Should dealers focus on “buy” or “use” these days?

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Ever since the first dugout canoe hit the market, dealers have essentially developed traditional marketing plans that focused on positioning their boats in the minds of prospects and customers. But today we’re in the digital age, and that raises a serious question: Is it time to put focus on the lives of prospects and customers?

Recent studies have revealed that successful digital marketers don’t just do things differently, they think differently. Furthermore, they engage customers more as users than as buyers, shifting efforts from pre-purchase and sales to post-purchase renewal and advocacy.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, authors Mark Bonchek and Vivek Bapat reviewed a study of more than 5,000 U.S. consumers and asked them about 50 different brands, both digital and traditional. Bonchek is CEO of Shift Thinking, while Bapat heads up Marketing and Communications Strategy at SAP. While their study did not deal directly with high-priced durable hard goods, their observations are worth seriously contemplating in today’s marketing of boats and related services.

“We found distinct differences between legacy/traditional brands and newcomer/digital brands,” reported Bonchek and Bapat. “For example, consider the following ‘brand twins’ —pairs of legacy and newcomer brands that compete in the same industry. In every case, the legacy brand rated higher on the statement “Is a brand that people look up to.” But the digital brands all rated higher on the statement “Makes my life easier.” (Brands included: BMW vs. Tesla; Gillette vs. Dollar Shave; Hilton/Marriot vs. Airbnb and 44 more.)

There were similar differences in how people’s brand perceptions are formed and reinforced in the first place. Respondents were more likely to learn about legacy brands through advertising and traditional media, compared to newcomer brands which are more often discovered via social media and direct word of mouth. For marine dealers, it clearly calls for incorporating some social media in any marketing mix.

“Legacy brands try to shape what people think about the brand along the path to a purchase; usage brands influence how people experience the brand at every touchpoint,” explain Bonchek and Bapat. They cite Apple Stores as an example of this shift, from the removal of a checkout area at the front of the store to the prominence of the Genius Bar. Where other stores are focused on making a purchase, Apple Stores are about having an experience.

From another perspective, traditional brands emphasize promotion, while usage brands accentuate advocacy. Vail Resorts, for example, remade their entire marketing strategy with a program called EpicMix — a social network for skiers that uses gamification, performance data, and photos skiers want to share. Most other ski resorts focus on promoting their snow-making abilities and giving discounts on lift tickets.

Bonchek and Bapat take it one step more. Purchase brands worry about what they say to customers while usage brands worry about what customers say to each other. For example, where traditional hotels put more emphasis on the content in their ads, Airbnb puts greater emphasis on the content shared by guests about their experiences.

“The benefits of shifting from purchase to usage are reinforced by our research,” says Bonchek and Bapat. “Survey respondents show more loyalty to usage brands. They had stronger advocacy in the form of spontaneous recommendations to others. And they showed a higher preference for usage brands over competitors, not just in making the purchase but in a willingness to pay a premium in price. On average, the usage brands were willing to pay a 7 percent premium, were 8 percent less likely to switch, and were more than twice as likely to make a spontaneous recommendation of the brand,” they add.

Finally, investments in advertising should also shift toward a usage model. Purchase brands try to create differentiation in brand perception in the hope it will influence consideration and purchase. But usage brands are focused on how their products will make a customer’s life better. The role of advertising for a usage brand becomes getting useful content and experiences into the hands of prospects and customers. The message becomes, “Look how we can make your life better now, before you’ve even spent any money with us. Just think how much more we can do if you become a customer and use our product or service.”

How does a dealer begin shifting focus to a usage model? Start by improving the website by including some excellent free content, professional photos and videos, from that illustrates how owning a boat does make life better. Improve any social media program(s) by adding customer stories, photos and experiences.

If Facebook is included in your program, take advantage of Discover Boating’s free social media content that provides relevant boating lifestyle content for your Facebook business page. It even takes the work out of it with automatic features. It’s called Get Social with Discover Boating, and it’s now yours. It can all elevate customer loyalty and be a key driver of growth and profitability.


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