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Awareness: It’s just not enough

By Liz Walz

My heart stopped for a minute when a dealer walked up to me at the 2012 Marine Dealer Conference & Expo and said: “Liz, that presentation on demographics was awful.”

It’s a terrible feeling to know about our increasingly diverse marketplace if you don’t have any idea how your business should adjust to succeed within it. And that was the dealer’s point.

Let’s face it: As an industry, right now, we do a great job of selling boats to old, white men. But U.S. demographic trends suggest this group is shrinking, while the black, Hispanic and Asian populations are on the rise.

The pace at which that change is taking place is startling and has significant implications for our industry. We need to know what to expect if we’re going to have any chance of succeeding. And Murdock does an excellent job of painting a picture of our future population if today’s trends continue.

At the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, we’re working to develop resources to help members market to a younger, more diverse customer base. In the meantime, here is what I’ve learned through my own research and one of the most powerful success stories within our industry, that of Bob Pappajohn of M&P Mercury, who won this year’s MDCE Best Ideas Contest.

1. Start with market research. A dealership that wants to appeal to an untapped demographic should analyze their local market to determine the opportunities available. To get started, talk to your local Chamber of Commerce about what data is available on your region’s population. As Pappajohn explains, “The key thing is to figure out … who can afford to purchase what we sell.” The M&P team, which is based in Vancouver, determined that the local Mandarin population was most likely to be able to afford the boating lifestyle and therefore an appropriate target market.

2. Find out what’s important to your target market. If you have customers that fit your target’s profile, ask them how boating contributes to their life. Gain an understanding of their needs, expectations and cultural norms. Then go out and network in your community. Minorities make up a growing percentage of entrepreneurs and small business owners, so one way to develop a more diverse network of contacts may be to join your local Chamber of Commerce. At M&P Mercury, after talking to their Mandarin customers, the team realized that prospects from this group would be most comfortable working with someone from their same ethnic group.

3. Craft a plan for how your dealership can attract and serve this target group. That may involve adding employees with the experience to help you reach your goals. After a few missteps, M&P Mercury hired a marketing specialist born in China who has helped guide the company down a path to success with the Mandarin market.

4. Talk to your team about what you’re doing and why. It’s important that the employees who interact with your customers believe in this new strategy and are properly equipped to serve them. Pappajohn admits that he received a lot of pushback from his team when he first launched this new initiative, but helping his team better understand the potential customer base went a long way toward gaining their buy-in.

5. Go where they go. Do what they do. M&P overhauled how they communicate with their customers. “We didn’t just translate what we had into Chinese,” Pappajohn explained. “Everything was rewritten to what they aspire to and what would work for them.” Not only does the dealership now have 25 website pages written in Chinese, but it is also active on two Chinese social media websites and advertises in a Chinese newspaper. It has added dealership demo days and VIP events designed specifically to appeal to Mandarin prospects. And Chinese clients now serve as ambassadors during boat shows.

Through such tactics, the Mandarin market has become 40 percent of M&P Mercury’s sales of boats 30 feet and above.

No matter how you look at it, change is coming. It’s time to start exploring these opportunities and planning to capture that potential growth.

Liz Walz is director of membership & marketing for the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas. To learn more, visit www.mraa.com or email her at liz@mraa.com.

Editor’s note: To learn more about the M&P Mercury Best Idea and many more, look for the 2012 Best Ideas White Paper, due to be published in early 2013.


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