Brand icons such as Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Levi's achieved their prominence through long-term, high-visibility campaigns that delivered simple and consistent messages over many years.

Banks do not have the same deep pockets, nor has their rapidly changing industry been conducive to consistency. Does that mean that branding is not a viable option? No, as can be learned from Harley Davidson.

It is one of the rare brands that was created without massive advertising and in-your-face marketing. A unique value proposition, word of mouth, and a special customer experience brought the motorcycle manufacturer its success.

It is easily forgotten that Harley almost went bankrupt twice. Yet it has gone well beyond building a motorcycle that competes with aggressive Japanese imports. It is not just a bike maker. It has a hip image and a mystique. Customers view its motorcycles as lovingly crafted works of art. In fact, a Harley represented America at a recent international exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Harley chose to compete by offering an alternative to the Japanese manufacturers.

Their motto was to be different and "do the things they can't do."

To get there, Harley had to revamp its quality, soften the outlaw image, attract a new generation of people into the club. Harley has become such an effective symbol that it sold $100 million of Harley Davidson clothes and has other brand extensions, including restaurants.

Harley budgeted a minuscule $1 million on advertising last year, yet sales have grown at a compound annual rate of 16.2% since 1987, and profits soared at a 29.2% rate. Production cannot keep up with demand-it can take a year or two to get a bike delivered, even if the customer is willing to pay the thousands of extra dollars that some dealers are tacking on to list prices of $15,000 or more. In effect, the company is building to order, which means highly efficient inventory management.

Some sales may be lost to Japanese competitors, but executives believe that by guaranteeing quality and remaining close to their design knitting rather than pushing for every last sale, they can count on a core group of customers to remain loyal over time.

Harley's guiding principles were: stay close to traditional roots, build a community (the Harley Owners Group has 365,000 members around the world), give them a reason to belong (with rallies and member benefits), extend the brand, extend the enterprise by working closely with dealers, and add value, which is inherent in the price appreciation.

Though banking may not be able to offer Harley's unique and mystical customer experience, some companies are looking at fundamental changes in the customer relationship that could lead to significant brand equity. Customers can come to associate our banks with the adding of value, a consistent and reliable experience, links to the community, and a brand they trust. Ms. Bird, an executive vice president at Wells Fargo Bank, is based in Sacramento, Calif.

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