Missing The Boat

Think fast – when was the last time you saw people in a boat advertisement who weren't white-skinned?

If you're having a tough time answering that question, you're definitely not alone. Boat manufacturers and dealers all want to sell more product, yet no one seems interested in reaching out to a very large and lucrative market – one that will represent some eight million Canadians by 2011. Visible minorities form a significant proportion of our national population, and Statistics Canada tells us that immigrants represent the fastest-growing demographic group in the country. Yet marine industry marketing materials all seem to miss the boat.

“The population for both Canada and the United States is expected to grow significantly between now and 2040, and a significant proportion of that growth will be represented by visible minorities, not the Caucasian population that the recreational boating industry has typically targeted with its advertising and outreach campaigns,” says Thom Dammrich, President of the National Marine Manufacturer's Association. “If you pick up a boating magazine, or pick up a manufacturer's brochure, you don't typically see black boaters, or Hispanic boaters, or Asian boaters portrayed in any of the imagery. We really need to change that. We need to ensure that we, as an industry, more accurately represent boating as a form of recreation that is fully inclusive, and a lifestyle that everyone can enjoy.”

Statistics Canada data supports Dammrich's population growth projection. According to the 2006 Census, population totals for visible minorities have grown by 27.2 percent since the previous Census in 2001 – a rate of growth five times greater than that of the Canadian population as a whole (at 5.4 percent). Fully three-quarters of the immigrants who arrived in Canada between 2001 and 2006 identified themselves as belonging to a visible minority group. For example, the 2006 Census enumerated approximately 1,262,900 individuals who identified as South Asian, which is a 37.7 percent increase from the 917,100 individuals reporting in the 2001 Census. In 2006, South Asians represented 24.9 percent of all visible minorities in Canada, and four percent of the total population.

The 2006 Census also revealed that the number of immigrants who identified themselves as Chinese increased 18.2 percent, from 1,029,400 in 2001 to 1,216,600 in 2006. Chinese immigrants accounted for 24 percent of the visible minority population and 3.9 percent of the total Canadian population. The number of Canadians identifying themselves as black, the third largest visible minority group according to the Census, rose 18.4 percent from 662,200 individuals in 2001 to an estimated 783,800 in 2006, accounting for 15.5 percent of the visible minority population and 2.5 percent of all Canadians. Other minority groups identified in the Census include Filipinos, who represented 8.1 percent of the visible minority population, Latin Americans (6 percent), Arabs (5.2 percent), Southeast Asians (4.7 percent), West Asians (3.1 percent), Koreans (2.8 percent) and Japanese (1.6 percent).

“It's my personal belief that if we are going to successfully grow boating as a recreational activity, we need to make a greater effort to penetrate multi-cultural markets,” says Dammrich. “To accomplish that, we're going to need to make it easier for people to see themselves as boaters, and I am not aware of any company in our industry that has made a concerted effort in this regard. There have been some companies that have focused on marketing to women, which is good, but I'm not aware of any manufacturer that has made a specific effort to represent boating as an activity everyone can enjoy regardless of their cultural ancestry.”

While the boating industry itself might be slow to recognize the growth potential represented by minority groups, organizations specifically aimed at making boating more inclusive have sprung up in parts of North America. In the US, the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation has made a conscious effort to feature multiculturalism in its marketing materials. Other groups have been even more direct. “I started this organization to try to engage boat manufacturers and make them aware that their advertising messages just aren't resonating with minorities,” says Wanda Wallace, founder of the Black Boater's Club of America, based in Atlanta. “We're talking about a very large number of people, many of whom are university-educated professionals earning very good incomes, who for the most part are completely ignored by the boating industry. It's a significant market that absolutely no one is tapping into.”

Here in Canada, Discover Boating has been careful to ensure minorities are represented in its marketing materials and overall efforts, while print and broadcast spots for the Canadian market have been produced in English and French from the outset. “Our initial priority was to launch the Discover Boating campaign to as broad an audience as possible, keeping budgetary limitations in mind,” notes Discover Boating Canada Marketing Manager, Tracey Hart. “Being a national program, there's a lot of real estate to cover, and we intend to expand our reach as our audience expands. Multi-cultural marketing initiatives are very much on our radar, and are something we want to help the entire industry focus on in their own marketing endeavors moving forward. Canada has a highly diverse population. We know we need to talk to everyone who falls in line with our target audience in order to truly grow boating. It will be important for us to ensure we deliver the right message to each demographic to help us build on our successes to date.”

As Hart notes, advertising creative for cultural markets needs to reflect the tastes and values of the target group. There is a well-known story about how General Motors experienced problems marketing its Chevy Nova automobile in Latin America. Since no va translates literally into 'no go' in Spanish, the story goes that Latin American consumers shunned the car, forcing Chevrolet to pull it from the market. While the story is nothing more than urban myth, the point is not lost on advertisers, who recognize that each culture has its own unique idiosyncrasies and sensitivities which must be reflected in marketing messages.

One industry that has enjoyed considerable success engaging different cultural groups is Canada's chartered banks. While it can be argued that banks represent an essential category – after all, everybody needs one – competition between financial institutions is fierce. Tanya Grant, Senior Manager of Cultural Markets Marketing for the Royal Bank of Canada Financial Group, says that gaining a foothold into ethnic markets takes more than just ensuring minorities are included in your advertising materials. “Truly engaging cultural markets comes down to becoming part of the community,” says Grant. “Word-of-mouth is probably the strongest driver, but of course you won't have any word-of-mouth until you've made a few sales and established some sort of presence, and that is the greatest challenge. Supporting community events, or attending local cultural festivals, gives a small business like a marina or a boat dealer some initial visibility within a community. Engaging community leaders by participating in grass-roots events is a very good approach to building awareness without incurring significant costs.”

Advertising in local ethnic media can also help establish sales momentum. “Many immigrants will continue to read local publications produced in their native language, just as you or I would likely continue to read English publications were we to move abroad,” says Grant. “Supporting those publications not only provides a means of creating awareness, but it supports the entire community you're reaching out to, and that in itself counts for a lot.”

It goes without saying that having staff who can communicate with the target market in their own language is essential to establishing long-term relationships – particularly in the case of local-level businesses like dealerships or marinas. Regional or national businesses serving broader territories should consider hiring an advertising agency or public relations firm that specializes in serving ethnic markets. Apart from ensuring the creative delivers the right message, the agency can be invaluable in identifying the most effective media, as well as unique opportunities to create a measurable impact.

“It's important to remember that people who read ethnic publications or tune in to radio or television stations that broadcast in a particular language, are not necessarily new immigrants themselves, but may be second- or third-generation Canadians,” says Laura Ballance, who's Vancouver-based agency provides marketing communications advice to clients like the Vancouver International Boat Show, Disney on Ice and the Pacific National Exhibition. “That's not a bad thing, and your message might stand out simply in the absence of ads from your competitors. But ethnic media is no different than mainstream media, and advertisers need to remember this. So it's not enough to just run some ads in a Chinese newspaper, for example. You need to determine if the people who read that newspaper are in the age group and income bracket that you're targeting with your product. If you're trying to reach out to young families, for example, you're not going to succeed if the bulk of the publication's readers are seniors, regardless of what language the paper is published in. It seems obvious, but it's a consideration that is often overlooked.”

Another consideration, says Ballance, is that people from different cultures may need to be introduced to boating as an activity. Depending on their background, they may simply be unfamiliar with it. “Boating is typically an activity that passes down through generations – we go boating because our parents introduced us to it. Someone who is new to the country may not have had that past exposure. But that is not insurmountable. I think the very fact they are immigrants supports that these individuals, regardless of where they're originally from, are somewhat adventurous and are willing to take risks and try new things. So even if they have not had past experience with boating, they may be quite receptive to giving it a try.”

With such a significant proportion of Canada's population now represented by people of different cultural backgrounds, it is clear that the boating industry needs to ensure its future communications efforts truly engage the full spectrum of Canada's diverse population.

Engaging different ethnic communities on a broad scale, as well as at the local, grass-roots level, will become as basic to selling boats as attending boat shows, hosting events with demo rides, and advertising in boating magazines.

Thom Dammrich hit the nail squarely on the head. “I'll tell you one thing,” he says. “The first few companies that get it, and make it easy for people of different cultural backgrounds to see themselves as boaters, are going to win big.”

This article appears in the January/February 2010 issue of Boating Business.