There is no question that the tide rises and falls … and rises again. But contrary to the popular nautical aphorism, it is sadly not true that an incoming tide raises all boats. When an unexpectedly large ebb tide rushes out and drops a boat onto some previously unfound ledge, the incoming tide finds the holes and fills the wreck instead of floating it.
We are witnessing such an ebb tide in the marine industry, and many of our industry’s “boats” have found holes punched into their bottom lines. The current low tide has rushed out so dramatically beyond all prior low-tide marks that we are seeing all kinds of ledges exposed and hulls damaged on them.
Those “boats” that were holed need serious patching and pumping or they will slip below the incoming tidal bore. And all of us need to learn from what we are seeing — fixing our charts, moving our moorings, and understanding the forces we cannot control.
This is my seventh recession in the marine business, proof that the tide comes back in and that I am probably older than most who work in this industry. I refuse to use that little maxim that’s a required legal disclaimer in financial ads — that past performance is no guarantee of future results — because past performance is often a very good indicator of what can easily happen again.
Month after month, this column has carried sound counsel from several marketing and advertising professionals. Most are smarter than me and have put into words good and detailed advice, often quite specific, to help those who don’t enjoy their wise recommendations on a daily basis. Those professionals must be as surprised as I am that so few marine companies seem to take much of that valuable advice.
Serious downturns force all of us to examine how we do business and reconsider the advice we should have taken. Rather than reiterate and potentially damage their practical suggestions through compaction, this column (a last-minute request from my friend, Bill Sisson) is written more about what comes next. I hope it gives those “with holes in their bottoms” more enthusiasm for patching, more energy for bailing, and more courage to persevere.
But given that the assigned topic was marketing and advertising, let me urge everyone to take this moment to begin examining their attitudes and understandings of advertising and marketing: You’ll need to be good at this just to survive, and you’ll want to be great at this if you want to become stronger.
So study up and then put that knowledge to work.
My crystal ball is no better than yours, so I accept that others may disagree with the following prognostications.
First, downturns are cyclical and have occurred with remarkable consistency … until we skipped the last one. So perhaps we are getting the double-whammy this time and surprising those who joined this industry only after the last recession had ended.
I firmly believe that the delay in gratification that these days is forced on so many passionate boaters, together with the obvious opportunity that boating provides for leisure and recreation, will drive a recovery in the not-too-distant future. So there is a reason not to give up in these dark days of recession.
Quality-of-life considerations, ever more important in an increasingly complex world, point toward so many of the desirable benefits that boating can provide. Since shoreline is primarily private and the cost of waterfront property is prohibitively expensive, boats become an important factor in giving water access to the huge population who will want it. Keep in mind there is a lot more water than shoreline, and the opportunity becomes clearer.
At industry gatherings, I hear people talk about the high cost of boating. High compared to what? Everything, notwithstanding gasoline going up and down, is more expensive each year. I remember when Chris-Crafts and Hinckleys were modest five-figure purchases, a Porsche cost $5,000, and fine harbor-town houses cost well under $100,000.
Today, a round of golf can cost $100 (or a lot more), requires a couple thousand dollars in equipment, and occupies one person for about four hours per outing. It’s seasonal, usually requires driving a car to get to it, and is nearly impossible to share with small children. Run the same thinking for skiing, flying or whatever: Almost everything costs serious money, not just boating.
But how many leisure activities occupy entire families or offer such a wide range of use? One powerboat can be a fishing platform, a picnic outdoors, an overnight adventure, a summer vacation home, a business entertainment opportunity, a romantic getaway, and so much more. Because of this, ours is a business that will recover — and thrive.
The demographic profile of the boating audience is manifestly not the profile of the nation, the continent or the world. While this is a problem in some important sectors, especially smaller powerboats, the “meltdown” characterization of the economy has much less application to the people we sell to. Boaters, in general, are wealthier, better educated, less credit-exposed, and more accustomed to their pursuit of leisure. This group with this demographic advantage comes out of recessions faster than any other. Its culture does not put off for very long doing the things it wants to do and spending the money to get there.
A boatbuilder’s recent brochure, which won a Marine Marketers of America award, pointed to one factor I urge all to consider: It is not your product that matters; it’s what your product makes possible. If you think in terms of what your marketplace needs or seeks, you connect with the recession-proof part of human nature: desire. Desire drives demand; massive desire drives demand even when money is short. And I believe in these times, desire for activity is stronger than desire for possession.
Good marketing is all about identifying consumer needs and fulfilling desires. Good advertising lets those markets know you’ve heard them, have good solutions and can help.
It is dangerous to focus on advertising phrases aimed more at other demographic groups. One ubiquitous example, “value for money,” is hard to apply in boating and sometimes leads to dreary lists of physical product features. What’s the value for feeling great? What should a lifetime memory for your children cost? Popping a couple of beers in the cockpit and telling fish or racing stories to a group of friends is the perfect antidote — and perhaps the perfect offset — to a volatile week of Dow Jones fluctuations.
Our industry will recover. It will be fascinating to see who is strong enough to lead that recovery and who is smart enough to make their businesses the beneficiaries by tapping into motivations stronger than the bad news restraints.
Donald Brewster joined the marine industry in the 1960s, helped launch Sail magazine in 1970, and started his own advertising agency, now named Brewster Strategies, in 1973. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.