The popular exhortation to "think outside the box" seems to have replaced a few other maxims that we ought to dust off and focus on in these difficult times. What about "pick the low-hanging fruit first," or "keep it simple, stupid," which used to be so widely used that its acronym, KISS, was all you had to say. While neither of these constitutes thinking "outside the box," there is little disagreement that both offer sound advice under any conditions.
In the same group of clichés is the less fancy but equally sagacious "get back to basics." If there ever was a good time to consider the meaning and value of this, we're living in it. Basics are what you rely on, need to learn or do first, before you can - or are ready to - graduate to fancier, more sophisticated or elaborate things. Almost by definition, everything beyond the basics must be frills, extras, unnecessary details, wasteful expenditures or over-the-top efforts.
Since tough economic times require greater efficiencies in the expenditure of time, money and sweat by businesses and consumers, we all need to attend to the basics first before worrying about the rest. Marketing is all about identifying consumer needs and then presenting solutions that best answer those needs. What are our consumers' basic needs, how have these changed in our new economy, and what can you do with your "basics" to address what you and they face today?
Sadly, most of the classic market research that's been done in boating is now a bit obsolete because so many aspects of our market have changed so much. Few companies still have the budget to get into the field to conduct reliable follow-ups. Now, we're all going to have to intuit what's new, what's important and where that might now be headed. But "basics" are just that, and these are much less likely to have changed quickly.
So look at your customers and try to determine what their basic needs and basic capacities are. I have never heard anyone, whether in the industry or on the docks, express the opinion that pleasure boating is dead or that the economy will not recover. Nor have I seen credible predictions that American consumers will lower their expectation of having leisure time, reduce their desire to spend more of it with their family, or suddenly develop a wish to switch to some other recreation for the rest of their lives. Boating is a passion for many, and I do not believe that passion has gone away.
Those passionate boaters' basic recreational needs are still the same. Only their temporary inability to buy something bigger or newer confronts us. Sure, it's tough to unload the old boat right now at a high enough yield to help make a move. Does this mean that customers have given up caring for, desiring or planning their boating adventures and anticipating fun experiences afloat? I think not. One recession does not change a culture. Nor, history shows, do wars, double-digit boat loans, $4 gasoline or changes in the presidency.
So what are your basics to deal with this? Survival comes first. You do what you have to do. Better business minds than mine have been offering all kinds of wise advice on reducing and controlling costs, turning the inventory, budgeting tightly, avoiding panic and focusing on proven (basic?) strategies. Finding ways to handle all these steps should not require "thinking outside the box." These are basic management directives all of us should be following all the time, not just during crises.
Easier said than done? Of course. Moving inventory jumps out as the biggest hurdle because to sell, you need buyers, and buyers are what the economic recovery is hoping to see. There are two alternatives: You can try holding on by your fingernails, waiting for those customers to magically reappear, or you can do something to stir up their passion and speed up their reappearance.
Think "basics" and "realities." You need to look for the embers of whatever remains in customers' burning passion, get the heat back up and fan the flames. Pile on as much combustible fuel as you can, whether it's move-now incentives, on-the-lot interested bankers, availability of slips or moorings, refit packages, presale refurbishing of boats that owners need to sell to buy what you're selling, or whatever. Note that many of these suggestions are either low in cost or use labor that otherwise might not be doing much.
Boat shows and hardware/gear jumbles prove that boaters love to look at boats and equipment. Make your own event, real or virtual or both. Hit the Internet. (Have your kids help if this seems like rocket science to you. They know social networking and can build all kinds of outreach.) But make sure every name you've ever had in your files is included when you announce you're having a party. The most basic step in selling is to have a prospect right in front of you.
Advertise as much as you can afford, but add your own time to personally call the local newspapers, radio and TV stations and visit them to talk about what you're doing. Go face-to-face and "sell" them on covering your event. Customers don't buy boats by phone; media editors don't always "buy" what you're saying over the phone. Then ask local merchants if they want to join in the festivities. Create a buzz, and you'll often find that it carries over into crowd engagement.
Clean up the premises and make sure your staff is ready to answer every question, and offer free perks like coffee and snacks. Basic stuff. Always keep in mind that the people who come to your event want to be given an excuse to buy; they've been putting it off for a long time now. Stress "new." New is exciting; old is where everyone's boat and gear already are. Boaters love to feel well-informed, and what you're selling is bound to be newer than what they own and know about. It's simply more basic stuff.
Just as people usually fail when trying to time the stock market, trying to time when boat buyers and re-equippers will hit the marine market is going to be very hard to guess exactly. The basic advice given to investors, to sock a little away regularly, is virtually guaranteed to work just as well in marine marketing. You need to be pulling and cajoling potential customers all the time, because you cannot know for sure when they will reach the moment of decision and empowerment. But they will reach that moment.
Understand that passion drives boaters, that reaching out to them and keeping that passion burning makes customers, that all the recessions we've faced in the lifetimes of everyone still alive did not change our culture's expectation and demand for leisure time afloat, and that the strength of many of the simplest maxims is that they seem to actually work.
So get back to basics, pick the low-hanging fruit first, keep it simple (stupid) and then, only if you've done all those steps, you can start to think outside the box again.
Donald Brewster joined the marine industry in the 1960s, helped launch Sail magazine in 1970, and started his own advertising agency, now named Brewster Strategies, in 1973. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue.