A Market For New Marketing

In 2008 and into 2009, the average marine dealer’s marketing plan became quite simple: cut expenses. The downturn had persisted long enough by 2008 that dealers had already begun trimming this line item, but 2008 demanded rethinking the expenses altogether.

For some dealers, like Prince William Marine Sales (Ranked 4; See Top 5 Profile, Page 44) and Marine Center of Indiana (Ranked 19), the down market has caused them to become more aggressive with their marketing. For others, a new vision for their marketing plans has emerged.

Even with the boating market showing significant signs of economic erosion, Prince William Marine, based in Woodbridge, Va., “decided it was time to increase budgets and embark on a more aggressive, proactive approach to make the company a ‘household name’ in the Washington, D.C., marketplace,” says Carlton Phillips, CEO. The strategy was similar to the efforts that worked for the company during a recession in the early 90s, when Phillips says, “the marketing gamble was extremely successful and created significant growth for Prince William Marine.”

This time around, Prince William increased funding in a number of areas: community involvement programs; advertising programs with national exposure; marina event programs and events; and general advertising. The company also has a full-time Webmaster on its staff, who has been expanding the dealership’s Internet business.

At Marine Center of Indiana, the company’s marketing plan flies in the face of accepted industry standards. Most dealers base their advertising and marketing budgets on a percentage of company sales. For instance, the 2009 Top 100 Dealers budgeted, on average, 2.96 percent of sales on this category.

Indianapolis-based Marine Center of Indiana adamantly rejects this philosophy: “No smart business should tie their advertising to sales,” says Mike Hoffman, president. “You spend what is needed to hit your sales goal, and if you are lucky enough to have a great response, you’ve beaten your goal. And if that works, never stop!”

To many, the strategy may seem far too vague, but it works well for Hoffman. His company reduced its expenses by $125,000 in 2008, but in some areas, like marketing, it increased its spending.

“In a year when our sales were down,” he explains, “we spent over $5,000 per month more on advertising. Why? So we did not lose as much business as the rest of our industry. We continue to sell above the industry average, and we will continue to do so.”

A big reason why the philosophy works is that Marine Center is diligent about first researching its customer base and then measuring the return on its marketing investment. The company performs extensive trend analyses on boat purchase data from the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles and Statistical Surveys, in addition to data it deems pertinent to consumers’ desires for future purchases: Web site hits, phone surveys, walk-in leads and response rates from specific direct marketing campaigns. Marine Center bases its marketing on what it learns and then puts one of the best efforts in the industry into measuring the success of those marketing dollars.

“We have developed a system that, with the help of our advertising partners, we can tell, for three years running, how much money we spent on any day of the week and translate that into how many people it brought in the door,” Hoffman says. “We can look at all the different media we use and gauge how effective our advertising dollars are spent.”

Finding the right strategy
Like Prince William and Marine Center of Indiana, Port Harbor Marine (Ranked 12) made significant investments in its marketing in 2008. To begin with, the company launched a monthly e-newsletter campaign, and later in the year, in an effort to spur business, it began a series of weekly sales e-blasts.

Then, based on the success of those programs, the company “decided it was time to take the campaign to a higher level” and signed on with a leading regional marketing firm. That company is now responsible for overseeing Port Harbor’s entire electronic media marketing program.

“They have helped take marketing and branding efforts to a level we would have never been able to achieve,” says Rob Soucy, Port Harbor president. “Having one source that can design and tie together our creative pieces, handle all of our online efforts, provide video capabilities, along with online and phone call tracking programs to monitor these initiatives has been invaluable.”

Every marketing piece that Port Harbor sends out these days uses special “866” numbers that allow the company to track and record phone calls into each of its five locations. Not only does this provide the company the ability to measure its return on investment, but it also offers ample training opportunities.

Choosing a different strategy, Action Water Sports (Ranked 17) of Hudsonville, Mich., greatly reduces its marketing expenses by controlling its messages through an in-house marketing department. In 2008, the company limited its use of traditional media and began putting its efforts into “lesser expensive but very effective avenues,” explains Jerry Brouwer, general manager at Action. The company uses weekly and monthly newsletters, blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Similarly, MasterCraft Dealer Services (Ranked 22) of Holladay, Utah, made drastic reductions in its marketing expenditures, choosing to turn its focus to the Internet and specifically, social marketing. The company hired a “top-notch college intern” and has since taken its Web and social media presence to the next level, also developing a large following on Facebook and Twitter.

“We have experienced more qualified traffic on our Web site than ever before,” explains Shaun Sorensen, president, “and we are converting them to sales.”

In fact, there were a number of Top 100 Dealers who have driven a substantial amount of traffic to their Web sites through social networking sites, including Spring Brook Marina (Ranked 35), South Shore Marine (Ranked 41) and B&E Marine (Ranked 57), among others. Indeed, electronic media platforms rose to the forefront for most of the Top 100 Dealers, proving to be both cost-effective and measurable in their influence. A number of the Top 100 Dealers, including Baert Marine (Ranked 70), Rambo Marine (Ranked 39), Parks Marina (Ranked 16) and Port Harbor, used e-newsletters to communicate with their customers, while many others, including B&E Marine and Lodder’s Marine Sales (Ranked 65), launched new Web sites in 2008.

At Quality Boats of Clearwater (Ranked 13), in fact, the Florida dealer created an in-depth e-business plan to complement its standard marketing plan. Understanding that the majority of its customers visit the company’s Web site before they visit the dealership, Quality Boats treats its site as its “new front door,” says Daniel Bair, CEO.

“This avenue of promotion is so vital to our success, we determined we better treat it as another facet for our business,” he explains. “Aspects that are included in our e-business plan include budgets for marketing online, segregation of different efforts for proper tracking of our ROI on each specific form of marketing, promotional e-mail blasts and other online efforts to promote our products and brand our dealership.”

Certainly, one of the most important components of any marketing plan is the measurement of its effectiveness. More and more dealers find ways to implement some measure each year, and they are adjusting their media buys based on what they learn.

Rambo Marine, for example, used its dealer management software system to track where every lead comes from. The Hazel Green, Ala.-based, two-location dealership generated reports and then reduced its spending on less effective marketing. The company was then able to shop around for its advertising, eventually getting “an amazing deal” on 30 commercials during the local news.

Sending positive messages
Regardless of the media outlets being used by the Top 100 Dealers, most agree that there is one and only one place where it makes sense to focus their efforts: their current and past customers.

At Buckeye Marine (Ranked 5; See Top 5 Profile, page 46), for example, the company tried to keep its level of spending the same or even marginally higher than last year, while increasing its marketing efforts. To do that, the Bobcaygeon, Ontario, Canada-based company used a list of 16 specific ways it would ramp up its marketing efforts. Much of the plan revolved around past customers — using them in referral programs and testimonial campaigns; contacting them when they are “in the cycle” for a new boat in an effort to get them to upgrade; and launching a “we want your used boat” campaign.

Likewise, Hampton Watercraft & Marine (Ranked 23) knew to turn back to its existing customer base in an effort to increase business. The Hampton Bays, N.Y., company invested more, increasing the amount of money it put into its events, and in the words of Kristin Wells, marketing coordinator, “doing everything to keep customers happy.”

Events have also become a cornerstone of Russo Marine. The seventh-ranked, Medford, Mass.-based dealership launched a series of events that included what Larry Russo, Sr., refers to as the Fall Events Feature Series and the Sea Ray Test Drive Sales Event. The events generated plenty of publicity and traffic, and more importantly, they helped Russo continue a strong marketing presence in the region.

“While our competitors were hiding under their desks waiting for the recession to blow over,” he says, “we were actively campaigning, promoting and sending positive messages to the marketplace that ‘life is better with a boat’ and the time to buy is now.”

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