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Begin with a winner to end up with a classic

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How much is selling boats like selling cars?

The New York International Auto Show opens today for press previews and early reports focus on a mantra to which the boating industry has also adhered, particularly post-recession: New, new, new. New models, designs, features, technology. New sells.

Companies that came out of the downturn peddling shopworn models were left in the wake of those unveiling brand-spanking-new boats with the latest gizmos.

A report on the show in The New York Times says competitive pressures have caused automakers to put a premium on keeping their product fresh, which is generating shorter product cycles. The typical life cycle of a car has been seven or eight years, but automakers are now providing a “significant refresh or facelift” for those models every three or four years, according to the newspaper report.

“Heavily refreshed” versus skin-deep or superficial change is one of the buzz phrases in car circles these days. In our world, that would be akin, I think, to offering new power options or a new interior layout, or even coming out with a flybridge version of a model that debuted as an express a couple of years earlier.

When it comes to new-product development, economies of scale certainly favor the high-volume world of automobiles over boats, but to be fair, creating new models for surf or turf represents a significant investment and carries significant risk.

“At both of our yards ‘new’ is good, although if you get it right the first time you can count on a nice, long run and a better ROI on your tooling costs,” says Bentley Collins, vice president of sales and marketing at Sabre Yachts. “We depend very much on our marketing staff, our design team and our existing clients to refine designs before they come to market and then tweak them along the way with user feedback.”

Collins says that although the company’s new Back Cove 41 has been a success, the builder also has other strong models in that range and type (single-engine diesel power), including the Back Cove 37, which was introduced in 2009.

“If we could come up with some interesting upgrades for that model, we would,” he says. “But in its original format, it is still the leader in our range of boats.”

Boats are different from cars in plenty of ways. We still value attributes in our boats that don’t come into play at all in the cars we drive. The philosophy of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has far more resonance on the briny than the road, and that isn’t likely to change until more of us learn to walk on water.

Seaworthiness, rough-water ride and handling, down-sea surefootedness, efficiency, fit and finish, handsome lines and a host of other attributes: Boats that have those qualities in abundance usually have a good, long run with periodic upgrades and modifications — and then they become “classics.”

The Regulator 26 is a good example of a boat that has had a loyal following and a long, successful production cycle. That center console debuted in 1991 and was not mothballed until last year, when the company introduced the new 25. Or think of the legendary Bertram 31.

“As the competition among automakers intensifies, technological advances are happening faster, and likewise, obsolescence now seems to be lurking just around the corner,” according to the Times story.

Accelerated obsolescence? Buyers and builders beware.With boats and cars, all that glitters isn’t gold. Develop models that work for the long run.And they certainly can undergo upgrades and “refreshes” as time and technology dictate.

If you’re lucky, every once in a blue moon one of them becomes iconic — synonymous with your brand or even the genre. Those are foundation stones for building successful companies and inspiring customer loyalty.

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