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Stolen Harley-Davidson motorcycle causes stir in Germany

A bizarre marketing mishap involving a stolen Harley-Davidson motorcycle is making headlines in Germany — and prompting calls for the Milwaukee company to step in as a white knight.

A bizarre marketing mishap involving a stolen Harley-Davidson motorcycle is making headlines in Germany — and prompting calls for the Milwaukee company to step in as a white knight.

The story from across the Atlantic underscores the vagaries of marketing and brand management. It’s also a testament to the brand power wielded by Harley, which has its largest factory in York County.

The German mortgage bank LBS recently launched a television and poster campaign featuring bikers in shades and black outfits. The company wanted audiences to recognize that mortgages are for everybody, not just buttoned-down conservatives, spokeswoman Ivonn Kappel told the Business Journal.

But Juergen Klement recognized something else in the images: his stolen Harley-Davidson.

Klement is a Harley enthusiast from the small town of Herne in Germany’s western Ruhr region. His motorcycle was stolen in 2004, along with that of a friend, Matthias Delvo.

Klement is a cop — a detective and leader of a motorcycle squad. Delvo is a lawyer. But that did not help them recover their Harleys.

So when Klement’s bike reappeared in the LBS campaign, the duo started to investigate. Using images provided by the advertising agency responsible for the campaign, they confirmed the Harley was Klement’s. He custom-built the bike, starting with a motor and a frame that date back to the 1950s.

The duo also traced the Harley to an owner in Riga, the capital of Latvia. The bike had apparently been smuggled there and resold.

They tried unsuccessfully to negotiate for the motorcycle’s return. The new owner believes the Harley is worth about $34,000 and is demanding more money than Klement can afford, Delvo said in a phone interview from Germany.

So Delvo came up with a proposal for LBS. He suggested the bank help Klement buy back his motorcycle and use the gesture in a follow-up marketing campaign.

“You can shift the image from positive to negative,” he said.

LBS declined.

Meanwhile, the story was getting legs in Germany. It was featured on national television networks and on a prominent news Web site and was picked up by a major German news agency.

And while the biker duo from the Ruhr may be strapped for cash, they have no shortage of ideas. Delvo proposes that Harley itself step in. He’s pitching the idea as a major marketing opportunity.

“It would be a major home run,” he said. “They’ve never had an advertisement like this. Harley couldn’t dream of getting better advertising for 20 grand.”

LBS fumbled by turning down Delvo’s idea, said Bob Fell, a Harrisburg advertising consultant.

“Wow,” Fell said. “It’s amazing that some people don’t see opportunities when they’re right in front of them. I think that’s a major flub.”

Allowing the story to stand as it is hurts the bank’s image, he said.

“In the market of public opinion, if you don’t control your destiny, somebody else will,” he said.

Harley would not be hurt if it remains idle, but it would be passing up a big opportunity, Fell said. The company could offer an interest-free loan to Klement or launch an online fundraising appeal that tugs at the heartstrings of other Harley enthusiasts, he said.

“They could get worldwide coverage,” he said. Fell is a partner and director of strategy and planning at Pavone Inc., a Harrisburg advertising agency.

A Harley representative responded cautiously. The company receives many such proposals and generally is unable to follow up on them, spokesman Bob Klein said.

Kappel, meanwhile, defended LBS’ actions.

The company sees no basis for helping Klement repurchase his motorcycle, Kappel said. She also said Delvo handled his communication with the bank poorly. He was unclear about what he wanted from LBS and did not pitch the marketing idea in a straightforward way, she said. LBS has already helped the duo by effectively doing the detective work to locate the bike, Kappel added.

Delvo is playing hardball: he is threatening to sue LBS by claiming that Klement’s customized Harley is an artwork and that he deserves royalties for its use.

However it plays out, the saga underscores the power of the Harley brand. Harley invokes an unusually strong emotional response among its followers, Fell said. That is also what makes this such a big advertising opportunity, he said.

“Why does the guy want the bike back?” Fell said. “Because he loves it.”

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