New agency, same mission: Grow Boating

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NMMA selects Minneapolis-based marketing firm to recharge its Discover Boating outreach campaign

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Professional marketers routinely use the terms "brand identity" and "brand image" - how sellers want buyers to perceive their products. One challenge the marine industry has faced since long before the recession is marketing the boating lifestyle to non-boaters. And a big part of the message is that it's the family lifestyle that makes the price to buy into the experience a sound investment.

"We're not selling cup holders and fishing rods," says Carl Blackwell, chief marketing officer for Grow Boating. "We're selling the boating lifestyle - and ultimately selling them boats."

Olson Co. Inc., the Minneapolis-based marketing firm that NMMA's Grow Boating task force chose to relaunch the Discover Boating campaign, understands the intangibles because boating is part of the agency's culture, says Steve Peckham, senior vice president at the firm. "Boating is entrenched in the Olson lifestyle," Peckham says of the 300-   employee, full-service marketing firm in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

The fact that six members of the company purchased new boats during the Grow Boating agency search process - including the chairman and CEO - reflects the passion for boating at the firm rather than a shrewd business move, he says. "Nobody would make that kind of purchase just to win a client," he says.

"They just really understand the aspirational/inspirational aspect of the boating life - and the need to tip the scale so the benefits come out carrying more weight than the barriers," Blackwell says.

A review committee narrowed an initial pool of 30 agencies compiled by an outside consultant to 16, then eight, which were issued requests for information. From those, three were selected for formal pitches and visits from committee members to "get a feel for their culture and how they do business," says Blackwell, who is also vice president of marketing and communications for the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

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The 12-member review committee included Blackwell; NMMA president Thom Dammrich; four dealers; boat, engine and accessory manufacturers; and a marine publisher.

At the end of August, after the selection was announced, a team from the agency began to assemble a preliminary marketing plan to be presented Sept. 28 for approval at the Grow Boating board of directors meeting at the International BoatBuilders' Exhibition & Conference in Louisville, Ky. With board approval, a full marketing campaign will be developed along with a budget and a funding model for the new campaign. The Grow Boating budget was $1 million in 2009, compared with a high of $13 million in 2007.

Blackwell says a full-scale launch of the new campaign likely won't happen until 2012, but elements of it could begin reaching the public as early as January.

The industry, and ultimately consumers, can expect a mix of traditional and non-traditional marketing, including the entire spectrum of digital media. The company on its website says it creates "brand connection" campaigns that incorporate marketing strategies, advertising, interactive media, social networking, design, public relations and analysis.

"What we are really good at is getting to know a community and marrying up common traits between that community and an organization or product," Peckham says. The firm has won 18 Effie Awards - which recognize the most effective advertising efforts in the United States - during a nine-year period, including three awards this year.

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Among the agency staff is a team of "brand anthropologists" who survey consumer thoughts, desires and behaviors, hoping to connect them with a client's products. "We look at [marketing] strategy through the lens of anthropology - through human cultures and communities," Peckham says.

Olson touts itself as one of the top 10 largest, independent, full-service marketing agencies in the United States. It has 14 Fortune 500 companies among its clients, including 3M, General Mills, Target and Toys R Us.

"Boating is a community that we already know and love and that gives us a head start going forward," Peckham says. "What we come up with won't talk at prospective boat owners but rather try to draw them into a conversation."

All three of the Grow Boating finalists had said they would tap active boaters in order to attract new ones, and that's in tune with the Grow Boating task force's philosophy, Blackwell says. "Water is the great conduit - our best selling tool," he says. "We need to get them out there indirectly through exciting visuals, or directly through various on-water events. We need to welcome them to the water - that's an emerging theme that came out of this [process]."

Blackwell says Olson is now considered the industry's agency of record. "This is a long-term relationship," he says.

The NMMA's board of directors voted to end, effective July 1, the 85 percent redirection of Grow Boating assessments on engines ($1 to $72 based on horsepower) to boat manufacturers and stopped collecting the 85 percent. The redirection, in response to the economic downturn, took effect Oct. 1, 2008, and was meant to shift funding from national marketing to sales-driving efforts at the manufacturer and dealer levels.

Before the redirection, the engine assessment program had produced as much as $13 million annually.

A new funding plan reflecting the new market conditions will be coming.

"Keep in mind, the Grow Boating campaign was successful," Blackwell points out. "We just ran into budgeting challenges."

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue.

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