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Undervalued Gen X is boating’s sweet spot

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” If you watched Peter Finch make this dramatic declaration in the movie “Network” more than a generation ago, this column is for you.

If you saw it streaming or online, you’re probably too young and don’t have the financial resources to buy a new recreational boat or you’re not in a position with enough seniority to direct a corporate marketing strategy.

Why draw a line in the sand? Because it seems nearly every day I am bombarded with yet another article in a newspaper, magazine, online or on television about the importance of millennials. We’re told that this generation, born beginning in 1982 and also known as Generation Y or the echo boomers, is the market that marketers should be marketing to.

Although that may be true for apparel, bicycles and smartphones, I wouldn’t bet the bank or the marketing budget on this generation just yet if you’re in the business of selling powerboats, associated equipment and services.

The fact is that the oldest millennial is a mere 32 and not in a position to buy enough stuff to turn our industry around anytime soon.

The other fact is that the youngest baby boomer turned 50 in 2014 and the oldest is 68. As a card-carrying member of this generation and a veteran of a week at Woodstock, I can honestly say that I don’t think there are enough boomers left, especially after the Great Recession, who are going to plunk down five to six figures on a new boat.

Many have kids on the eight-year college plan, some have parents who are still alive and most need to keep putting something away for their own retirement because everyone is telling them that they’re going to live a lot longer than they ever had reason to believe.

The sad fact is that neither of these much-touted generations is going to move the needle sufficiently to get the boating business back on its feet. Sure, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is only 30 and many of the newly minted techies in Silicon Valley are that age or younger, but these geeks are more apt to lease an expensive product, such as a Tesla, than buy it outright, or to rent a Zipcar or arrange a vacation through than buy a timeshare.

Instead, it’s high time we take a serious look at the forgotten members of Generation X, those born from 1965 to 1980 and who are now 34 to 49. In my view, this MTV generation represents the sweet spot for the immediate future of the recreational boating industry. How these Gen Xers respond to marketing techniques and how they differ from boomers and millennials and what you can do to tailor your marketing strategy to them is worth reviewing.

To begin, we need to clarify one common misperception regarding Generation X. Although it is true that the number of Americans born into this generation is fewer than that of the baby boom or millennial generations, immigration has leveled the generational gap to the point that the actual size differential is much less meaningful for marketing purposes.

In her book “Marketing to Generation X,” author Karen Ritchie notes that “Xers came of age in a world radically different from the one that boomers inherited.” Consequently, boomers who are still calling the shots in many parts of the marine industry must take into account that Gen Xers have a different way of looking at the world. Marketing strategies that worked for boomers are not necessarily going to succeed with Gen Xers.

According to author Jay Ehret, who writes the blog The Marketing Spot, “Gen Xers are more diverse than previous generations in terms of race, class, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation. They are more likely to be the children of divorced parents than previous generations. Statistically, they have the highest education levels. Gen Xers make less money individually in real dollars than their parents did, but have higher household income because of more women in the workforce.”

Although there is a general consensus that Gen Xers are more skeptical (some would say cynical) than their predecessors, they are also considered to be more technologically savvy than boomers. That said, many of their careers were just taking off when the dot-com boom and bust of 1999-2001 hit.

Generation X is the “Show Me” generation. They believe actions over words. When you develop a marketing strategy to reach Gen Xers, here are a number of insights to consider, according to an article in the Journal of Behavioral Studies in Business by Kaylene C. Williams and Robert A. Page:

• Gen Xers want plenty of information before making a purchasing decision.

• It is more effective to approach them as a consultant than as a seller.

• You must show them that you know what you are talking about.

• They prefer an informal communication style.

• Be frank and use straightforward facts, candor and honesty.

• Use short sound bites to keep their attention.

• They do not respond well to slick marketing pitches because they are skeptical of modern advertising.

According to the consulting firm ROCG Global, “Gen Xers can be reached via direct channels such as direct mail, email, infomercials, telemarketing and the Internet, but their approach is to treat what they find there as information that will help them make a decision, to find out what’s going on in the marketplace and to contrast and compare as many sources as possible to arrive at the right thing to do. What they don’t do is take direct marketing at its face value or just use it to buy something.”

Ehret emphasizes that Gen Xers like to research while shopping online. They read more reviews and visit more opinion sites. This would suggest a couple of tactics, such as ramping up one’s presence on opinion websites, striving for excellent customer service, correcting mistakes as soon as they happen, offering money-back guarantees and using keyword search engine advertising.

ROCG notes, however, that “marketing resistance, particularly to direct marketing, is at an all-time high and members of Gen X are among the most aggressive at rejecting intrusive marketing and resentful of saturation — what’s more they have the knowledge, sophistication, technology and willingness to disconnect themselves from marketers when they feel aggrieved.”

The bottom line: Although I’m not saying your marketing efforts should be solely focused on Gen X, I am suggesting that for the next five years or so — as boomers fade away and millennials come into their own — that the marine industry should put its marketing efforts into reaching out to this much underappreciated generation.

At the same time, the boating industry should take note of a strategic partnership recently announced between Brunswick and Boatbound, the airbnb-like service that connects boat owners with those wishing to rent a boat. I am convinced that boating needs to have more options than simply hoping that consumers — regardless of their generation — will fork over tens of thousands of dollars to give boating a try.

Brunswick should be congratulated for taking this giant step. That said, just how Brunswick moves to develop and monetize this partnership and what the other players in this potentially game-changing arena do will be interesting to watch and may well be a harbinger.

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.

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue.



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