If yours is like most businesses in America these days, you’ve likely slashed your budget and readjusted the bottom line more than once.
For many, the bonuses and extra perks of the past have sailed into the proverbial sunset. And yet for others, still, there’s the adjustment and challenges associated with staff reductions and a whole host of assorted cost-cutting measures. Survival is the name of the game, with the goal to be well positioned to move toward the mark the minute the winds of change finally blow and the economic boom eventually swings around.
No doubt it’s a volatile marketplace and sales are leaner than ever in our recent history. No question it’s a time to seriously analyze every dime spent against ROI (return on investment). However, seasoned marketers and savvy business owners alike grasp the bona-fide opportunities associated with such economic downturns. While many businesses drop sail and virtually disappear into dead air, the smartest marketing and business strategists thoughtfully plot their course in order to gain momentum and maximize market share.
A few hearty marine marketers have developed and implemented high impact, low cost strategies for success. What follows are seven guerilla strategies employed by a mix of both sail and powerboat companies that have helped catapult them above the fray, allowing them to energize their businesses and keep them moving forward.
Sailboat companies featured in this issue include Bob Bitchin, publisher of Latitudes & Attitudes magazine and producer of Latitudes & Attitudes TV; David Pritchard, president of leading technical clothier Gill North America; and Sean Svendsen, vice president and COO of Svendsen’s Boat Works, a leading boatyard in Alameda, CA. Powerboat dealers tapped for inclusion include Boating Industry Magazine’s Top 100 Dealers Randy Kelly of Kelly’s Port, Gravois Mills, MO; Fred Pace, Legendary Marine, Destin, FL; and Larry Russo, Russo Marine in Boston, MA.
CREATE CUSTOMER CONTACT AND RETENTION INITIATIVES.
The undisputed Number One strategy adopted by top performing marketers in this group involves the consistent execution of various customer loyalty and retention programs. The old-fashioned guerilla marketing strategy involving one-on-one telephone calls and personal contact is cited as the most important strategy for sales success.
With that in mind, what are you doing to enhance the lines of communication with your customers on a regular basis? Do you employ calling strategies with follow-up and tracking mechanisms and require accountability for those calls? How about producing inexpensive, regularly-distributed e-blasts or e-newsletters with content customized from your company, and for your customers? Do you snail mail via direct mail or other forms of print communications?
Sean Svendsen hired a full-time graphic designer to customize a variety of promotions to customers, as well as to targeted groups, fleets, associations, yacht clubs, etc. One strategy that seems to work particularly well is customization.
“Customized advertising makes readers feel important to the entity who is soliciting their business,” said Svendsen. “In our boat sales division, for example, we recently sold six new Vanguard 15’s using a customized quote and order form.”
Another proponent of personalized contact with customers is Randy Kelly of Kelly’s Port. He makes it a habit to write and mail two handwritten note cards a week to customers. Kelly claims this effort is inexpensive, yet highly effective in breaking through the clutter of incoming mail, while building and further reinforcing positive customer relationships.
Think about it: over a course of a year, 104 customers receive personal notes from the owner of their dealership where they buy or store their boats and related product … requiring only a few hours of time over the course of the year, plus the cost of a few postage stamps!
Ask yourself: when was the last time you received a handwritten note from anyone sincerely thanking you for your business? Can you remember the last time you received ANYTHING handwritten, much less a letter from the owner thanking you personally for your business?
While Kelly’s Port understands the value of 1:1 relationships with his boat owners, David Pritchard of Gill NA exercises this same attitude and mindset on his retailers on the B-2-B side.
“We place a very high value on our dealership relationships,” says Pritchard. “We teach all of our points of contact involved with the dealership base to adopt a ‘servant heart attitude’ and to serve our dealers with excellence.”
This is accomplished with the company’s new ‘What to Wear’ training and seminar program that Gill stages at boat shows for their customers, along with enhanced communications through a monthly e-newsletter and through increased frequency of 1:1 communications including regular rep support visits and calls.
“Our team is focused to understand dealer needs and to provide a unique delivery to the dealer that offers distinct value, every day,” he explained.
CREATE CONSISTENT VISIBILITY.
When a business goes dark and lacks visibility to its target market, negative impressions are made. People notice. While budgets might be reduced, you really can’t afford to disappear altogether. The goal is to carefully analyze and selectively choose advertising mediums that best reach your target market, and then position yourself as strongly as you can and with as much frequency as your budget will allow. This may include print and online advertisements, plus all those communication strategies previously cited.
Two of the sailboat companies interviewed employ this strategy and recognize the importance of strong consumer positioning in leading media.
Gill’s Pritchard explains that on the business-to-consumer side, outreach and brand building remains the priority.
“We have stepped up our print advertising campaign in the main marine magazines this year,” he said. “We also continue to develop our database to keep the retail customer informed about retail promotions and new products through e-news. We also send out press and new product releases to the trade, with 1:1 media follow-up.”
Added Svendsen, whose father Svend started the boatyard in 1963 which employs 60, “Our primary marketing activities include print ads in the largest circulation sailing magazine in the Bay area (Latitude 38) and electronic advertising on their website.”
While somewhat of a different twist on creative visibility, perhaps Larry Russo gets the award for innovation. Russo took a trade on a 27’ RV for a boat, but instead of wholesaling it in the market, he had every inch cleverly wrapped in bold dealership graphics. His sales team rotates out on a weekly basis, driving it to and from home for a week at a time. Every day, the RV is jammed smack dab in the congestion of prime time morning and PM traffic, highly visible each week to different geographic segments in and around the city. Thousands of miles have already been logged as Russo builds awareness in a thoroughly creative manner.
CREATE WINNING PARTNERSHIPS.
Where possible, meet with your advertising reps and publishers to discuss how you can partner together for success. Long-term advertisers will invest the time to help build a program or campaign to maximize your ROI. Especially during these tough economic times when budgets are tight, your media partners will work extra hard to earn and build your business.
One publishing firm has capitalized on advertising partnerships to create win-win marketing programs. Bob Bitchin, the bigger-than-life creator of Latitudes & Attitudes, decided a few years ago to maximize online opportunities on the Internet to benefit his advertisers, readers and his specialty publishing company.
“I decided to take Latitudes & Attitudes onto the Internet and while I wasn’t the only magazine to do it, I was the only one to make it absolutely free,” he said. “I took a chance it would cut my paid subscriptions, but as it turns out, it didn’t affect it that much. What is did do was to triple my readership.
“At the same time,” he added, “we arranged to have our TV show moved to a national network and with it broadcasting to hundreds of thousands of homes each week, it drove traffic to the website, where the magazine was free.”
Bitchin brought these new online opportunities directly to his magazine advertisers, offering free links from their online ads directly to his advertisers’ websites. In this manner, his customers were able to take full advantage of the increased online readership and could directly track the results from their investment.
“In a nutshell, we cut our costs, increased our readership, lowered our ad rates and made a switch to become internet-based, with the magazine and TV show funneling everything to the site,” he said.
In May, Bitchin claims the website hit an all-time record with 149,000 visitors and 3,531,453 page views and in all, 7 million hits, all of which he substantiates through Google.
Besides your media partners, what others groups or organizations can you partner with effectively? Clubs, organizations, associations such as Svendsen hits with its customized messaging? How about local restaurants or watering holes where your target market meets?
Pace, whose Legendary Marine dealership has a cruise club of 700 members, has worked hard to establish strong community relations and partnerships. He has created winning promotions in conjunction with restaurants, bars, boutiques and even a leading area jeweler, all of whom see great value in his affluent customer base. He leverages these relationships in behalf of his customers and also enjoys reciprocal website advertising links.
Svendsen is also a big believer in partnership initiatives, but with a caveat. Instead of being one of a long list of event sponsors and getting lost in the shuffle, he negotiates sole sponsorships on key events that allow his boatyard top billing and exposure.
“Our secondary marketing activities include regatta and event sponsorship where we are the king cheese, not diluted by the presence of multiple sponsors,” he said.
CREATE MEMORABLE SPECIAL EVENTS.
Have a party and invite your customers! Host an open house, seminars, rendezvous or raft ups … give people reasons to connect with you and to celebrate! This also gives your sales team a legitimate reason to make those 1:1 calls.
Legendary’s Pace shared how his dealership simply hosted a weekly study group for owners who wanted to prepare for the captain’s license testing. Week after week those owners came to the dealership to study, all the while being influenced by the new and used product and gear offerings. The cost? Use of a room, beverages and snacks!
Boston’s Russo, one of the nation’s top Sea Ray dealers, says his dealership hosts a mix of special events and keeps an active social calendar, all of which gives customers a reason to visit regularly.
Russo is also a major boat show advocate whose booths always attract attention, thanks to the sheer scope of their size and the promotional activities. One strategy he has implemented is partnering with other Sea Ray dealers for the key regional shows, which allow them to have a formidable and impressive presence when compared to the competition. He markets prior to the show to drive customers, never relying solely on the show producer. Once there, the dealership christens new boat buyers with a bell-ringing celebration at the time of sale, coupled with a “wheel of fortune” spin for extra goodies made available to show buyers.
In fact, boat shows are key marketing strategies for all those surveyed for this story; Svendsen, like Russo, likes a commanding presence and is the largest exhibitor at Strictly Sail Pacific.
CREATE INNOVATIVE AND NEW PRODUCT OFFERINGS.
No matter what the industry, the buying public always has interest in what’s new. Innovation is often the impetus that ignites new sales, so it comes as no surprise that our panelists advocate this strategy.
“We believe that innovation fuels growth, and Gill UK continues to do an excellent job listening to the market and creating and delivering unique and distinct value for the market,” said Pritchard. “On an annual basis, Gill updates as much as 20 percent of its range.”
Closely watching industry trends and responding to change is an effective way to stimulate innovation. Bitchin, who had already shifted his business to the Internet, observed keenly as advertising funds continued to tighten, and responded accordingly.
“Due to the economy, marine advertising became too expensive for some companies,” he said. “We supplemented our revenue by expanding our retail Ship’s Store. We now balance our cash flow between advertising, subscription sales and product sales.”
CREATE POSITIVE WEBSITE EXPERIENCES.
Another trend worth noting is the attention given to the Internet by buyers, particularly those in the research stage. As Russo so aptly described it, “The website is today’s new front door.”
All of the participants agreed that today’s buyers are Internet savvy and conduct much of their preliminary product and pricing research long before they ever step into a brick and mortar environment or make a telephone call.
Your website is a key marketing tool that needs to be professionally presented, integrated with keywords for search engine optimization, and rich in content that is updated regularly and easy to navigate. Create opportunities for interactivity and ongoing connection by building opt-in lists for future follow-up.
“Our website is constantly refined to support any retail customer investigation,” said Pritchard.
CREATE NEW SOCIAL NETWORKING OPPORTUNITIES.
The June Waypoints cover story covered in great depth the rise of social media marketing. Many marine companies now recognize this new medium as an emerging marketing trend of great importance. Someone from your organization should be given responsibility for and given adequate time and training in these new social media marketing platforms in order to connect your business on the leading edge of technology and communications.
“In terms of what has worked best for us in producing low cost, high impact results, we have formed new relationships through viral marketing and social networking,” advised Pritchard. “We monitor what is being said about our products – good and bad – on the well known sites. This information is then used in our product development process.”
Pritchard has defined social marketing groups through what he dubs ‘season of life’ communities including junior, scholastic, weekend warriors and so forth.
“These are all social communities that we support through events which help us build relationships and allow us to help in any way that is practical.”
It may be a sluggish market, but our group of savvy marketers has seized the opportunity to succeed. While some others in the industry opt to complain and watch their sales plummet, our profile group has strategically overcome the obstacles through a variety of low cost, high impact marketing initiatives that have made a difference in their respective businesses. In addition, they’ve all learned valuable lessons during the downturn that will make their businesses stronger in the future.
Svendsen advises, “Don’t invest too much in fringe products or risky profit centers. We do take on new products, but not those that are gimmicky. They must have a very practical application in the marketplace with adequate demand. We ask ourselves, "How will this product increase our ROI?”
Another new strategy adopted by Svendsen as a direct response of the economy involves the execution of well packaged promotions.
“We pair money-saving promotions with the products and services we sell. People are looking for added value,” he says. “For instance, we offer a free polish and wax of a boat’s topsides when we paint the bottom.”
Gill’s Pritchard is thoughtful about what he’s learned during these tumultuous times.
“Lessons we have learned include the need to beware of distractions and to focus on core competencies,” he said. “We have to adapt quickly, be flexible and always move toward our target.
“In addition, strong leadership skills are necessary to lead during tough times,” he added. “Make sure you have the right stuff in the DNA of your management team. In the end, I have learned to lean more on my faith and not so much on my own understanding.”
A strategy Pritchard employs is to guard his resources … including time, talent and money. He also communicates with other business leaders in the trade to cross check on how the market is really doing.
Finally, Pritchard and crew have established a zero line budget, with cost justification on all marketing expenses. While he is an avid promoter who has invested in a few solid strategies, he challenges himself and his team to always ask: “Are we adding cost … or value?” He seeks to leverage core competencies with suitable partners in a collaborative strategy that will ultimately result in sales.
One thing is for sure: it’s no longer business as usual or as we knew it. Survival isn’t a matter of luck or chance. It is a game of strategy. And he who has the best strategy, wins.
Wanda Kenton Smith is editor of Waypoints,
president of Marine Marketers of America, national marketing columnist for Soundings Trade Only
since 1997, and owner/president of Kenton Smith Marketing, www.kentonsmithmarketing.com
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