The next frontier is now within sight: It’s time to sell the sizzle

A marketing campaign can only do so much when the seas around you are receding and your market is shrinking.
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A marketing campaign can only do so much when the seas around you are receding and your market is shrinking. Although new blood is the lifeblood of growth for any industry, the fact is that much of the new-boat market has been on life support for decades. But there’s hope on the horizon. Here’s my prescription for one way that could help reverse our current course.

I’m not the first to suggest that the trends in recreational boating are obvious and ominous for anyone who cares to look. After years of postwar growth, new-boat sales peaked in 1989 and have been on a steady downward slope since. Although some segments have improved since the Great Recession, we are a much smaller industry than we once were. The outlook for the future is not promising if we continue to do what we have always done.

Although the industry trots out participation numbers suggesting that as many Americans go boating today as have in years past, these statistics are suspect and just don’t hold water. Boating also costs too much and most vessels sit at the dock or on land far longer than they are used for their intended purposes. Families with two working parents don’t have the time they once had. Fathers just don’t introduce their kids to fishing and boating like they used to. Tweens today are more likely to get a smartphone from their parents than a fishing rod.

Compounding these trends is a generational seismic shift. Emerging demographic forces are arrayed against the bread and butter of our industry. Baby boomers who once propelled it are going the way of wooden hulls. Young people today prefer to share things rather than own them. Although the industry has done a commendable job of harnessing new technology such as social media, this passive approach is just not enough to turn the tide.

Recall how we all once thought that embedded display ads were a potential gold mine. Yes, all kinds of useful information can be put out on the Web, but although you can lead a horse to water, you can’t make it drink. The crux of the issue, my friends, is how do we get new consumers to taste the elixir of recreational boating?

Each individual market segment doing its own thing by pursuing its own goals and marketing strategies doesn’t help. What’s urgently needed is an industrywide campaign to inspire a large number of potential consumers to experience what makes boating special. How do you get consumers to aspire to boat? How do you show large numbers of consumers that boating is an exciting, fun and affordable experience they just can’t get elsewhere?

I have been on a campaign for the better part of 25 years for the boating industry to throw out a net as wide as possible to attract new blood. In the 1990s Greg Proteau and I (when we worked for the NMMA and BoatUS, respectively) were behind the PBS television series “Boatworks,” first starring A-lister Christopher Reeve and then Robert Urich, which drew an audience in the millions to the joys of boating.

Since then I have campaigned for the industry to find a high-profile spokesman, such as actor and sailor Jonathan Goldsmith of Dos Equis (“the most interesting man in the world”) fame, back a major motion picture or develop or sponsor a TV series. Something, anything that could attract non-boaters to identify with boating. I’ve been told these ideas just cost too much. Perhaps so, but I suspect that cost is far less than what we have lost as the industry has shrunk to a fraction of its former self.

So, what’s my latest idea about how to deliver the boating experience to non-boaters at much less cost? How about harnessing boating to the next big thing — virtual reality?

Though not quite on par with the holodeck on the Starship Enterprise, virtual reality (VR) devices such as Facebook’s Oculus Rift, HTC’s Vive, Sony PlayStation’s Morpheus and Samsung’s Gear VR (free with the purchase of a Galaxy S7 phone) will soon flood the mass market, providing consumers with an alternative to a real-life experience by creating a simulated three-dimensional world. Imagine if you could get a non-boater to get a taste of boating and experience its thrill before actually taking a boat out.

Time magazine ran a must-read cover story last Aug. 17 trumpeting the virtues of virtual reality. Deutsche Bank AG Wall Street analyst Ross Sandler made headlines recently by saying virtual reality is where smartphones were nine years ago. Goldman Sachs Inc. recently issued a report saying, “We continue to believe that VR is poised to be the next computing platform. And like the transition from desktop to mobile, it will be disruptive. ... The first half of 2016 will see the most significant progress on VR/AR ever.”

One of the first low-tech VR viewers out of the box, so to speak, was Google Cardboard. Last November The New York Times mailed 1.3 million Google Cardboard sets with its Sunday newspaper. A glorified cardboard phone case, it uses a pair of glass lenses and an app to drive a virtual reality experience. It will work with just about any Android or iOS smartphone.

According to Margaret Rhodes in Wired, “We had a collective sense that our kids were experiencing something meaningfully new, not just an encounter with a new technology, but with a new way of relating to technology. Virtual reality can take you, however briefly, to places you’ve never seen. Done well, it’s an absolute thrill.”

Think this is pie-in-the-sky? McDonald’s Corp. doesn’t think so. In early March McDonald’s Sweden rolled out a cardboard VR headset viewer dubbed Happy Goggles as part of a “Happy Meal” promotion. According to an article in Adweek, “the push was tied to the Swedish “Sportlov” recreational holiday, during which many families go skiing. With this in mind, McDonald’s created a ski-themed VR game, ‘Slope Stars,’ for use with Goggles.”

If McDonald’s thinks VR can entice young children to go skiing, how much of a leap could it take to use this technology as it matures to encourage not just youngsters, but also millennials, to get a taste of what our recreation has to offer?

One problem, says Sandler, is that VR could be stillborn until there is sufficient content to “wow” consumers other than early adopters. Marketers should recall that Apple’s iPhone really took off after popular apps such as Facebook and Snapchat were developed.

What I am proposing is that the industry get behind an effort to develop “why not?” virtual reality apps rather than the “how-to,” “where-to,” or safety videos of yesteryear that were enough to put most folks to sleep. We need content that is compelling and takes advantage of boating’s visual appeal. VR games featuring power and sailboat racing, fishing tournaments and poker runs are obvious candidates for VR.

Peabody Award-winning director Stephen Reverand, who executive-produced “Deadliest Catch,” oversaw the production of Shark Week for the Discovery Channel and produced numerous specials for National Geographic Television, says VR technology is on the threshold of substantial breakthroughs. Major content distributors, including Comcast and Time Warner, already have sizable investments in developing VR media platforms, while global media producers, including Disney and Discovery Communications, are taking positions in both technological research and content creation.

Reverand thinks recreational boating is a natural fit for VR.

“VR has excelled at bringing its audience into the action — ranging from boxing to auto racing. This speaks to the potential of developing VR platforms that speak to immersive experiences that stimulate the sense of being in the moment. From racing a speedboat around a course to landing a 200-pound tuna off the Florida coast, to crewing on an America’s Cup racing yacht, to tacking a cruising sailboat into an idyllic anchorage in the Turks and Caicos, the possibilities are limitless,” Reverand notes.

“VR represents a perfect opportunity to introduce non-boaters to the thrill of being on the water. It could well be the rising tide that lifts all boats,” he mused.

Whether virtual reality is the next wave of the future remains to be seen. That said, the good news is that producing VR apps that promote boating should be less expensive than producing content for television or film. If you agree that VR has merit, let me hear from you.

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 April 2016 issue.

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