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  • Writer's pictureMichael Sciulla

What We Can Learn from 2017's Best Marketers


MICHAEL SCIULLA Published February, 2018, Soundings Trade Only

Imitation, our learned forebears have said, is the sincerest form of flattery. Let’s face it: Original ideas are few and far between, and hard to come by.

Need a creative spark? The nice thing about marketing is that you don’t always need an original idea to create an effective message or campaign. For inspiration, look at what other successful marketers have done and imagine what might work for you.

To pump up your marketing campaign for 2018, let’s see what we can learn from the best of 2017. Ad Age recently published its Marketers of the Year list, which recognizes 10 companies with “insightful and inventive strategies that have conquered categories, forged fresh paths and resonated with consumers, regardless of budget.”

Even though these winners are from other industries, great marketing is great marketing, and many of the elements and strategies they employed are applicable to our industry. (For the complete list of winners, see

Topping Ad Age’s list is Tito’s Handmade Vodka, whose sales surged more than 40 percent in 2017 as its share of the fragmented vodka market rose to more than 7 percent, up from 1 percent in 2011.What does the purchase of a particular brand of alcohol have to do with boating? Well, although I’ve always thought of vodka as an imported product from you know where, Tito’s is a distinctly American brand distilled in Texas. Founded 20 years ago by Bert “Tito” Beveridge, who worked in the oil and gas industry and has degrees in geology and geophysics, Tito’s tapped into the changing consumer mood after the Great Recession of 2008-09. Hard-hit consumers started valuing substance over image and began to look at American-made brands with stories they could relate to — an appeal that millennials lapped up. In this case, the backstory is how Tito made vodka from a homemade still as a Christmas present for friends until they liked what he made better than what they could buy. That he built a distillery on the backs of 19 credit cards helped fuel his story.

His folksy approach to advertising also resonated. “If you have a liver, we deliver,” is said to be the brand’s operating philosophy.

Tito’s approach to marketing is decidedly old school, Ad Age notes. The company eschews big-ticket techniques and has not run a single TV ad. Instead, Tito’s has cultivated a craft identity and relies on scrappy marketing, such as its “Vodka for Dog People” campaign, which raises money for no-kill shelters. It also spends heavily on print (mostly magazine ads) and outdoor advertising.

Considering the American-made, mom-and-pop nature of the recreational boating industry, it appears that we may have more in common with Tito’s Handmade Vodka than meets the eye.

Ad Age’s next-best winner for 2017 is Samsung, whose fire-prone cellphone batteries and exploding washing machines in 2016 could have crippled the company for years to come. Talk about a brand in crisis.

Instead of looking backward at its product faults, Samsung fixed what was broken and launched a creative advertising campaign to sell its brand experience, using the ungainly ostrich as a metaphor for itself.

Those who follow this space may recall that two years ago I wrote a column extolling the virtues of a budding new technology — virtual-reality devices — that could introduce non-boaters to the thrill of being on the water. “Virtual reality could well be the rising tide that lifts all boats,” Peabody award-winning filmmaker Stephen Reverand said at that time. But when it comes to using virtual reality, the boating industry is like the Samsung ostrich, with its head in the sand. We need to do what Samsung did and have a little humility about what we’ve been doing wrong, so we can get on with doing something new and right.

Whether or not the ostrich campaign was responsible for turning Samsung’s fortunes around, the commercial’s message — “We can make what can’t be made … So you can do what can’t be done” — was a brilliant exposition on what Samsung would have its customers believe makes the company so special. Not only has Samsung restored its reputation since the 2016 debacle, but the company also reported record earnings in 2017: Revenue rose more than 30 percent.

The boating industry should embrace virtual reality with open arms. It’s much easier to get a potential customer into a headset than into a boat at the dock. Like the ostrich in the Samsung commercial who wants to fly but doesn’t know how, our industry can use virtual reality to achieve the growth it has long sought.

Among the remaining eight top marketers for 2017, The New York Times deserves special mention for succeeding in the face of adversity.Labeled “the failing” New York Times by candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, every time the newspaper ran a story he did not like, the Times has done nothing but prosper since Trump took the oath of office. Like it or not, the Times’ investigative reporting has produced national headline after national headline during the first year of this new administration. In taking up the fight against its version of “fake news,” the Times has, according to author Megan Graham, “converted its readership into an ardent support system who routinely take to Twitter to encourage their followers to subscribe.” (Talk about stealing from Trump’s playbook and building your own army of advocates.)

And subscribe they have, in record numbers. The Times now appears to be turning the subscription corner, boasting 2.5 million digital subscribers and 1 million print subscribers. Digital subscriptions grew 59 percent during the third quarter.

The growth has been fueled, in part, by the Times’ first major brand campaign in more than a decade, under the “Truth is Hard” banner. “We’re trying to get people to pay for the news,” says David Rubin, senior vice president and head of brand at the Times. “We need to not only tell people what we’re offering is really great, but that it’s better than something they can get for free.”

What marketing lessons might the boating industry take from what the Times has learned this past year? The good news is that the boating industry already has an organic, built-in constituency of millions.

It’s just not growing much. What’s needed is an inspirational message beyond “Go Boating” and a commitment of financial resources to use social media to move the mountain. Michael Sciulla is president of Credibility & Company Communications, as well as vice president of the Marine Marketers of America and a member of the board of directors of both Boating Writers International and the Marine Marketers of America. During a 28-year career at BoatUS he built the association’s brand as membership grew from 30,000 to 650,000, and testified more than 30 times before congressional committees.

This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue.


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