of dubious pedigree and pounding their chest at HOG rallies from coast to coast. Even for an industry that prides itself on puffery and self-aggrandizement, the Motor Company's endless birthday bashing and bugle blowing seems fatuous and heavy handed. It reminds me of another American icon's centennial celebration: The Schwinn Bicycle Co.

As a consultant for its BMX program in 1995, I witnessed Schwinn's century celebration from the best seats in the house. "Cool, Proud, Committed" was Schwinn's unspoken mantra in those days, and it became the standard against which all of the brand's marketing efforts were measured. Confidence at America's oldest producer of premium bicycles in 1995 was high, but ten years earlier Schwinn was a very different company.

In a market dominated by speedy and reliable Japanese imports, Schwinn's American-made bicycles were uninspired and old fashioned. At the Milwaukee headquarters of another two-wheeled American legend, Harley-Davidson stares an identical crisis in the face. Curiously, Schwinn then and Harley now use marketing sizzle—not technological steak—to perpetuate their respective myths. What is it about American companies that makes them cling so tightly to their past?

Today three more American rust belt behemoths—Ford, Chrysler and General Motors—grapple with grim fortunes, generic products and gargantuan debt. None are in worse shape than the General himself. The question, of course, is this:

Will the leaders of America's biggest car company forge a bold new direction for its beleaguered brands, or will they use the money Congress is giving them to put another coat of lipstick on their 100-year-old pigs?


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