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Our boats need to become as cool as boating itself is

Pulling up to a stoplight the other day in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., I looked around at the sea of cars surrounding me and was struck by what I saw — white cars to the left of me, black cars to the right and silver and gray cars in front and in my rear-view mirror.

Pulling up to a stoplight the other day in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., I looked around at the sea of cars surrounding me and was struck by what I saw — white cars to the left of me, black cars to the right and silver and gray cars in front and in my rear-view mirror.

My 2003 British Racing Green Jaguar S-Type stood out like a tanbark sail and I thought to myself, what does that say about the American consumer? What kind of monochromatic world have we become?

According to a 2012 survey by the paint manufacturer DuPont, the most popular car color is white at 24 percent, followed by black at 19 percent, silver at 16 percent and gray at 15 percent. In other words, nearly three-quarters of the automobiles on the road (74 percent) are as plain as vanilla. This lack of color may only be surpassed by the sea of white-hulled boats tied up in a marina on any given day.

I raise this issue not as a matter of personal preference, but as a way to look at how our highway and waterway cultures have changed and how this may relate to those engaged in marine marketing.

Returning home, I sat down with my Sunday Washington Post during Labor Day weekend and right there, beginning on the front page and extending two full pages inside, was a 3,500-word article on how America’s love affair with the automobile is fading as baby boomers ride into the sunset, replaced by Gen Xers and millennials.

According to the article, “A Love Affair In Reverse,” by Marc Fisher, entire demographics within these generations just never got “the car bug.” The parallels to recreational boating are hard to ignore.

Just as fewer and fewer teenagers these days get into boating by learning to fish with their fathers, only half of millennials, notes Fisher, bother to get their driver’s licenses by age 18 and the percentage of 19-year-olds with a driver’s license has dropped from 87 percent two decades ago to 70 percent today!

The emotional attachment to our cars is waning as they become more and more utilitarian, indistinguishable from one another. As one police officer quoted in the article observed, “I don’t see kids who know what’s under the hood anymore. For that matter, a lot of them don’t even know how to open the hood.”

That’s a far cry from my memories of Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 hit “Born to Run,” whose automotive allusions captured the energies of a generation and to this day still gets the motor running like nothing else when a disc is popped into the Jag’s CD player as I cruise down the George Washington Parkway paralleling the Potomac River.

My point is that to expand the appeal of recreational boats, builders have to look beyond simply producing boats that look as if they are a generic commodity spun off a factory assembly line. To get its mojo back, the marine industry needs more than neutral white hulls and business-as-usual marketing practices. To cite an oft-used cliché, we really do need to start thinking outside the box!

Instead of writing off the boomers as a declining market and praying that a sufficient number of millennials will take their place to keep the factory doors open, perhaps the industry could borrow a page from Airstream. The builder of those iconic egg-shaped aluminum RVs that were popular way back when is now celebrating record sales, thanks to a graying crowd that wants to relive the halcyon days of their youth.

The article “How America Learned to Love the Airstream Again” in the Aug. 18 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek contains telling insights about how this RV manufacturer — whose sales were up 26 percent in 2014 — is prospering in a sea of look-alike rectangular boxes that litter our scenic byways.

In fact, Bob Wheeler, the president and CEO of Airstream, says this about his market: “Most of our customers consider themselves not part of the mainstream RV culture. Airstream buyers crave authenticity, durability and brands that have a rich heritage and history. I think this may be a backlash to the increasingly disposable nature of much of what we buy.”

The same can probably be said about the hold Harley-Davidson has on the motorcycle market. My colleague Wanda Kenton Smith’s recent two-part column on her motorcycle group’s visit to a Harley-Davidson plant this past summer delves into the legendary bond that exists between these devotees and the builder of their machines and all of the marketing that goes into the propagation of this lifestyle. That their high expectations were dashed during their visit to the factory speaks volumes about this remarkable relationship.

By contrast, I wonder how many boat manufacturers provide public tours of their manufacturing facilities as part of their marketing outreach.

Beyond adding diversity to its products, the recreational boating industry needs to forge a deeper relationship with its customers, and that’s where marine marketers are in a position to take the lead.

Look at what celebrity chefs have done in creating a “foodie” culture or how Steve Jobs made computers sexy or what Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has accomplished in making something as ordinary as a cup of coffee “cool.”

Recreational boating could benefit from a dose of “coolness,” don’t you think? The good news is that it shouldn’t take much to make it so since boating already provides experiences you just can’t get elsewhere. The sad truth is that although boating is inherently cool, we make it very hard for the average American to experience the lifestyle.

Not only do people need to be able to aspire to something, they also need to be able to attain what it is they are seeking.

So here’s my prescription: Add some color to the fleet, build boats that evoke both the past and the future, make it as easy as renting a car to get on the water, do everything that can be done to foster the image of boating as a cool lifestyle, including developing and/or sponsoring a national television or web-based series, and hire someone other than a country singer to be a spokesperson for that lifestyle. n

(Author’s note: I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. There are more novel ideas and usable facts and figures in Bloomberg Businessweek than in any other weekly magazine on the market today. I highly recommend it to anyone involved in marketing.)

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 both 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 and testified more than 30 times before a number of congressional committees.

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue.


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