Have you ever pulled up a barstool, turned to the guy sitting inches away from you and said, “Hey, aren’t you … ?”
I had just such a chance occurrence at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show last November when I said to the salt-and-pepper-bearded gentleman sitting next to me, “Aren’t you Capt. Lee from the TV show Below Deck?” “Yes, I am,” he replied matter-of-factly.
Talk about serendipity. For the next hour or so I had the opportunity to chat at length with yacht Capt. Lee Rosbach about his cable TV series on Bravo, even though we were interrupted at least a dozen times by gushing women (and even some men) who said they just loved the show, watched it every week and would Capt. Lee mind posing for a picture?
I was taken aback by this outpouring of genuine affection and the ease with which Lee — given his somewhat stern onscreen demeanor — accepted the compliments. Some smart marketer might seriously consider taking advantage of Capt. Lee’s celebrity.
That said, regular readers of this column may recall that I went out on a limb four years ago at the tail end of Below Deck’s first season. I argued that the marine industry should jump aboard this made-for-boating marketing opportunity to reach markets untapped by the industry’s standard approach. For a more in-depth look at this proposal, see my Soundings Trade Only column of October 2013 at http://www.tradeonlytoday.com/columns/marketing-insight/what-these-marketing-pros-know-that-you-may-not.
I even went so far as to produce a Below Deck symposium for Marine Marketers of America during the 2013 Fort Lauderdale show. Billed as “Using Reality TV As a Cost-Effective Marketing Platform,” the symposium featured marketing maven Julie Perry, as well as Adrienne Gang, one of the stars of Below Deck.
I took some guff for these efforts from people who said Below Deck did not present the proper image of yachting. Well, here we are years later, and Below Deck is not only in its fourth season, but its weekly audience has grown from 1 million to 1.5 million. That’s a lot of eyeballs that have spent a ton of time dreaming about life on the water.
Sure, it’s not recreational boating, but I bet that any number of TV series and movies over the years have inspired legions of folks to become pilots, equestrians, chefs, racing enthusiasts, hackers, entrepreneurs and Wall Street investors, to name just a few.
Although being out on the water in a boat may have come naturally to previous generations of Americans who learned to fish with their fathers, this pool of potential participants is not what it once was, nor is it enough to keep boating afloat once the baby boomers head over the horizon. Today’s wired and Bluetoothed generations are far more likely to hook up with friends on social media than hook a fish off the side of a boat.
To reshuffle this deck the industry first needs to convince a mass audience to emotionally identify with the boating lifestyle and then demonstrate that these on-the-water experiences can only be found aboard a boat.
So the question is, how do we do this? Are we, as marketing professionals, up to getting the job done? Which brings me to another television phenomenon — Jay Leno’s Garage, an hour-long weekly show on CNBC that centers on the former Tonight Show host’s passion for classic cars, automobile racing and motorcycles.
Admittedly, there’s an ocean of difference between these two shows. Below Deck is a somewhat racy, some might say lowbrow reality show about the trials and tribulations of a megayacht crew. Garage, by contrast, is more upscale. It zeroes in on Leno’s hobby and features celebrities fawning over their expensive motorcar collections as they tool around the picturesque California countryside.
What makes Garage so attractive to marketers is that it appeals to more than hobbyists. Leno is joined by celebrities who reel in viewers that are not gearheads. It has been pulling in about 500,000 viewers an episode. For a look at how this show is planting the seeds to grow its market, use this link to watch a few episodes: http://www.cnbc.com/live-tv/jay-lenos-garage.
As with Below Deck, Garage is supported by a host of A-list advertisers, including car makers Acura, BMW, Honda, Infiniti and Mercedes-Benz; insurers GEICO, Liberty Mutual and State Farm; telecoms Comcast, DirecTV, T-Mobile and Verizon; Morgan Stanley and Scottrade; and Epson, Hershey’s, Madison Reed and the Pete Peterson Foundation. No Ronco slice and dice or faded B-listers hawking insurance or pain relief meds sully the episodes, and only one advertiser, ListingAllCars.com, can be considered endemic advertising.
The fact is that viewers love to identify with their favorite TV personalities. In a recent episode aired during the show’s second season, comedian Jerry Seinfeld confesses his love for his 1958 Porsche 1600 Speedster and says to Leno, “Any free time I have I want to talk about cars, look at cars, drive cars and read about cars.” For the actual clip of this conversation, go to http://www.cnbc.com/2016/11/17/jerry-seinfeld-explains-why-a-porsche-is-sports-car-perfection.html.
Seinfeld’s quote hit home during a recent dinner party when I ran into two automotive enthusiasts who also happened to be former boat owners. When I mentioned Jay Leno’s Garage they began extolling the virtues of the cable show Ship Shape TV. Hosted by John Greviskis and now in its 15th year, Ship Shape TV is one of the granddaddies of do-it-yourself TV programming. Although it is supported by a loyal following and a range of endemic advertisers that has kept it afloat over the years, it appeals primarily to nautical geeks, and its ability to expand the overall market is pretty much limited. To see a few episodes, go to shipshapetv.com.
So where do we go from here? An oft-quoted line from Field of Dreams is worth thinking about. As he walks through a cornfield dreaming about building a baseball field, Kevin Costner hears a voice saying, “If you build it, he will come.”
What if the recreational boating industry got behind a TV series that would attract a wider audience to the joys of boating as a lifestyle? Would they come? We’ll never know until a visionary such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos steps up to the plate. Twenty years ago Bezos had a dream that went well beyond bartering books.
In 1997 Amazon stock sold for $3.19 a share. It languished for years, and all sorts of critics opined that it would never be profitable. Today it stands at $778 a share. Put another way, an $11,000 investment then would be worth more than $2.4 million today.
As boating industry leaders plan how to grow boating and individual marketers consider how to increase their market share, remember that opportunity is always knocking. The problem is that change involves risk-taking. Believe me, I know. I bought Amazon stock way back then for about $30 a share and sold it for a slight profit when it didn’t look as if it would ever go anywhere. In short, no guts, no glory!
Which brings me to colleague Norm Schultz’s column of last Dec. 20, in which he bemoans the fact that industry leaders voted to continue Discover Boating, albeit with a nominal increase in funding (see http://blog.tradeonlytoday.com/dealer_outlook/?p=2935).
The time for half-measures is long past. Fact is, I lived through what some might term a “golden age” of recreational boating. It was the 1980s, when new-boat sales (not including kayaks and inflatables) were as much as one-third greater than they are today.
Isn’t it time for this industry to go boldly where it has not gone before? A good place to start, for example, would be choosing a national spokesperson or launching a sustained national TV advertising campaign, such as Subaru’s “Love” commercials or the dairy industry’s “Got Milk” campaign.
Michael Sciulla is president of Credibility & Company Comunications, as well as vice president of the Marine Marketers of America and a member of the board of directors of Boating Writers International. During a 28-year career at BoatUS he built the association’s brand, as membership grew from 30,000 to 650,000. He has testified more than 30 times before congressional committees.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue.