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Boating growth requires multi-generational effort

Once a brand name to which many aspired, the bloated Cadillacs rolling off Detroit’s assembly line in 1995 were being bought in ever-declining numbers by consumers with an average age of 63.

Today, after nearly two decades of new products and hundreds of millions spent on advertising, the average age of a Cadillac owner has dropped to 58. Changing perceptions don’t come easy or cheap.

In a bid to appeal to a younger demographic, TV ads for Cadillac’s new $55,000 ATS features the car being driven in exotic and challenging road settings such as Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, Monaco, Patagonia, Chile, and through the hand-carved Guoliang Tunnel in China. Each spot demonstrates the car’s agility, driving performance and efficient design.

Efforts to grow recreational boating by appealing to a younger and more diverse demographic through marketing alone faces an even more daunting dilemma. Not only has the overall market gotten much smaller — we are selling about one-quarter of the number of new boats that were sold in the peak late 1980s — but between 1998 and 2011 the average age of all new-boat buyers also actually increased by 6 years, to about 50, according to Info-Link.

The average age of a new sailboat buyer tops the list at 56.1, outboard buyers are 53, inboard and sterndrive buyers are 50.1 and PWC and jet-drive buyers are the “youngest” at 47 and 45.9, respectively.

There’s no doubt about it. The average new-boat buyer is a 50-year-old soon-to-be graying baby boomer born about 1963. It’s important to note, however, that this once vast sea of potential boat buyers is diminishing because the last members of this humongous 80 million-member generation were born in 1964. They have been followed by Generation X, which came to life in 1965. The bad news is that there are only 45 million Gen Xers — a significantly smaller pool of potential customers to draw from.

 Is it any wonder that the average new-boat buyer is so much older today?

Although it could be argued that fifty-something baby boomers are just now reaching their peak earning years, the dot-com bust, the anemic stock market of the first decade of the 21st century, the collapse of the housing market, the Great Recession and near-zero interest rates on savings these past few years have probably exhausted this generation’s ability to plunk down a large chunk of change on any large discretionary purchases, especially those that are used only on certain weekends during part of the year.

If the baby boomers are toast, what are our prospects for convincing Gen Xers and Millennials to buy a new recreational boat and all that comes with it?

To begin with, it’s important to recognize there are some subtle and not so subtle differences between generations. Differing taste in music is perhaps the most obvious, with each generation carving out and identifying with its own distinctive sound.

Besides music, another way to look at how the generations differ is to analyze their embrace of technology. Although the self-reliant, latchkey Gen Xers are comfortable using technology to achieve individual goals, Facebook-generation Millennials use technology in a much more socially interactive way. And Gen Xers and Millennials will respond to marketing differently than their free-spirited baby-boomer elders.

Success in selling to these generations will require targeted marketing messages that reflect their particular characteristics, lifestyles and attitudes, according to the study “Multi-Generational Marketing” by Kaylene C. Williams, Robert A. Page, Alfred R. Petrosky and Edward H. Hernandez in The Journal of Applied Business and Economics.

More Gen Xers, for example, were raised in single-parent households than any prior generation. The latchkey generation also experienced high divorce rates, dual-income households and seriously reduced expectations. Nothing is permanent to Gen Xers, who are shell-shocked products of the changes that have been ripping apart the fibers of society, the family and the workplace for years. They are free agents, skeptical and disillusioned, and blame the “Me Generation” and materialism of the baby boomers for their difficult times. The good news is that they have started about 70 percent of the new businesses in the United States.

The Millennials of Generation Y, by contrast, are the children of the baby boomers. They were told since they were toddlers that they can be anything they can imagine. They were born into a technological, electronic and wireless society. They live for today, spend big and are determined to live their best lives now, as tomorrow may not happen. Although they are self-absorbed and self-reliant, they also collaborate and connect through social networking.

One of the first and perhaps most memorable examples of explicit generational marketing was the “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile” TV commercials of the late 1980s featuring William “Captain Kirk” Shatner and his daughter. The pitch was that these family-oriented chariots favored by the “Greatest Generation” had changed and should be embraced by a new and younger generation.

Although this particular marketing campaign was groundbreaking in that it embraced generational change, marketing alone could not save the Oldsmobile brand. It was finally laid to rest in 2004 after producing cars for 107 years.

If boating is serious about growing its share of the recreational market it is going to have to greatly expand its appeal to women and members of minority groups, its presence in China (see my previous column on this here.) or seriously consider changing its business model to offer American consumers more options that fit their lifestyle. The time is past when hundreds of thousands of American families had both the time and financial wherewithal to put $50,000 to $100,000 or more into a product they only use on weekends.

The time has come for the boating industry to think about its future and enthusiastically embrace renting, leasing and offering timeshares or fractional ownership (see my previous column on this here.) These options should be a particularly good fit for the Millennials, who are not only more socially oriented, but also have the technological tools in the palm of their hands to make the shared use of recreational boats a reality.

History is littered with institutions that have failed to adapt to changing conditions. Boating leaders should look at the once-mighty American newspaper and magazine empires that have been crushed as consumers have chosen new ways to obtain the news. Not only is the iconic Time magazine now on the chopping block, but in a bid to attract Gen Xers and Millennials, Yahoo just last month paid a 17-year-old British lad $30 million for an app he developed that simply summarizes the news into 400 characters.

The bard of the boomer generation, Bob Dylan, put the world on notice in 1964 that “The Times They Are A-Changin.” It’s high time to do something about it before recreational boating becomes yachting again.

Michael Sciulla is president of Credibility & Company Communications, as well as vice president of the Marine Marketers of America and a member of the board of directors of Boating Writers International and the Marine Marketers of America. During a 28-year career at BoatUS he built the association’s brand as membership grew from 30,000 to 650,000.

This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue.



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