Earl K. Warner came to Traverse City Tuesday to talk about collaborative engineering, but the message that came through was as much about brand management as product development.

Mr. Warner, a one-time Corvette engineer, is vice president-engineering for motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson Motor Co., a company that knows a little about brand management. And automakers looking to boost the value of their own marques might listen closely to what he has to say.

Mr. Warner brought with him a copy of the all-new VRSCA V-ROD, Harley’s first bike with a liquid-cooled engine. The V-ROD is all Harley, he points out, but it also is aimed at a whole new audience.

“The V-ROD is a big departure for us,” he says. “It is very risky. We hope it appeals to a new group of customers riding someone else’s motorcycle.”

To develop the bike Harley for the first time made full use of computer-based design, engineering and testing techniques to cut development time and cost, Mr. Warner says. It used to be that Harley had to produce multiple prototypes for testing, an expensive proposition that didn’t always result in the best product, he says. “Either you run out of (development) time or you introduce a product that is not optimized, and the customer becomes the proving ground.”

But playing as big a role as technology and engineering processes in development of the V-ROD were the softer elements at Harley, says Mr. Warner.

Auto manufacturers design products with wide appeal, the more they sell the better,” he says. “The latter is true for our business as well, but it is important to understand that a Harley-Davidson motorcycle isn’t for everyone. If everyone had a Harley, it would no longer be an image product. So we have to work hard to be unique.”

He likens a Harley to “jewelry you ride. Harley’s are purchased from a design perspective, secondary is performance.”

To make sure designers and engineers stay on the leading edge, Harley-Davidson promotes “spontaneity of communication” and “encourages intellectual curiosity,” Mr. Warner says. “How many times have you sat at meetings but felt you couldn’t speak up?” he asks.

The company’s modern, airplane hangar-like design center features a pastoral setting and a huge all-glass facade that “brings in the environment that our products are meant to be enjoyed in.” Advanced product mockups are displayed near the entrance, so everyone can have input on what’s under development.

Workstations are identical throughout, so employees quickly can be relocated into new development teams as needed. And engineers and designers get the cushy, corner offices; managers are located in the center of the operation. “That was a big cultural change,” Mr. Warner says.

In developing new products, Harley now “starts with the voice of the customer and translates that into technical terms,” he says. “We also keep an eye on the competition.

“And we try to leverage our intellectual assets,” he adds. “If you don’t take advantage of that, you lose the most important ingredient to success.”