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Long-term growth is boating’s big challenge

“Why do we seem to focus only on the low-hanging fruit?” asks marine marketing leader Wanda Kenton Smith in her Marketing Insights column.

You’ll find it in the current edition of Soundings Trade Only and, if you haven’t read it, you’re missing ideas worth consideration by every dealer and manufacturer.

Kenton Smith is chairwoman of the New Markets Task Force of the Recreational Boating Leadership Council ( She’s also chief marketing officer for Freedom Boat Club and president of the Marine Marketers of America.

Sadly, her reference to low-hanging fruit is spot-on. The truth is that it’s always been that way in our fractured industry. Perhaps because we had it too easy for decades — as the U.S. population grew, increased boat sales simply rose and paralleled that growth. We were on autopilot, making money, and life was good.

But in the late 1990s, that changed. No longer was boating automatically gaining more sales as the population grew. Displayed on a graph, the top line for the population continued climbing, but the line representing boat sales was no longer parallel, falling away and illustrating an ever-widening gap between the two. Population going up, sales going down.

Alarmed, this trend eventually led to the startup of the industry’s Grow Boating Initiative and its Discover Boating national ad campaign. It was modeled after what the RV industry had been successfully doing for a decade before we could find a way to get it together.

Grow Boating was conceived to turn the declining sales trend around by: (1) promoting the boating lifestyle to increase participation and sales of marine products; (2) generate awareness through a Discover Boating campaign with an integrated marketing strategy grounded in sound research; and (3) enrich the consumer experience at retail through an Industry Certified Dealership Program. None of that has changed.

So back to Kenton Smith’s column. She cites National Marine Manufacturers Association president Thom Dammrich’s presentation at Sail America’s Industry Conference that she attended. Dammrich pointed out that the Discover Boating national campaign has funneled a whopping 3.2 million leads annually to boatbuilder websites, but noted how few have taken steps to actually nurture this potential business. As Kenton Smith aptly says: “Our industry, too, often focuses on the low hanging fruit and fails to develop the longer-term nurturing opportunities.”

Kenton Smith also reports on a variety of other eye-opening discussions at the Sail America conference, all with potential application to the marine industry. One, for example, was a Harley-Davidson presentation on the cornerstones upon which their “customer journey” is built. The three major strategies are: (1) planting the seed; (2) activating the base; and (3) nurturing the intenders.

“I believe these three strategies are smart and should be applied to the boating marketplace,” Kenton Smith writes. “Ask yourself these questions: Exactly how is my company planting the seed? In what ways is my company activating our base and engaging our most loyal customers? And what is my company doing today to nurture future buyers so that when the time is right, ours will be the brand of choice?”

Overall, one doesn’t have to go to the Wharton School to know that focusing on a longer-term outlook takes leadership, vision and an unwavering commitment to stay on course. And it must always — repeat always — be backed by adequate funding.

Incredibly, today our Discover Boating national campaign is operating on about half the funding originally earmarked for the Grow Boating Initiative back in 2003. If we think we faced growth challenges back then and backed Discover Boating with a much bigger budget, how can we fail to see the challenge for growth is even greater now? And how did it make sense to actually reduce the funding in virtually every category effective last October?

Clearly boating’s future growth must come from capturing fruit that’s higher up.



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