Bonus Case Study: Pesky Clutch Problems Plague Harley-Davidson

[Instructors: The following case study can be used for a discussion using the questions below. We also provide a writing assignment (and sample solution) that encourages critical thinking about audience awareness and choosing an organizational strategy for a message.]

Founded in 1903, Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson Motor Company is an iconic manufacturer of motorcycles with a loyal global following. The company also sells branded merchandise and apparel. Although most recently motorcycle sales have been trending down, Harley-Davidson is financially healthy, with a net income of $114.1 million on revenue of $1.27 billion in 2016.[1]

Manufacturers such as Harley-Davidson must ensure the safety of their products and fix any manufacturing defects. It’s the right thing to do. Customers correctly expect flawless operation of their pricey vehicles, and the organization’s brand reputation is at stake.

Also, consumers today are wielding a lot of power. In a 24/7 news cycle, social media outcries spread fast and carry far. This is why organizations err on the side of caution and issue recalls to repair their products and thus prevent potential injury as well as costly litigation.

What? Another Recall?

Owners of certain 2015-2016 HD models have had problems with the hydraulic clutch right after purchasing their bikes. The company then quickly issued a voluntary recall to correct the problem.

However, the hydraulic clutch engagement system keeps causing trouble. This time Harley-Davidson did not recall its vehicles, but it did decide to offer a free inspection by an authorized HD dealer, and, more important, to extend the factory limited warranty on the hydraulic clutch engagement system for five years. This warranty stays with the bike even if it is sold. The company wrote a letter to the owners of the affected motorcycles asking them to visit their authorized dealer to address the lingering problem.

Let’s Talk Strategy

[If you share the scenario with students, remove this discussion and address strategy in class.]

Is this a straightforward bad-news message? Does the pain the negative news might cause suggest the writer use a buffer and an indirect approach? The answer: This scenario requires tact but the approach should be direct. Despite the clutch problems, the audience is loyal to the brand. The writer has something to offer that is likely to offset any negative feelings. The goal is to prompt the reader to take action and bring the bike in for an inspection. A secondary goal is to maintain the customers’ goodwill.

Critical Thinking Questions

  1. Why did Harley-Davidson choose to write a letter to the owners of the affected motorcycles?
    Manufacturers know that most people take a letter on paper in their mailbox more seriously than e-mail. An e-mail message might be mistaken for promotion and overlooked in a busy inbox. A letter is tailored to reach its target audience. Because the defect doesn’t rise to the level of a recall, the company doesn’t need to make a public disclosure, risking negative publicity and perceptions of slipping quality.
  2. Why should the letter to the Harley owners be polite but direct?
    Harley-Davidson is not issuing a recall but is providing a remedy to a recurring problem. The issue isn’t likely to cause much pain other than being a minor inconvenience. The company is showing good faith as it stands by its products. Harley-Davidson has something to offer that the recipient of the letter will ultimately like and that will compensate for any disappointment.

Task. Write a letter that will be sent to all Harley-Davidson customers affected by the clutch problems. Address it to Ed Townsend, 1654 Wigwam Parkway, City of Henderson, NV 89011.

Solution: Harley Davidson Letter


[1] Bomey, N. (2016, October 18). Harley-Davidson plans cuts as sales, profit fall. USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com

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