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Is your brand unsinkable?

The first half of the year has passed, and we already know 2009 will be remembered as one of the worst years ever for the modern marine industry. Furloughed employees, weak sales, delayed product launches and tight credit markets have already put their indelible mark on the first two quarters.

Earlier this year, we went up to the Maine Boatbuilders Show to hear firsthand how boatbuilders were handling the crisis. The two most common refrains we heard were, “We’re doing fine — it’s the other guys I’m worried about,” and “If anybody tells you they’re doing fine, they are lying.”

Despite the “misery loves company” atmosphere, this was actually a great show, and we came home inspired and invigorated. There is nothing like the quality, craftsmanship and lines of a boat from Maine. But with so many companies in survival mode, the marketing chatter had gone nearly silent — as if it were muffled by a heavy fog rolling in off Casco Bay.

As long-time marketing professionals, we have never seen an environment as frozen as this one. But if you’re willing to look at the current environment from a different perspective, we believe you might see something you weren’t expecting: opportunity.

Like you, we are entrepreneurs at heart. And we learned early on that opportunities are often born out of the need to survive. That’s why we firmly believe that these times carry significant upside for those who are smart and bold — and willing to believe that, just possibly, now could be an excellent time to start preparing for the recovery that is sure to come.

Put simply, the survivors will be those in the industry who decide to use this economic time to rethink the way they go to market.

The bottom line is the two worst things a company can do right now are 1) nothing, and 2) the same thing. The math is pretty simple:

• Doing nothing = getting nothing in return.

• Doing the same thing = getting the same results.

Rather than take the ostrich approach, we believe that companies should seize this moment as an unprecedented opportunity to reconsider and re-examine everything.

Look internally and take the time now to understand the heart and soul of your business. What’s at the essence of your brand? Why does it exist — and for whom? How clearly defined and differentiated is your messaging? Are you saying the same thing everyone else is, or is your voice clear and distinct? How is your media mix? Are you making decisions because “that’s what I’ve always done,” or because they reflect smart brand-building and share-grabbing strategies?

Take a long, hard look at your marketing and media partners. You pay them to help you build your brand — are they? Do they share your sense of purpose, your sense of urgency? Are they proactive or reactive? Are they bringing you unique solutions and strategies, or does their thinking seem uninspired and derivative?

These are tough questions to ask, especially to ask of people with whom you may have worked closely for a long time. But it’s your business at stake, and you need to know whether you’ve got partners capable of truly helping position you to succeed instead of pushing tired strategies and merely hoping you survive.

The more marine industry players we speak with, the more we sense an entire industry desperate for new ideas, new thinking, new strategies and new opportunities. Virtually everyone we’ve spoken with understands that they are unlikely to attract new customers if they resort to the same tired methods and messages. Following a plan that has worked in the past may seem like the safest course to take, might appear to present the least amount of risk, but, unfortunately, that is only an illusion.

Be honest, and you’ll recognize that many companies are marketing their products the same way you are, and they’re trying to reach the same elusive customer. Confronted with so much parity, those potential buyers are tuning out. They’re already hesitant, and without a truly compelling and unique reason to buy they’ll stay on the sidelines. Also, by constantly focusing all your efforts on traditional customers with traditional plans, you leave little or no room for finding and reaching new customers.

Again, we’re urging our clients to use this period to reorient their perspectives of the marketplace. Take the time now to think very clearly about your brand. If you give yourself the chance to stand out from the crowd now, you’re also giving yourself the chance to come out of this crisis as more than a survivor, but as a market leader.

Interestingly, when we ask business owners or marketing VPs in the marine industry what makes their brand distinct, we often find they have a hard time articulating those differences. While troubling, that vagueness might not have mattered so much when it was relatively easy to sell a boat. Now, though, the ability to clearly differentiate your brand is critical.

You don’t need to be radical. You do need to be careful and decisive, though. The most powerful asset that any brand has is its authenticity, its soul. It’s what makes the end promise genuine, believable and enduring. It’s what emotionally connects your products to your customers.

By American business standards, most marine companies are small or, at best, medium-sized. But that doesn’t mean that your thinking needs to be small. Think big, smart and different; don’t be afraid to make a statement. It’s quiet out there, so the bold companies who take the care to refine their positioning, to choose their words carefully and say them loudly, with conviction, will be the ones who are heard.

We know that much of what we’re saying here might seem counterintuitive. But we’re advising our clients not to squander this time frozen with inaction and indecision. Rather than pulling back to the sidelines, we think it’s the great time to get out there and build confidence and trust. To be bold and innovative. To focus some energy on building a great brand with the same care and attention to innovation as you would building a great boat.

Doug Metchick is a principal at Wheelhouse, an independent marketing agency that specializes in marine and outdoor products. For more information, e-maildmetchick@wheelhouseagency.com.

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