Creating a marine marketing plan

A famous late-night comedian once said to a celebrity guest who had hired a
psychologist to work with her dog, “You know what else you can do? Get up on the roof of your house, take a handful of money and just throw it into the wind.”

Owners and managers who spend tens of thousands of dollars each year marketing their businesses without a plan in place to guide the expenditure of that money often achieve the same result. And, unfortunately, still too many companies in the marine industry are taking that approach.

Wanda Kenton Smith, president of Kenton Smith Marketing and the Marine Marketers of America, says she has seen very few companies develop bona fide marketing plans during the more than 30 years she’s worked in the industry.

“Some have short-term tactics in place for the coming year tied into specific goals, but few really take the time to strategize a formal plan,” Kenton Smith says. “There is too much shotgun marketing in the marine industry, from my observation. Companies often shoot from the hip, trying this or that, hoping one idea will stick and deliver. Or they play ‘follow the leader,’ mimicking what others do. Fewer even consider measuring their marketing initiatives in order to analyze what works.”

Books have been written on the subject of creating a marketing plan, and numerous resources are available for those who would like to write one for their business. Because of the unique variables involved in each circumstance, there is no one-size-fits-all method for doing so. But there are shared elements many of the experts agree must be included when drawing up a plan.

What follows is a guide you can use to help begin creating your own marketing plan. It is based on a marketing plan outline found on the Small Business Administration’s website (see Learn More at and also incorporates tips and suggestions from a number of other sources. However, this is only a guide. Experts caution that while outlines and templates can provide valuable information, they are no substitute for an experienced advisor. The outline on the following pages is not meant to replace that person, but it should give you an idea of what is involved in creating a marketing plan and provide a place to start.

Step 1. Write Your Executive Summary

In a marketing plan, the summary comes at the beginning of the document because the reader may not have the time or the interest to go through the entire report. The executive summary is intended to introduce the business and should describe what the company does and the products and services it offers.

If you already have a business plan, the executive summary, which should begin that document, can be taken directly from it and used here. If not, include the following as you put yours together:

Tell the reader how long you’ve been in business and how long you’ve been at your current location.

Describe your business activities, including sales and customers.

Highlight your accomplishments and successes.

Provide the company’s mission statement. (This, again, is likely in the business plan and can be copied to use here.)

Outline the company’s objectives.

Describe the organizational structure of the business. Is there one owner, a partnership, corporation, etc.

Introduce the company’s management team, who they are, what they do, background, etc.

Close the summary with a brief statement of the marketing objectives and strategies in the plan.

Step 2. Provide a Snapshot of Your Current Situation

This section provides information about your location, target market and competitive environment, which will include a brief description of the key issues faced by the company, although more detail will be provided later.

Location(s) — Describe how the business is situated: Is it on the water, on a highway, in town, how large is the property; and what does it comprise: how many buildings are onsite, how large are they, what are they used for. If you have any expansion plans, describe those and how you expect they will impact sales and operations.

Target Market Description — You can’t plan an effective marketing strategy if you don’t understand who it is you’re targeting. A target market is not a place or a thing, it’s a group of people with something in common, and a business may have more than one.

Start by describing the size of your primary target market and include statistics and information on whether the size of the market is growing, shrinking or staying the same. If it is changing, how is it changing and explain why that’s the case.

Describe the particular customers you will target. What characteristics do the people in your target market share: age, income level, sex, race, marital status, where they live, etc.? What habits or hobbies or wants or needs do they have and how do your products or services fulfill them? What are their buying habits? How do they spend their disposable income — how often, when, how much?

“Too often, marketing plans are diluted by the fact that subsequent advertising and marketing efforts are geared toward ‘all boaters,’ ” says Rob May, owner of Inside Out Marketing Group. “Well, not everyone wants the same boat type, reads the same magazines, interacts with social media in the same way, and so on. Figure out who you want to engage with, then tailor your [marketing communications] efforts specifically to that group. Today’s consumer is very selective in who they interact with, and on which platforms.”

Once you are done describing your primary target market, include any secondary groups if you feel they will provide significant business. It’s important to identify the characteristics, needs, etc., for each group because these will most likely impact the marketing strategy for that group.

Step 3. Analyze the Business Environment

The purpose of this section is to provide a detailed explanation of the external challenges and opportunities the business may face now or in the future. Looking at competitors and analyzing them is helpful in determining what your competitive advantages are, allowing you to then communicate them to your customers. And once you’ve determined what your unique selling points are, Greg Boersma — owner and chief marketing office at INSIGHT Marketing & Media LLC — says you must then focus on the benefits they provide your customers.

“I see too many advertisers that want to boast about their product features,” Boersma says. “To truly connect with a buyer, you must relay how those features serve (i.e. benefit) the purchaser.”

Working to identify your competitors’ are strengths and weaknesses also helps you learn from what they do well, learn more about the market you all serve and, if you identify unmet customer needs, potentially create a niche for your business.

Competitor Analysis — The first step in analyzing the competition is to name all the businesses that compete with you. For a boat dealership, that not only means naming all the boat dealers and other marine retailers in the market, it also includes all those businesses that are competing for the discretionary dollars of the customers in your target market.

List those companies (create a file for each one) with their locations, the products they sell, the quality of those products, their advertising, staff distribution methods, promotional strategies, customer service, etc. Are their sales increasing, decreasing, steady? Why? List the strengths and weaknesses of each competitor, doing so from the perspective of a customer of that business, then discuss how you will capitalize on the weaknesses and compete with the strengths.

The next step is to gather and analyze information on your competitors’ strategies and objectives. Publicly traded companies must issue reports that make collecting some of this information easier, but most businesses keep that material close to the vest. However, it’s not that difficult to learn about the competition simply by paying close attention to how each company operates. Here are ways to learn more about your competitors:

Pay a visit — The best way to see how competitors treat their customers is to become one yourself. (If it’s not possible for you — as the business owner — to visit anonymously, send a trusted friend, relative, employee or hire a secret shopper). Whoever visits should pay attention to how they, and the other consumers, are treated, what the facilities look like, how the products are displayed and priced, etc.

Use the Internet — Spend time on the company’s website and note how user-friendly, professional and helpful it is from a customer’s perspective. E-mail a question and see how long it takes to get a response. Visit social media sites to see how the competition takes advantage of those, or what their clients are saying about them.

Talk to your customers — Chances are your customers are your competitors’ customers too, or have at least visited their store, surfed their website or spoken with them on the phone. Ask them, or have your salespeople ask, about those experiences.

Advertising — Pay attention to how, where and when your competitors advertise. Are they on TV, on the radio, in print? Then, if they’re on the radio for example, what station are they on: classic rock, country, sports, news? What time of day do the ads air?

All of these bits and pieces of information can help you gain insight into who the opposition believes its target market is, how it positions its products, what it believes the benefits of those products are, price points, etc.

Show displays — Walk the floor when you’re at a boat show to see what products your competitors brought, how they’re priced, special offers, how big the booths are, how many staff are on hand, etc. If there are classes or seminars any of your competitors will be speaking at, attend those — or any other speeches or presentations they give — to learn from and about them.

Other resources sources — Trade magazines or trade association publications, general business journals, local newspapers, industry research or surveys, can all provide further insight into your market and your rivals.

Step 4. Prepare an Issue (SWOT) Analysis

Competitors aren’t the only obstacles to running a profitable business. Other factors, both internal and external, need to be considered when putting together a marketing plan. This is where the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis comes in. The Strengths and Weaknesses portion of SWOT refers to an internal review of the company, while Opportunities and Threats concerns external factors.

As Mark Kellum, who is currently the marketing manager for Regal Marine Industries, wrote in a column for Boating Industry’s September 2008 issue, the internal analysis should include: company culture; company image; organizational structure; key staff; access to natural resources; position on experience curve; operational efficiency; operational capacity; brand awareness; market share; financial resources; exclusive contracts; and patents and trade secrets.

The objective is to turn a mirror on your business and its operations to analyze how things are done and identify the strengths and weaknesses of the company.

As far as the Opportunities and Threats, the SBA suggests identifying and ranking, in order or importance, all the threats and opportunities a business faces from outside influences. For example:

Economic Outlook — What is the economic outlook for your market? Are the people you are trying to sell your products to economically healthy enough to buy them? If so, that’s an opportunity. If not, it’s a threat. Thaddeus B. Kubis, president of NAK Integrated Marketing, puts it this way: “A marketing plan, in part, is based on the market itself. A marketing plan that does not take into full consideration the current balance of any given market is not a true plan.”

Product innovation — What product innovations are taking place and how will those impact you? Are the boats you sell improving every year in terms of quality or styling or performance, and how do those innovations compare to the evolution of the product the competition sells?

Barriers to market entry — How difficult, or easy, would it be for a competitor to open or begin a new business in your market? What would be required for them to do so and are those things relatively easy or difficult to come by?

Environmental issues — Are your products eco-friendly? What will that mean in terms of current or future government regulation?

Once the SWOT has been done, SBA recommends that an Issues Statement be written in order to set the stage for the development of the marketing objectives and strategies. As an example, the statement could say something like “Although market conditions are some of the worst seen in recent history, Example Boats sells products that are on the cutting edge of innovation and has a competitive advantage over its nearest competitors in both product performance and reputation. Inefficiencies in the service department will be corrected with a new scheduling system, to be in place by the end of August.”

Step 5. Outline Your Marketing Objectives & Strategies

Now that an assessment has been done of your business and the environment in which it operates, it is time to create marketing objectives and come up with a game plan to achieve them. Each objective should be unambiguous, quantifiable and have a stated timeframe to be achieved. And meeting a marketing objective should lead to sales. If it doesn’t, you need to set different objectives.

An example of a good marketing objective would be: To increase awareness of your company’s competitive advantage among its target audience leading to a 10-percent increase in sales in one year. Kellum says one of the most important things a business can do when creating a marketing plan is to set clear, measurable and obtainable goals.

“ ‘I want to make millions,’ ‘I need to increase sales,’ ‘I want to grow my business,’ are all goals but they are not tangible,” Kellum says. “A declarative goal would be, ‘Increase sales by 5 percent each quarter and continue to show a 2-percent profit on all sold goods or services.’ This goal easily meets the first two requirements, it is clear and it is measurable. However, the third requirement, is it obtainable, requires much more analysis. Can the company increase production to a level that would sustain a 5-percent growth? Is there a plan to hire that includes how many employees and when to hire, and will this plan sustain a 2-percent profit?”

When there are multiple objectives, make sure they don’t conflict. “Unless you determine what your marketing efforts (and expenditures) are designed to produce, you’re just shouting like most every other marine OEM or retailer,” May says. “What is your desired end result — customer retention, competitive conversion, unit sales, brand awareness? Oftentimes you can have multiple strategies, with definitive tactics. That’s fine. Just define what your plan(s) are set out to achieve before you throw time and money at it.”

Developing the next steps of your marketing plan will help further refine your objectives. It may be that once you come up with a strategy, budget, etc., it will become obvious that you lack the resources to achieve all the objectives at once and it becomes necessary to prioritize. But setting the objectives is how you start.

Defining the Strategy

The marketing strategy is your game plan. It should include four things: product, price, promotion and place.

Product description — Provide a detailed description of your products and services in terms of the features and benefits they offer customers.

Pricing — List the price of your products, with price ranges for product lines rather than a detailed price list: “Boats range in price from $20,000 to $60,000,” rather than a list of every model and its price. Then describe any price flexibility, and how much negotiation exists. Are discounts given to long-time customers or for prompt payment, etc.? Also include the terms of sale, such as extended payment plans or whether you accept credit cards.

Promotion plan — This describes the tools and tactics used to accomplish the marketing objectives. If your marketing objective is to create awareness of a new fishing boat line you’ve taken on, the tools and tactics of your promotion plan might be to get active on message boards frequented by local fisherman, buy ads in regional fishing publications or display a couple boats in front of the popular outdoors-equipment retailer. (In the Action Program section of the plan you will describe in detail what steps need to be taken, who will do them, the deadlines for completion, etc.).

Placement (sales & distribution) — Describe how your products “meet” your customers through sales and distribution. What are your sales philosophies and methods? Are you aggressive in trying for large numbers of quick sales, or do you have a more relaxed approach where customers aren’t pressured to buy now? How are your salespeople compensated? With regard to distribution, do you sell your products through a bricks-and-mortar location or online? What inventory challenges do you have? How does demand for your products change throughout the year? Do you sell directly to end-users or resellers?

Step 6. Create an Action Program

The Action Program picks up where the Promotion Plan leaves off. “Create a website, develop an advertising campaign, launch a PR campaign are strategies,” Kellum says. “Tactics [action programs] are hiring a webmaster, creating strong message to market, developing an ad schedule, creating the budgets, etc.”

This is where the detailed “to-do” list is developed, which outlines exactly what is to be done, when it is to be started and/or completed, who is responsible for doing it, etc.

If you say in your Promotion Plan that you are going to increase your company’s visibility by attending more shows, this is the place to list the locations and dates of the shows you will attend, who will attend, what their duties will be, the results you expect to achieve, the marketing tactics you will employ, etc.

A spreadsheet is a good way to organize all of this information, but use whichever method best helps you plan and keep track of those plans. Action programs can be listed chronologically, by event type or however it makes the most sense to you.

Step 7. Prepare a Marketing Budget

How much will your marketing plan cost? The needs and costs of marketing activities vary widely from one business to the next, and there’s no simple rule to help determine what a marketing budget should be. Many small-business owners allocate a percentage of their gross sales for the year, often about 2-4 percent, although some companies go several percentage points higher.

Experts say it’s best to estimate the cost of the marketing activities described in the marketing plan as a means to develop at least a rough budget that can be used to keep everyone on track over the course of the year. Typical marketing expense categories are marketing communications, market research, promotions, advertising, events and public relations.

Ultimately, how much to spend on the marketing plan is a decision each business will have to make on its own. But Kenton Smith believes proper planning, to help spend marketing dollars wisely, is a necessity these days, and companies that instead decide to treat marketing as a low priority do so at their own risk.

“Marketing is a critically important component to business success,” she says. “I’ve been terribly disappointed to see so many marine companies go dark on their marketing during the recent recession. Doom and gloom become a self-fulfilling prophecy when companies fail to market, advertise and promote their products and services.

“I understand the need to tighten your belt and analyze your buy to maximize your return on investment, but to simply cut out marketing is a huge mistake. You can be smart about it, and you should be. By having a plan in place, you can make well-thought-out marketing decisions that will help you achieve your goals and objectives by allowing you to laser target your customers and prospects most effectively, and efficiently. Every decision you make about your marketing should be weighed against the plan. Does it achieve the top goals and priorities you’ve set forth? Yes, it’s an investment of time at the outset but the truth is, having a plan in place should save you time and money in the long haul.”

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