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The shape of things to come

What millennials love and hate and what they buy

Millennials are now America’s largest generation, with nearly a quarter of its population, and by all accounts have already begun defining what will and will not succeed in the consumer marketplace.  

Socrates long ago observed that one should “know thyself” above all else. For marine marketers the corollary of this sage advice is that you must fully understand your customers if you expect to prosper in a world undergoing such dramatic digital and demographic shifts. 

Choosing what to believe about America’s boaters is not unlike navigating a complex minefield. For example, according to the Coast Guard’s 2011 National Recreational Boating Survey, the three top reasons for boating are socializing (76 percent), cruising (70 percent) and sightseeing and nature observation, at 65 percent. 

Contrary to what you may have heard over the years in many industry forums, only 48 percent of respondents to this survey cite fishing as their primary reason for boating. For the full survey results, see:

At first blush, these top three activities seem to be awfully mellow pursuits for such a seemingly active recreation. But the more I think about it, the more these numbers make sense. Except for those operating the vessel, most of the 87 million who the NMMA claims went boating last year are primarily along for the ride and to enjoy the “entertainment” that the platform provides (see 

Meanwhile, the just released 2016 Recreational Boating Participation Study sponsored by the NMMA, RBFF and Discover Boating makes the astounding claim that there are 141.6 million “active” boaters in the United States. The study defines an “active boater” as anyone who boarded a recreational boat in 2016. To my mind that’s like claiming that everyone who boards a plane is a pilot. 

To put matters into further perspective, more “active” pursuits, such as racing, scuba diving/snorkeling and sailing attract 10 percent or less of those who go boating. Knowing more about what motivates boating’s participants is going to be critical in figuring out how to transform them into actual boat owners. 

Some interesting facts about “participation” in the recreational world in which we live are also worth noting. Attendance at major professional sporting events, for example, is either stagnant or on the decline. Baseball, America’s so-called national pastime, has seen attendance drop from 79 million to 73 million in the 10 years from 2007 to 2016, and both NFL and NBA attendance numbers have barely budged during the same period. 

Among the more active recreational pursuits, downhill skiing has remained stable and snowboarding has increased. Golf participation peaked in 2003 at 30 million and has been on a steady decline, to 27 million, since then. And although it’s true that overall high school sports participation has been increasing for 22 straight years, the annual 100,000 increase has dropped most recently to 40,000. 

The only recreational pursuit that appears to have grown consistently for more than a generation is couch potatoes who are enjoying what many critics claim is the new Golden Age of television. According to a recent article in USA Today, more than 70 million Americans are classified as “inactive.” If that’s the case, I can only imagine what the couch potato numbers will be when augmented and virtual reality truly arrive in our living rooms. 

The ramifications of this are no joke. Many of these couch potatoes have grown up with a computer in their playpen rather than a bouncing rubber ball. Among these couch potatoes are the leading edge of the 80-million-member millennial generation, who have now reached the age of 40, where they should — all things being equal — become prime prospects for the boating lifestyle. Not sure who’s who? Here’s a breakdown of the generally accepted generational segments: 

Gen Z, iGen or Centennials (born 1996 and later) 

Millennials or Gen Y: (born 1977 to 1995) 

Generation X: (born 1965 to 1976) 

Baby boomers: (born 1946 to 1964)

Three and a half years ago my column “Undervalued Gen X is Boating’s Sweet Spot” ( columns-blogs/undervalued-gen-boatingssweet-spot) took top honors in the annual BWI writing contest Business of Boating category. I argued at the time that marine marketers should disregard all of the hype about millennials because they were too young and did not have the financial resources to get into boating anytime soon. 

It now appears that I may have overstated the case. Millennials are now America’s largest generation, with nearly a quarter of its population, and by all accounts have already begun defining what will and will not succeed in the consumer marketplace. 

A must-read for the marine marketer is “8 Modern Tips for Marketing to Millennials” by Meaghan Moraes for HubSpot (https:// She maintains that millennials crave authenticity and user-generated content, and she quotes a survey that notes that 84 percent of millennials don’t trust traditional outbound advertising. 

Instead they want informative content that will enrich their lives and support their need to live instead of buy. Millennials have fully embraced the sharing economy, with one report noting that there were 17 billion-dollar companies with 60,000 employees catering to this market more than two years ago, including Airbnb, Lyft, Uber, Lending Club, WeWork and HomeAway, just to name a few. 

Whether or not leasing a new boat for three years like a car rather than buying it ever gets under way is anyone’s guess, given the current makeup of the marine industry. But sharing a boat now appears to be much more likely. Boatsetter’s recent acquisition of Boatbound is a harbinger of things to come. 

Not yet convinced that millennials are significantly different from boomers and Gen Xers and need to be marketed to in an entirely different manner? According to, here are a few millennial preferences: 


  • Buying cars online
  • Fast service
  • Nostalgia
  • Text/online customer service
  • Quality ingredients
  • Social conscientiousness
  • A level of local exclusivity 


  • Traditional car-buying experience
  • Lines
  • Expecting what worked 10 years ago to work now
  • Having to talk to someone on the phone
  •  Faux substitutes
  • Feigned charity and insincerity
  • Being called a millennial

If “Give Peace a Chance” was the plea of the baby boomers, the chant most associated with millennials, according to Money magazine, is “I want what I want when I want it.” Here, says Money, are 10 things that millennials buy far more often than everyone else. 

  1. 7-Eleven and gas station food
  2. Same-day delivery 
  3. Hot sauces, such as siracha  
  4. Splurging on pets and liking snakes 
  5. Leisurewear (yoga pants and women’s tights) 
  6. Organic food 
  7. Up to 40 percent of millennials have at least one tattoo 
  8. Energy drinks 
  9. Craft Booze
  10. Making a donation at the cash register 

Not your cup of tea? Can’t see yourself in yoga pants or looking forward to dining at a gas station? According to Discover Boating’s recent “Tomorrow’s Boat Owners” report, “The boating industry is at a crossroads. On the surface we’ve recovered from the recession. But every year fewer people enter boating for the first time and make it through the buying process.” 

Perhaps you should consider hiring a millennial for your marketing department while you still have a business to grow.

About the Author: Michael Sciulla is president of Credibility & Company Comunications, as well as vice president of the Marine Marketers of America and a member of the board of directors of Boating Writers International. During a 28-year career at BoatUS he built the association’s brand, as membership grew from 30,000 to 650,000. He has testified more than 30 times before congressional committees. 

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue.



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