About 16 years ago, the boating industry’s marketing program to sell the lifestyle kicked into high gear. Leading the Discover Boating campaign was Carl Blackwell, freshly recruited from the beef industry and its promotional message: “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.”
Still at the helm of Discover Boating in 2019, Blackwell recalls that Dave Humphreys was also at an early meeting. Then the president of the RV Industry Association, Humphreys had come to share his experience with the Go RVing program, which a coalition of RV manufacturers, dealers and campgrounds formed in 1994.
It was the first of many times that leaders of Go RVing and Discover Boating would share information and ideas over the years, even though the organizations had at least one key difference: Their funding models diverged from the start. And the way that each industry chose to fund its promotional efforts affected how GoRVing and Discover Boating were able to perform immediately after the Great Recession, as well as how they are performing today as they move even deeper into the digital realm.
Both the RV Industry Association and Go RVing received payments for official certification seals applied to each RV sold, while Grow Boating, the industry council that oversees Discover Boating, derived income from a more complicated assessment based primarily on engine sales.
According to Joe Lewis, chairman of Grow Boating since 2010 and owner of the Mount Dora Boating Center dealership in Mount Dora, Fla., different methods for identifying and paying for the assessment were developed, depending on whether an OEM or aftermarket purchase was involved. In practice, Lewis says, some manufacturers identify the assessment on their invoices while others package it into their pricing or absorb the cost.
Before the recession, when boat and engine sales were strong, Discover Boating funding levels were ample and a variety of marketing approaches brought the boating lifestyle to a broader audience. They included advertising on cable TV and in high-circulation magazines as well as DVD distribution, public relations efforts, paid Internet searches, and early forays into social media.
But when the recession hit, funding for the Discover Boating budget dropped. In 2009, it went from $14 million to $1 million. Although Lewis says the program went “virtually dark,” a small staff and discoverboating.com were maintained.
“I give our industry leaders credit,” Blackwell says. “They could have shut this down.”
By contrast, with the RV Industry Association, product sales also fell significantly during the recession, reducing the number of seals sold, but overall funding was sustained at a higher level. And the RV industry made the decision to invest in its future by increasing the cost of the seals.
National Marine Manufacturers Association President Frank Hugelmeyer, who led the RV Industry Association from 2015 until earlier this year, says, “It was a courageous moment of industry leadership and unity. It meant that the industry would recover from the recession together.”
At Discover Boating, Blackwell was more on his own. With his smaller team and much smaller budget, he began using digital marketing as the mainstay of the program. “The recession taught us some lessons,” he says, “and we got really good at social media.”
The team won the Small Budgets-Products category of the North American Effie Awards for its 2010 interactive Facebook campaign, “Making Waves,” which put participants in a virtual captain’s chair to experience boating while prompting thousands to enter a sweepstakes and receive the “Get Started in Boating” DVD. The number of followers of Discover Boating’s Facebook page grew to 39,000 during the campaign, encouraging the team to make a sustained push. Today, the Discover Boating page has close to 770,000 followers.
Blackwell says that around the same time Discover Boating was moving into social media, consumers became less willing to give personal information. The RV industry saw the same trend happening. “Both campaigns realized that we won’t generate a ton of leads,” he says, “but what we could do is be a portal to drive consumers to brand sites.”
In the years since, Discover Boating’s funding has risen to $9 million annually, and the program’s focus has emphasized putting consumers on an even footing with dealer sales personnel.
“We arm the first-time buyer with more information so they are more confident when they shop,” Blackwell says. The strategy increases Discover Boating’s capacity to connect with and refer potential customers to brand sites.
According to Lewis, that capacity has increased dramatically, with the program on track in 2019 to boost referrals to 3.4 million, up 700,000 from 2018.
Go RVing has also grown its annual budget since the recession to more than $25 million, and Hugelmeyer says the funding has enabled the use of higher-impact advertising options such as cable TV, major events and sports programming. Having enough budget for a high-profile national campaign builds consumer awareness and allows the Go RVing team to be opportunistic and buy advertising close to an event at a fraction of the retail price.
But the Go RVing campaign has begun to shift emphasis away from Super Bowl- or college football-type advertising, Hugelmeyer says. Instead, it has invested in experiential event and digital marketing, which can be measured and has generated strong results.
He also points to an increased focus on telling the story about how a vehicle is the consumer’s pathway to a meaningful life and wide variety of experiences. That message has helped younger audiences approach the outdoor lifestyle and find a way to see themselves in the product.
A key to the strategy, Hugelmeyer says, is a data-driven approach through digital marketing that has rewarded experimenting with ways to reach new consumer segments and that has begun producing some of Go RVing’s most cost-effective, highest-return initiatives. For example, the team has expanded the use of influencer marketing through bloggers and YouTube creators, allowing for microtargeting of interested-to-buy segments.
“It seems like the RV folks understand you need to sell the lifestyle and get people hooked on wanting to do it,” Lewis says. “We’re a very product-focused industry, and we have served our core [baby] boomer market well. But when you look beyond that at a whole big world of newbies—not so much.”
Some of Discover Boating’s recent campaigns have moved toward making boating cool for younger people by developing influencer partnerships. This year, Blackwell’s team began working with independent YouTube creators such as devinsupertramp (nearly 5.6 million subscribers). As an example, one three-minute video of his shoot at Lake Powell shows a young, hip group exploring ancient ruins, canyons and caves, interspersed with wakeboard and wakesurf stunts.
One of the keys to Go RVing’s success, according to Hugelmeyer, has been “the enormous freedom given to the Go RVing team to set campaign strategy and drive its direction towards growing different consumer segments.”
One way it has gained support, he says, is to ask target-market focus groups to compare different campaign ideas and then have a group from the industry respond to the same questions. The differences in the campaigns that appeal to the two groups were often striking and led industry leaders who have spent their lives with RVs to recognize that they may no longer be their own target customer.
“Overcoming that bias,” Hugelmeyer says, “is critical to changing the hearts and minds of consumer groups different from you.”
Hugelmeyer credits Discover Boating with having a solid, data-driven foundation for marketing to the boating lifestyle, and for providing tools to manufacturers and retailers. He also likes the campaign’s movement toward using new digital platforms such as Connected TV and influencer marketing.
According to Lewis, Discover Boating’s annual review is scheduled for November. While it will be worth watching any shifts that Discover Boating might make in 2020, perhaps more intriguing will be whether its funding can be substantially increased over time.
As a former president of both the Outdoor Industry Association and the RV Industry Association, Hugelmeyer has a track record of building coalitions of partners. That skill would be vital in finding agreement on how to increase Discover Boating’s funding.
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue.